The 2-7 Houston Texans will host the 3-6 Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
The records might make this seem as if these teams are in similar positions, but in reality they aren't. Oakland wasn't expected to excel. The Raiders were ranked 29th in ESPN.com's preseason NFL Power Rankings. Some rankings had them as low as 32nd.
The Texans, on the other hand, started the season expected to be Super Bowl contenders and slowly fell apart. Houston is on a seven-game losing streak, the longest single-season streak in franchise history.
The Raiders are on a losing streak of their own. They have lost eight consecutive road games, dating to last season, but that isn't a franchise record.
Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli take a look at this matchup.
Ganguli: So Paul, how is Shane Lechler's departure viewed in Oakland? It has been suggested by some, including Lechler, that his leaving affected Sebastian Janikowski's kicking. Do you think it has?
Gutierrez: When Janikowski missed four of his first 11 field goal attempts through six games, after missing three all of last season, the whispers that the man known as SeaBass was swimming upstream by missing his longtime running mate grew to shouts. But while the new holder/punter, Marquette King, shouldered the blame, even special-teams coach Bobby April intimated it was a mental hurdle for Janikowski, who had Lechler as his holder for 13 years.
This much is true: Every miss this season has come from the left hashmark for the left-footed kicker. And his misses against Indianapolis and Washington have been especially costly momentum shifts. Janikowski, though, has converted four straight field goals, so the comfort level seems to be growing between Janikowski and King. In fact, the youthfully exuberant King brought celebratory foil balloons into the Raiders' locker room to congratulate Janikowski after his 50-yard field goal against San Diego on Oct. 6. But yes, I believe trust issues and familiarity were at the root earlier ... even if it was not a Ray Finkle Laces Out situation (gratuitous "Ace Ventura" reference).
Speaking of Lechler, how has he adapted to being back "home" in Texas, beyond his stats?
Ganguli: Lechler has done great. He is the brightest spot on a special-teams unit that has struggled. He really has enjoyed being so close to home. He has visited his hometown. He definitely wishes his career hadn't ended with the Raiders, but I think this was a good second option. Of course, he probably also thought he was coming to a Super Bowl contender, as the Texans' other free agents did, and that hasn't worked out either.
Switching to offense, what has Terrelle Pryor had to learn about playing quarterback in the NFL before being able to contribute as he has been this year?
Gutierrez: Honestly, and this is by his own admission, he had to learn how to throw a ball properly. Pryor admitted this summer that he never really learned how to throw a ball up to NFL standards while at Ohio State. He also talks glowingly about working the previous two years with former Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer in how to read defenses. You can't question Pryor's work ethic. And up until about a month ago, Pryor was on the fast track to Most Improved Player status. But he has, many say, regressed the past four games. In that stretch, he has thrown eight interceptions and only one touchdown while completing 61 of 120 passes (50.8 percent) for 714 yards. Plus, he has been sacked eight times for 110 yards in losses. The offensive line is still banged up, and no doubt his receivers can be inconsistent. And keep in mind, Pryor suffered what he termed a sprained MCL in his right knee, so his mobility is limited.
Keeping on the "regression" theme, what has happened to the Texans? They were a Super Bowl contender coming into the season, and now they're in a seven-game tailspin. They'll be without Arian Foster, who has averaged more than 100 yards rushing and has caught eight passes for 172 yards in two career games against the Raiders, and Ed Reed, the mistake signing the Texans acknowledged this week, via your story. But they should be getting coach Gary Kubiak back. So how will they respond this weekend?
Ganguli: I don't know that the emotions will carry them. Not a lot changed without Kubiak there despite players wanting to win for him. His offensive philosophy is similar to that of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who ran the offense in Kubiak's absence. These players have pride, and the losing streak they're on was unthinkable at the beginning of the season. There was no reason to expect the struggles quarterback Matt Schaub had early this season. He didn't play consistently poorly, but he made some costly mistakes. The Texans were gaining a lot of yards on offense and weren't allowing many yards on defense. But their turnover margin was among the worst in the NFL, and their red zone offense and defense weren't good. After the poor start, things kind of started piling up. They lost inside linebacker Brian Cushing again, Foster dealt with injuries before being put on injured reserve, and while their right guard position has solidified finally after the loss of current Raiders guard Mike Brisiel, the Texans are still looking for improvement at right tackle.
They still have talent on the roster, starting with reigning defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. His numbers aren't what they were last year, but he is still playing well. He's disruptive. Last weekend, he forced and recovered two fumbles. Which Raider or Raiders will be responsible for minimizing his damage?
Gutierrez: If Watt is on the quarterback's blind side, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of veteran left tackle Khalif Barnes, who had a rough go of it against the New York Giants' front seven in general and Jason Pierre-Paul in particular. Barnes was flagged three times for holding and another time for a false start. If Watt wants to try his hand on the other side, he'll find rookie Menelik Watson awaiting him. Watson also had a tough game against the Giants' Justin Tuck and showed his relative lack of in-game experience. I would expect the Raiders' running back, either Rashad Jennings or Darren McFadden, if he's healthy, to pick up some chipping assignments. If Pryor plays -- he missed practice Wednesday resting his sprained right knee -- he might welcome an overaggressive Watt, though he should be warned to be careful what he wished for in Watt, yes? If Pryor cannot go, expect a baptism by fire for undrafted rookie Matt McGloin.
Since we're on the topic of guys who have to step up, who will try to fill Foster's nimble-yet-powerful shoes? And can he make a dent against the Raiders' on-again, off-again defense?
Ganguli: The Texans have a very capable player to replace Foster -- Ben Tate. The issue for Tate will be that he's still healing from a painful rib injury he suffered Oct. 20 in Kansas City. Tate broke four ribs but hasn't missed a game. He's tough. Tate has led the league in yards after contact per rush for nearly the whole season. Coaches have tried to protect Tate to keep him fresh, but he wants to go more. Behind Tate are two younger players -- undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson and young veteran Deji Karim.