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AFC Wild Card primer: Raiders vs. Texans on Saturday

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The Backstory


The last time these teams met, back on Nov. 22 in Mexico City, Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler was still hanging tooth-and-nail onto his status as the guy in Houston while Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was continuing his push toward a division title, first-round bye and an MVP trophy.

My, how things have changed.

Osweiler will be under center Saturday, but only because Tom Savage is still in concussion protocol. Osweiler was benched toward the end of the season following a four-game stretch when he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes for just 643 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions for an average passer rating of 59.8. In a system that emphasized ball control and the occasional big play from a cannon-armed quarterback, Osweiler could not deliver.

Carr will be rooting from the sidelines. Taking his place is 2016 fourth-round pick Connor Cook -- the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to make his first start in the playoffs. Matt McGloin, Carr's immediate No. 2, is also injured. He underwent an MRI for a shoulder issue earlier in the week.

At the beginning of the season, before we knew of the dark turns in store or just how disastrous the Texans' offense would become, this would have been pegged as a dream matchup for fans who love good football. Instead, it will be a showcase for fans of good defenses. Khalil Mack will look to pester Osweiler just like he did in Mexico, while first-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney is looking for a true breakout moment against a quarterback who might be hearing footsteps.

Under pressure


Osweiler and Bill O'Brien: I find it hard to believe that the Houston Texans would move on from a very good football coach just because he was saddled with a nearly untenable situation at quarterback, but I also consider myself a rational person. This game is a proving ground for Houston. Regardless of what has happened to J.J. Watt, the Texans still have a No. 1 overall pick lining up at defensive end and a quarterback who started in the regular season. Houston still has Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins. Their list of potential excuses is far shorter than the one the Raiders have. In terms of fan appreciation, Osweiler is on his last legs -- something he is well aware of. The tandem of O'Brien and Osweiler has just a few days to put any lingering resentment to the wayside and come up with a game plan that will allow the quarterback to get comfortable and eliminate the scattershot, non-rhythmic moments that have defined their season.

Oakland's offensive line: Outside of the Cowboys, Oakland's offensive line might be the most exceptional front five we've seen in football this season. They would need to deliver something of a Cowboys-esque performance against Houston to give rookie quarterback Connor Cook a chance. It's so easy to say that establishing the running game will make life easier for a young quarterback. But this is something different. Johnathan Joseph should be back and A.J. Bouye is playing better than almost any cornerback in the NFL right now. Bouye will take either Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree out of the equation, eliminating many of the primary reads Cook will have. That leaves a front five that must account for the run-hungry Clowney and still find ways to spring Latavius Murray. Adding to the complications, Houston will likely do what it did last time against the Raiders and load up with a heavy front instead of its base 3-4 look.

Matchup to watch


Brock Osweiler vs. himself: In re-watching the last Texans-Raiders matchup, I saw a quarterback with the mental capacity to battle back against horrible mistakes -- like hurling a goal-line pass at a defender's hands, then catching it as it was batted back to Osweiler six yards behind the line of scrimmage. But on that same drive, he was threading a 12-yard touchdown pass into Braxton Miller at the slightest glimpse of inside leverage and open space.

Many people have made up their minds about Osweiler, and that's fine. But to me, there are long stretches of football when we see two completely different quarterbacks. There are moments when he can utilize his tight ends and short-yardage route for slow-killing effectiveness. It's when he's placed in an obvious passing down with his back against the wall that his stork-like gait loses its rhythm and we see footballs fired into double or triple coverage.

There's a cautious way for O'Brien to call this game while mixing in some simple throws for Osweiler that can make all the difference Saturday. If it were easy, he would have been doing it all season. This will take the kind of relationship that neither has seemed interested in having with one another all season, but it's not impossible. The two different quarterbacks that seem to inhabit the 6-foot-8 passer can be boiled down into an interested and invested player if the circumstances are right. Will Houston give Osweiler that chance?

Prediction


The weight on Houston coming into this game is incredible. The embarrassment of losing at home to a team starting a rookie quarterback for the first time is the kind of franchise-altering gut punch that follows players and coaches around for years.

The Texans will not let that happen.

Sensing the mammoth impact on both of their careers, Osweiler and O'Brien put aside their differences and create a tenable situation for at least one week. Oakland's defense will pester and make this situation extremely difficult. In the end, Osweiler makes just enough of an impact to win, tossing a pair of touchdowns and finishing with no interceptions. Miller will add the third score, putting the game to bed with fewer than 40 combined points.

Houston Texans 21, Oakland Raiders 13

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