The Oakland Raiders are back in the United States after a quick trip to Mexico City, and will now play host to the Carolina Panthers Sunday afternoon at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Leading into this week's matchup with Cam Newton and Co., you had questions, and now, we have answers.
From Jennifer H: How great is it to see how hyped up the team and fan base is due to this team coming together and winning?
EP:Honestly, it's awesome. Sitting at 8-2, having won four in a row, and being in sole possession of first place in the division, there's certainly an air of excitement surrounding the 2016 Oakland Raiders. In particular, I know how fun this run has been for Raider Nation, who, to be honest, haven't had all that much to celebrate in the past couple of seasons. Well, with a franchise quarterback in Derek Carr, and a young, talented, nucleus surrounding him, I have a feeling those days of living at the bottom of the AFC West could be quickly coming to an end. That being said, I think it's also important to note, that we're just 10 games into the regular season right now. While this is likely the most talented team the Raiders have fielded in over a decade, they still have six regular season games left on the schedule. Head Coach Del Rio has been consistent in saying that the team's goal is to win the division, but as of now, that hasn't happened yet. Still though, enjoy the ride Raider Nation, this team is fun, and I'm anticipating an entertaining final six weeks of the regular season.
From Julius C: If there's one area you'd like to see the team most improve on down the stretch, what it would it be and what do you think should be done?
EP:For me, I think the biggest thing I'd like to see down the stretch would just be consistency from all three phases of the team. It's commendable how the Silver and Black keep finding ways to win – that's the mark of a good team – but seeing a few performances in a row where the offense, defense, and special teams units are clicking would be a great thing to see heading into a possible run to the postseason. Outside of that, I'd also like to see the defense continue to progress week after week. After a sluggish start to the 2016 campaign, Ken Norton, Jr.'s group has really begun to build an identity over the past few weeks, and I'm hoping to see the defense keep stacking good performances on top of one another. What's great about this Raiders team, is that even at 8-2, the players are consistently saying that they have a lot to better at. Sitting at six games over .500 with your best football still in front of you is a good place to be, there's no doubt about that.
From Gerald K: What is the key to stopping Cam Newton? Do you think it is a bad time to play the Panthers because they are desperate?
EP:It sounds simple enough, but force Newton to operate from the pocket, and when he does get out and run, make sure there's a group of guys wearing Silver and Black flocking to the ball to take him down. Throughout his career, Newton has proven time after time to be that prototypical, dual-threat quarterback, and although his numbers might be slightly down from last year's MVP season, big No. 1 has the ability to take over a game through the air, or with his feet. If you need evidence of that, look no further than Newton's 268 rushing yards, which ranks second on the Panthers, just 97 yards off the team lead. As far as if this is a bad time to play the Panthers, I don't really buy into that notion too much. Yes, the Panthers desperately need a win to keep their playoff chances alive, but the Silver and Black are also fighting for their postseason lives as well, as they play in what is likely the most-competitive division in all of the NFL this season. Sunday's game at the OACC is going to be a good one, and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
From Mark H: Do you worry about any post-Mexico/Monday Night Football hangover effects this week?**
EP: To be honest, I really don't. Both Head Coach Del Rio and the players have been asked about the struggles of returning from an international game and playing on a short week, but they've all pretty much said the same thing – yes, it's a challenge, but after a day or two, any effects of the long trip have typically passed. Prior to the team flying out to Mexico City, Del Rio and his staff put together a plan to ensure that when the team did indeed return from their game at Estadio Azteca, that they'd be putting the players in the best position to succeed with one less day of rest. I could understand why folks would be concerned about a possible Mexico hangover, but with the support staff that Head Coach Del Rio has assembled, I don't see it being too big of an issue.
From Johnny O: What is the team doing to protect itself from overconfidence? I hope all this winning isn't going to their heads.
EP:Like I said earlier, Head Coach Del Rio has made it very clear what the goal is each season – win the AFC West. As impressive as the Raiders have looked through 10 games this season – and they've looked really good at points – that goal still hasn't been achieved just yet. Yes, the group is off to a tremendous start, and in many senses controls its own destiny, but at the end of the day, the Raiders are 8-2 with six, very important games left ahead of them. I think that the team knows how much further they still have to go this season, so they're not letting their egos become inflated with the success they've found up to this point. It also certainly helps to have an even-keel quarterback like Derek Carr leading the team, who does an outstanding job of keeping everyone grounded and focused on the task at hand.
**From Antonio B: Do you expect Michael Crabtree to have a big game this weekend to make up for last week?
EP:Well, if there's one thing I know, it's that King Crab will be motivated to put last week's performance in Mexico City squarely in the rearview mirror. Crabtree finished the game with just five total yards – his lowest output of 2016 – and although he did draw two, crucial pass interference calls, the Texans defensive backs did a good job of keeping No. 15 from leaving his imprint on the game. Now, it's important not to overreact to one, less-than-stellar game from the veteran wideout, but getting Crabtree back into the mix offensively almost always spells good things for Derek Carr and the Raiders offense. The Panthers rank No. 26 in the NFL in stopping the pass this season, so keep an eye on Crabtree to see if he can find his groove again Sunday afternoon.
From Shyla F: How long can we keep this win streak going???
EP:Great question, but these Raiders are focused on just taking care of the Panthers for the time being, so let's just try to get to 1-0 this week. Kickoff at the OACC is scheduled for 1:25 p.m. PT.