1. Raiders are playing an early game on the East Coast.
This theory, bandied about by some prognosticators (like Simmons here), posits that West Coast teams struggle playing road games at 1:00 EST (10 PST). The reasoning is pretty simple: the players' biological clocks are out-of-sync for a 10:00 AM start, and they accordingly tend to play the sluggish way that their bodies feel (the same phenomenon tends to benefit West Coast home teams at night). It's an intuitively appealing theory. Do the stats back it up? One look at the stats answers resoundingly in the affirmative: in 2007, teams from the Pacific or Mountain time zones were 4-16 when playing in the Eastern Time Zone, and 18 of those 20 games had early start times. That included some really bad losses -- fully 50% of the 4 wins picked up by the awful pre-Matt Ryan Atlanta Falcons that year were in early home games against traveling west coasters.
To be sure, the raw stats reflect the skewed ineptitude of the Western teams in general. But although each coach is certainly different in his ability to prepare his team for an early start on the East Coast, almost without exception all West Coast teams have had significantly losing records in travel to the East Coast in recent years. Pat Kirwan ran the stats a few years ago and found:
Since 2003, when the Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks travel to the Eastern time zone for a 1 p.m. game, they have a combined record of 19-59 -- a winning percentage of .243. When you look at games played at 4 p.m. or at night, the West Coast teams are 3-5 (.375 percentage).I don't think most people fully realize this degree of futility suffered by traveling West Coast teams. I know the AFC and particularly NFC West have been terrible, but a .243 winning percentage?! That suggests that the early start time theory really has some juice, irrespective of the basic talent disparities between the teams involved. Kirwan further spoke to several of the coaches involved, who
all felt it is a real issue, even though it's hard to put a finger on why it happens. They all mentioned a "sluggish" feeling, especially early in games. Anyone can dig up a game like Seattle's 42-0 win at Philadelphia in 2005 and say it's all hogwash, but the numbers over time suggest something different.It's certainly not just true for bad teams. In 2009, the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals -- two playoff teams who went a combined 17-15, were 0-9 in games played east of the Mississippi River. And the same theory seems applicable to the Raiders. They've played two early road games this season (@ Ten in week 1 and @ Pit in Week 11) and been blown out in both by a combined score of 73-16. They seem to fit the pattern nicely, and I expect it to continue this week.
2. The Raiders are coming off a major win against a divisional rival.
The Raiders just played perhaps their best game in several years, manhandling the Chargers and doling them their first December loss in the Philip Rivers era. This 15-point win, which was never close, felt like a blowout for most of the game. I thus like the Raiders to regress back to normal this week. In recent weeks, I've remarked several times that teams coming off blowout wins seem to lack fire the following week. I also noted something similar in my preseason preview, arguing that teams emerging from cathartic, "now we've arrived" wins tend to dramatically underperform soon thereafter. Well, here we have that situation, and the trend seems to have been borne out by the Raiders' performance this season. They previously had only 1 win over a team with a winning record at the time (against the divisional rival Chiefs), and they followed it up by a 32-point thrashing by the Steelers.
Such inconsistency fits the mold of the Raiders' season in general, as wide fluctuations in quality of play have defined their season thus far. Thus, when ESPN bloggers proclaim the dominance of the Raiders' ground game, it makes me wonder how that rushing attack will look the week afterward. Particularly when the Raiders already have a reason -- the aforementioned time zone issue -- to play with less than exacting intensity.
3. The Jags will have success on the ground.
There seems little doubt that this game will be decided in the trenches. Indeed, neither the Jags or the Raiders pass the ball particularly well, while both have statistically impressive rushing attacks. I think the Jags will do what they do better than the Raiders -- the Jags have been remarkable at minimizing 3 and outs and controlling the time of possession, and the emergence of Rashad Jennings has given them a 1-2 pitch with MJD that is approaching elite level. Moreover, the Raiders are 23rd in rushing defense, which is not only bad but also artificially inflated by a great (21 yard) performance against San Diego last week that was somewhat anomalous. I thus expect the Jags to do what they did to Tennessee last week -- dominate on the ground and impose their will against a sluggish team.
THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: THE JAGS HAVE BEEN LUCKY
The Jags have undoubtedly benefited from some lucky wins this year (the Mike Thomas Hail Mary and the 75-yard late game MJD screen pass come to mind). And I did just finish writing about the need to stay away from teams that have recently benefited from a spate of lucky wins. After all, the Jags probably aren't as good as their record, given their -43 point differential.
But in recent weeks, the Jags have looked like a legitimate team, not just a lucky one. And they certainly have shown they know how to blow out sluggish teams (see their whooping of the Wade Philips-era Cowboys). Ultimately, I think that the Jags are a mediocre team that plays fairly well at home, and that the Raiders' travel struggles will continue this week. I thought this line would be closer to 7 than to 4, and as such, the Jags will cover.