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What to watch for in 'MNF': Texans-Raiders

Take a deep breath, football fans. The air's thin up here.

In a stadium typically reserved for testy Mexico-U.S. futbol matches and legendary World Cup goals -- the "Hand of God", for one -- the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders will play at a different type of football on Monday night and attempt to write their own legend into the stadium's history.

The historic Estadio Azteca in Mexico City will play host to the first-ever Monday Night Football game played outside of the United States and in the process will be a proving ground for two playoff hopefuls.

Brock Osweiler has yet to find a comfort zone with the Texans, but that hasn't stopped him from leading them to a 6-3 record and a one-game lead in the AFC South. With the Titans on their heels, the Texans have little margin for error against AFC opponents and will need an assuring performance on both sides of the ball on Monday night to silence the "Brock bottomers."

Fresh off their most complete performance of the season and a bye, the Raiders need a win to keep pace in the top-heavy AFC West and continue to prove to the world that they are no fluke. A victory over Houston would be just their third this season over a team with a record currently over .500 and would secure Oakland's first eight-win season since 2011.

Here's what to watch for when the Texans battle the Raiders in uncharted estadios on Monday Night Football:

  1. Oakland found its formula in Week 9 and should hope to execute it well against the Texans. With the help of a massive, bullying offensive line, the Raiders churned out 218 yards on the ground against the Broncos behind Latavius Murray, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington and held the largest time of possession advantage by any team in a non-overtime game this season (41:28 to 19:32). Just one week earlier, the Raiders gained 626 total yards and posted the second-highest T.O.P. advantage in any 2016 game (44:12 with overtime). Sensing a trend? If Oakland can keep Houston's 26th-ranked rush defense on the field by setting up and converting short third downs, then the Raiders should see more opportunities to exploit a tired Texans front worn down by Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Co. and the abnormal altitude in equal measure.
  1. Brock Osweiler is having one dud of a first year in Houston and while Oakland's secondary looks on paper to be welcome relief for the struggling quarterback, Texans fans shouldn't be too optimistic. For one, Oakland's secondary has clamped down on average quarterbacks. Against QBs like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers, the Raiders surrendered 27.2 points per game and 312.7 yards per game through their first six contests. But the schedule turned kinder and Oakland found success with less-proven gunslingers. The Raiders kept Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston and Trevor Siemian to 20.0 PPG and 224.3 passing YPG over the past three weeks. Based on Osweiler's recent performance (57.7 comp. %, 138.7 YPG in his last three games), there's no reason to believe that Oakland can't stifle him as well.
  1. Also standing in the way of a resurgent game from Brock Lobster is the one-man wrecking ball who delivered Osweiler his most embarrassing performance of 2015: Khalil Mack. The Mack Truck is back on track (six sacks in his last four games) after a slow start to the season and is finding his form just in time to reconnect with an old friend. Mack made a name for himself last season when he sacked Osweiler five times (FIVE TIMES) in a Raiders upset win at Mile High. Osweiler isn't easily sacked -- he ranks 20th in sacks taken by QBs with at least five starts (17) -- but the Texans quarterback has been easily rattled in prime-time games this season against playoff contenders in New England and Denver. Early pressure from Mack could completely derail Osweiler's evening.
  1. The top matchup in this nightcap will take place outside the numbers where Oakland's dynamic duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree will try to beat Houston's Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson off the line of scrimmage. Cooper and Crabtree lead all receiving duos in targets per game (18.8), receptions per game (11.9), and receiving yards per game (159.9) this season, but were relatively neutralized against Denver's vaunted secondary. Will Houston's third-ranked pass defense (196.8 YPG) follow the Broncos' blueprint? The Texans haven't been nearly as dangerous against the pass since J.J. Watt was lost for the season, surrendering 68.8 more pass YPG. But young, emerging members of the secondary, like A.J. Bouye and Charles James II, have the potential to frustrate Oakland's well of pass-catching options.
  1. Blame it on Brock: 2016 hasn't been a good year for Texans skill-position players, most notably DeAndre Hopkins. One of the game's most athletic, balletic receivers has been an afterthought this season. Hopkins has just 45 receptions for 10.7 yards per catch despite being targeted 89 times. Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller own two of the six worst catch percentages among wideouts with 50-plus targets. Hopkins' yards per game average is 41.5 yards fewer than last season's when he was seeing passes from four different quarterbacks (Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden). The same goes for Lamar Miller, who has scored just three total touchdowns in nine starts and, despite his reputation as a dual-threat back, is used sparingly on passes out of the backfield. It's hard to blame these regressions on anyone besides Osweiler -- the variable in Houston from last year --whose weekly failings are affecting the successes (and contract situations) of those around him and whose mediocrity has already been covered extensively in this preview and other detailed columns.
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