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Indianapolis Colts vs. Oakland Raiders preview

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, one of the more interesting Christmas Eve football matchups is in Oakland, where the Raiders (11-3) host the Indianapolis Colts (7-7).

The Raiders are in first place in the AFC West and have already clinched a playoff berth, but they’re aiming higher than just that as they hope to win the division and secure a first round bye. The Colts, meanwhile, are just barely hanging on to their incredibly slim playoff hopes. They’ll need a whole lot to go their way if they hope to make the postseason, but the simplest aspect of that is this: they need to win their final two games. They’ll still need help, but if they don’t take care of their own business this Saturday none of that will matter. It won’t be an easy game, either, as the Raiders have the best current record of any of the 13 teams on Indy’s schedule this year. The Colts this year haven’t done well against teams who currently have a winning record, as they’re just 3-6 against those teams, with two of the three wins coming against the Titans (against teams currently .500 or with a losing record, however, the Colts are 4-1). Their only non-division win against a team currently with a winning record was against the Packers in Lambeau Field, and it would be big for them (and for Chuck Pagano’s job status) to get another one this Saturday against the Raiders.

On paper, this looks like a game the Raiders should definitely win if you’re just looking at the records of both teams, but the Colts actually stand a better chance in this one than some might otherwise think. Both teams have good offenses, and both teams have weak defenses. The Colts are ranked eighth in points per game (25.9) and eleventh in yards per game (their passing offense is seventh and their rushing offense is 19th), while the Raiders are third in points per game (26.9) and sixth in yards per game (they’re passing offense is sixth and their rushing offense is sixth as well). Meanwhile, the two defenses have struggled: the Colts are ranked 23rd in points per game (24.2) and 27th in yards per game (27th against the pass and 20th against the run), while the Raiders are ranked 21st in points per game (24.0) and 30th in yards per game (25th against the pass and 25th against the run as well).

That’s not a terrible matchup for the Colts, because let’s be honest: they’re going to give up points no matter who they face, whether it’s Derek Carr and the Raiders or Brock Osweiler and the Texans. The key for Indianapolis is and always has been being able to outscore their opponent, and the weaknesses of Oakland’s defense makes that a legitimate possibility. Andrew Luck is having a tremendous season, and he’s got some weapons in the passing game: Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton is having a career year, tight ends Jack Doyle and Dwayne Allen (and at times even Erik Swoope) have made some plays, and then with Donte Moncrief back the Colts will have Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett at the receiver position as well. Frank Gore is running the ball well this year and has produced too, and last week the offensive line had their best game of the year. The Raiders have also given up the second-most pass plays of 20+ yards this year (54) and the most pass plays of 40+ yards this year (14), which is good news for a Colts offense that is at its best when hitting those deep plays. They’re fifth in the league in 20+ yard pass plays (54), while Hilton leads all NFL players in 20+ yard receptions with 25.

So odds are the Colts are going to be able to put up some points against this Raiders defense, and so the question becomes whether they’ll be able to put up enough points to outscore Oakland’s offense. The Raiders have had a very good offense this year, but they’ve tailed off a bit recently - they’ve scored 13 points and 19 points in their last two games, respectively, and they’ve scored just two touchdowns combined in their last two games. Part of that can be attributed to a drop-off in play from Derek Carr, who has seen his play decline a bit since he suffered a finger injury a few weeks ago. In the three games since suffering the injury, Carr has completed just 51.9% of his passes for 590 yards (5.6 yards per attempt), three touchdowns, and one pick for a passer rating of 74.0 - so in those three games, he’s been 11.6% lower in completion percentage than his season average, 67.9 yards per game lower than his season average, 1.4 yards per attempt lower than his season average, and 21.2 points lower in passer rating than his season average. He has had a simply terrific year, but recently he’s dropped off a bit after suffering the injury. The Oakland offense has plenty of weapons elsewhere, however, as Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree provide a very good wide receiver duo, while Latavius Murray has had a good year as a running back. When you add Carr into the mix, as well as one of the league’s best offensive lines, you’ve got a very formidable unit no matter what - and remember, they get the chance to go against the Colts’ defense this week, which is a nice cure for any offensive struggles.

The bottom line is this: if you simply look at the records for each of these teams, you’d think the Raiders should definitely win this one. But looking more in-depth, you get the picture of two teams with good offenses and bad defenses, which could pave the way for quite a few points this Saturday. That’s not a bad thing for a Colts team that’s going to need to score quite a few points to win any game, and so the question is whether Luck and the Colts can outpace Carr and the Raiders. It should be a close game, and we all know what can happen when Andrew Luck has the ball in the fourth quarter of a close game, but I’m picking the Raiders in this one. Whether it’s the fact that they’re simply a better team, or that they’re at home, or that the Colts have been incredibly inconsistent, I’m taking Oakland in a close game with quite a few points in this Christmas Eve showdown.

Predicted Score: Raiders 30, Colts 27