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Thursday November 10th, 2011

After getting gashed by the Broncos in Week 9, the Raiders will have to find a way to stop Mike Tolbert Thursday night. (Cal Sport Media)

The AFC West race might not be the prettiest -- three teams sit tied at 4-4, with the Broncos a game back at 3-5. The possibility remains very much alive that the division winner will finish at .500 or worse.

Thursday's game, then, becomes a huge one. The Raiders and Chargers meet in San Diego, with the winner (at least temporarily) taking sole control of first place. These teams meet again in Week 17, in Oakland, so the loser here will have to wait a long time to try to enact some revenge.

The five keys to Thursday night's game:

1. Can Oakland stop the run at all?

Two hundred and ninety-nine yards. That's what the Raiders gave up on the ground to Tim Tebow and the Broncos last week in a stunning 38-24 loss. Unless that number comes way down Thursday, it's hard to see Oakland having a chance on the road.

Mike Tolbert likely will handle the first-team reps at running back with Ryan Mathews still slowed by injury, but the Raiders will have their hands full either way. Getting gashed on the ground early would leave the door wide open for Philip Rivers to put up huge numbers.

2. Will the Raiders miss Darren McFadden?

And while we're on the subject of the running game ...

Oakland will be without McFadden Thursday, robbing the Raiders of one of the NFL's most dynamic threats. Into the lineup steps Michael Bush, who had 96 yards rushing in a starting role last week. Bush added two catches for 33 yards and a touchdown. He's more than capable of breaking some big plays, but the Raiders' offense struggled down the stretch last week -- would that have happened if McFadden was available?

3. The hangover factor

Oakland's loss to Denver last week feels like one of those defeats that could linger for a bit. The same goes for San Diego's disappointment against the Packers -- the Chargers nearly pulled off a thrilling comeback, only to fall just short.

The short week didn't leave either team a lot of time to recover from those Week 9 letdowns, so the battle Thursday could be as much mental as it is physical. Whichever team is able to refocus in more definitive fashion will have a major edge.

4. Which quarterback will step up?

Carson Palmer threw three picks last week and now has six in just six quarters of play with the Raiders. Rivers hasn't been any better. He turned it over three times against the Packers, with two going for pick-6s, and has a whopping 14 INTs this season.

For either of these teams to make a legitimate playoff push, the quarterback play has to improve in a hurry.

Palmer can at least blame his slow start on the rust he accumulated sitting out the preseason and first several weeks of the regular season. Rivers has no such excuse.

5. Is Antonio Gates due?

Yahoo's Michael Silver last Sunday quoted a Chargers' source, who said Gates looked "old and fat." While that might not be a fair assessment, it's clear that Gates, who has dealt with plenty of injury problems lately, has not been his usual, dominant self. In five games this season, Gates has 25 catches for 297 yards and two touchdowns -- far from embarrassing numbers but short of what the Chargers count on him for. He did break through for eight grabs, 96 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay (of course, that's the performance that got him dubbed "old and fat"), and the Chargers need more of that to excel on offense.

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