When the NFL announced back in February that the Texans and Raiders would play a Monday night game in Mexico City, the hope obviously was that the matchup would be more than a novelty—that there would be something on the line come Nov. 21.
Not sure anyone quite expected this.
The Raiders will head into their international “home” game atop the AFC West, thanks to Tampa Bay’s upset of Kansas City on Sunday. With a win they would pull even with the Patriots for the best record in the conference, at 8–2. The AFC South-leading Texans, at 6–3, are nipping at their heels. While they have been far from brilliant (as their minus-27 point differential would indicate), they’re currently positioned as the conference’s No. 3 playoff seed.
The stakes will be big, and so will the atmosphere, with 100,000-plus fans expected to pack Estadio Azteca. The NFL regular-season record is 105,151, set back in 2009 at a Giants-Cowboys game in the same venue.
What’s in store for that crowd? If the Texans have any say about it, a defensive-minded affair. Bill O’Brien’s team has the league’s third-ranked pass defense and fourth-ranked total defense, truths that have helped mask the continued problems it’s having on offense. Houston, led by QB Brock Osweiler, has failed to hit 300 yards of offense in any of its last three games—it had just 92 yards passing last week vs. Jacksonville—but is 2–1 in that stretch anyway.
The Raiders have an improving, but beatable, defense. The conundrum for Houston is finding even one player it can lean on. Lamar Miller has one 100-yard game in his past seven outings, while DeAndre Hopkins has yet to hit 500 yards receiving on the year.
As for the Texans’ defense, it won’t make life easy on Oakland QB Derek Carr, either. Carr figures to attack in the thin air anyway, mostly via Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. He may be better off handing it to his stable of backs (Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard). Houston is coughing up 120.7 yards rushing per game and ranks 24th on the ground in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
Vince Wilfork, Houston’s massive run-stuffer in the middle, is questionable for Monday night (groin). Should he sit, the Raiders would have even more of an edge.
But the dueling run games also should put time of possession in the spotlight. At times, that count can be irrelevant to how a game plays out. However, when a field’s elevation is 7,300 feet above sea level, like at Mexico City’s famed stadium, wearing down the opposing defense should be a central focus. That elevation is more than 2,000 feet above Denver’s Mile High setup. Houston played in Denver on Oct. 24 (a 27-9 loss); Oakland does not make its annual trip there until Week 17.
Former U.S. soccer alum Eric Wynalda, who made several trips to Mexico as a national player, recently told USA Today that Estadio Azteca is “the worst place to ever play a sporting event.”
“You can’t breathe,” he added. “The pollution is so bad that if you don’t have some form of rain that’s brought all that down you are going to be sucking wind.
“They [will] break a record for how many oxygen masks they have on the sidelines. The combination of being that high up with pollution is just devastating to the body.”
Players on both sides of the ball have to deal with the conditions, of course, but a potent run game can grind down a defense under normal conditions. When the elements are a factor, as they will be Monday night, the team able to dictate tempo will have a significant advantage.
This line started out around 3.5 but gradually has increased in Oakland’s favor. The way each team has played away from home, it’s understandable—the Texans are 1–3 outside of Houston, with the lone win a squeaker last week at Jacksonville; the Raiders are 5–0 on the road.
Beyond that, if the Raiders can get their offense rolling at all, the Texans will have a difficult time countering. Osweiler did pull off a late comeback against Indianapolis earlier this year, but he has not shown much ability to take over a game.
Key player: Seth Roberts, WR, Raiders.
He’s not as key a cog to the offense as the Cooper/Crabtree combo, but he does have 19 targets and 10 receptions over the past three weeks. He also could wind up with the most favorable matchup, if A.J. Bouye and Jonathan Joseph draw the top two Oakland receivers.
Bold prediction: Sebastian Janikowski makes a 60-yard field goal.
The Raiders’ kicker since approximately the time Oakland was founded as a city in 1852, Janikowski still can get it done—he has three makes of 50-plus yards this season, including a 56-yarder. (Granted, he’s also missed five times from long distance.)
He nailed a 63-yard field goal in 2011 and a 61-yard try in 2009. Up in the Mexico City elevation, he’ll uncork one on Monday night.