Defensive End Khalil Mack
The Oakland Raiders home stand ends Sunday afternoon when the Silver and Black play host to the Buffalo Bills at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
The Silver and Black have won five in a row, but Rex Ryan's team is riding high themselves, as they've won back-to-back games, and are still squarely in the AFC playoff conversation.
The Week 13 game at the OACC is setting up to be a good one, so here are five questions we have heading into the bout between the Raiders and the Bills.
1. Who wins the line of scrimmage?
Head Coach Jack Del Rio constantly says that everything the Raiders do begins up front, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and Rex Ryan has built the Bills in very much the same way.
Both the Raiders and Bills have invested heavily in their offensive lines, and while they do go about their business a little bit differently offensively, both teams know that if they want to get rolling and put up points, it all begins with the big fellas up front.
The defensive side of the football is no different, as both teams have players that can get after the quarterback, and make life difficult for the opposition too.
Most NFL games come down to who can impose their will at the line of scrimmage, and I anticipate Sunday's contest not deviating from that trend.
As they say, it all begins in the trenches, so I'll be keeping a close eye to see which team can assert their will as the game wears on.
2. Can the Raiders limit Lorenzo Alexander?
Raise your hand if a year ago you thought that limiting Lorenzo Alexander as a pass rusher would be one of the big storylines to follow in this game? Go ahead, I'll wait.
At age 33 – and now in his 10th NFL season – the veteran outside linebacker is going through a career renaissance in upstate New York. After spending the vast majority of his career – including one year with the Silver and Black – as a stalwart on special teams, the Oakland-native has now morphed into a legitimate pass rusher with the Bills.
Through 11 games, Alexander ranks second in the NFL with 10 sacks, and looks to be well on his way to earning a berth to the 2017 Pro Bowl.
"I'm really happy for a guy like Lorenzo," said Head Coach Del Rio. "He's a consummate professional. This is a guy that busts his butt, does everything he can, every day to be a true professional. We had him around thinking that's what we were getting is that, the leadership part of it and honestly, we missed on this part where he's getting 10 sacks. Hats off to him, congratulations to him. The guys that are here that know him are really happy for him."
Alexander hasn't recorded a sack since Week 9, but if 2016 has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected.
Will the former Cal Bear get rolling Sunday, and make life difficult for Derek Carr? Only time will, but I'm excited to find out.
3. Will David Amerson get back on the gridiron?
Amerson missed his first game of 2016 last weekend against the Carolina Panthers, but the rangy cornerback was able to practice in a limited capacity both Wednesday and Thursday this week, although his status for Sunday's game against the Bills is uncertain.
Since No. 29 was able to get back on the practice field – at least in some variety this week – the question remains, will Amerson be able to get back to work Sunday afternoon against the Bills?
Fellow cornerback DJ Hayden wasn't able to practice Wednesday or Thursday this week as he deals with a hamstring injury, so having Amerson back roaming the secondary could be a premium, particularly if Hayden isn't able to suit up.
Head Coach Del Rio isn't one to really discuss injuries, so we likely won't know if Amerson is ready to go until close to game time, but seeing if the fourth-year cornerback is ready to go will be a storyline to watch before kickoff.
4. Which team will run the ball better?
The Buffalo Bills certainly have an identity in 2016; they want to play stout defense, and run the ball consistently, and so far this season, they've been pretty successful at doing just that.
Entering Sunday's game at the OACC, the Bills boast the top rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 157.4 yards per game, and although the Raiders have struggled to get the ground game going the past two weeks, the Silver and Black still rank No. 10 in the league averaging 112.3 yards per game themselves.
Let's not forget that the Silver and Black are just a few weeks removed from a 218-yard performance against the vaunted Broncos defense, so they certainly have the firepower in the backfield to be a dominant force on the ground.
Both the Raiders and Bills like to be balanced in their offensive attack, but make no mistake about it, good things happen for each of these teams when they're able to run the ball effectively.
I have a feeling that whichever team finishes Sunday's bout at the OACC with more rushing yards will probably come home with a tally in the win column, so keep an eye on Latavius Murray and Co., as well as LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor to see which group enjoys the better day.
5. How does Khalil Mack follow up last week's performance?
It's been a good week for No. 52.
After the versatile defensive end put together arguably his best performance of 2016 last weekend against the Panthers, he was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week Wednesday, and then AFC Defensive Player of the Month Thursday.
Mack was an absolute force against the Panthers, finishing the Week 12 win with six tackles, one sack, three quarterback hits, one pass defensed, one forced fumble, and one interception returned for touchdown.
So, how does Mack follow up last week's performance?
The All-Pro defensive end should certainly have his opportunities to get after Tyrod Taylor, as the Bills have allowed 31 sacks this season. After last week's performance, Mack has now thrown his name into consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, so I'll be interested to see if he can keep the momentum going Sunday.