The Oakland Raiders are officially back home this weekend, as they play host to the Carolina Panthers Sunday afternoon at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Following the team's Monday night win over the Houston Texans, the Silver and Black own an 8-2 record, and have the outright lead in the AFC West.
Conversely, Cam Newton and the Panthers own a 4-6 record, which is good enough for fourth in the NFC South, but they have won three of their past four games over the last month.
The Raiders want to keep stacking wins, and the Panthers need a victory to keep their postseason hopes alive, so Sunday's game at the OACC should be an exciting one; here are three key matchups to watch closely during the Week 12 game.
Quarterback Derek Carr vs. Quarterback Cam Newton
As is the case so many weeks in the NFL, the Week 12 clash between the Raiders and Panthers really begins with the quarterbacks.
The old saying goes, 'there's more than one way to skin a cat,' and in the case of Derek Carr and Cam Newton, there's definitely more than one way to play quarterback at a high level in the NFL.
Carr's statistical excellence through the first half of the regular season has been discussed ad nauseam– but for good reason – he's been a dominant force for most the season, and his play is a big reason why the Raiders are 8-2.
On the other sideline, Cam Newton – while having some early struggles this season – is less than a year removed from an MVP season, and an appearance in the Super Bowl as well.
Carr and Newton are polar opposites in their on-field demeanor – linebacker Daren Bates who has played with both quarterbacks said as much earlier in the week – but there's no question that the pair belong in the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL.
Offensively, both the Raiders and Panthers go as their respective quarterbacks do, so whichever of the dynamic signal-callers can put together a better day will likely spell good things for their respective teams.
Guard Gabe Jackson vs. Defensive Tackle Star Lotulelei
This is a battle between two, big, strong men.
Although the Raiders flew back from Mexico City with a 27-20 win over the Houston Texans in tow, the Silver and Black weren't able to ignite the run game, finishing the game at Estadio Azteca with just 30 rushing yards.
The team knows that going forward they'll have to do a better job controlling the line of scrimmage, and of getting their trio of running backs rolling, but that will be no easy task against a Panthers front that ranks second in the NFL, allowing just 81.8 yards per game on the ground.
Key to that stinginess on the ground is 6'2" 315-pound defensive tackle Star Lotuleli. The fourth-year defensive tackle has made a career of being a force against the run, and Gabe Jackson and the rest of the Raiders offensive line will have a big challenge in front of them keeping No. 98 contained.
Lotulelei also ranks second on the Panthers with four sacks, so he's also a player that has the ability to get after the quarterback as well.
Linebacker Malcolm Smith vs. Tight End Greg Olsen
The Raiders defense has shown a marked improvement over the past month, there's no denying that, but Monday night at Estadio Azteca, the group did have issues containing the Texans tight ends.
In total, the trio of C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin, and Stephen Anderson finished the game with 10 catches for 128 yards, and were quite the thorn in the side of the Silver and Black's defense.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr.'s group will have its hands full again Sunday, as they are set to square off against Greg Olsen, who has consistently shown to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Through 10 games, Olsen leads the Panthers in both receptions (54), and receiving yards (745), and has become a much-needed lifeline for Newton.
It will take a complete defensive effort to limit the Pro Bowl tight end, but keep a close eye on Malcom Smith in particular, who figures to square off against No. 88 a lot throughout the afternoon.