The Las Vegas Raiders clinched a postseason berth for the first time since 2016, yet have a different vibe than their last playoff appearance. Franchise quarterback Derek Carr will be making his first playoff start after missing the Raiders' last playoff opportunity with a broken fibula, a huge boost to an organization that hasn't won a playoff game since the 2002 AFC Championship.
Vegas snuck into the playoffs by winning its last two games against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers, two teams that were eliminated from the postseason in Week 18 thanks to the Raiders' late-season rally. The Raiders earned the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, taking a trip north to face the Cincinnati Bengals and their high-powered offense.
The Raiders are 5.5-point underdogs (via William Hill Sportsbook), making the odds long for Vegas to upset Cincinnati. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season (the longest drought in the NFL), so there's pressure on Cincinnati this weekend. Both teams have a playoff winless streak, and one will end Saturday.
How can the Raiders upset the Bengals? Vegas will need these factors to pull off the upset.
1. Derek Carr shines on play-action
Even with the cold weather forecasted in Cincinnati for Saturday, the Raiders have to attack the Bengals' secondary. Cincinnati's pass defense allows 248.4 yards per game (the sixth-worst mark in the NFL), giving Carr the opportunity to sling the football and keep the Bengals on their toes. The Bengals allow 6.1 yards per pass attempt (11th-worst in the NFL) as opposing quarterbacks have a 93.1 passer rating against them (14th-worst in NFL). At best, the Bengals have an average pass defense. Carr did go 19 of 27 for 215 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the Week 11 loss, but only nine of those completions went for a first down.
Here's where Carr can get the Bengals pass defense. The Raiders quarterback was 6 for 6 for 92 yards off play-action passes, yet the Raiders couldn't use that advantage in the fourth quarter with Cincinnati building a commanding lead. Carr had a clean pocket the majority of the game, going 14 of 19 with a touchdown and an interception (8.9 yards per attempt).
If the Raiders can establish a running game, they can use play-action. Vegas averaged just 4.0 yards per carry on 18 attempts, which isn't enough to use play-action effectively. The Raiders have to get the running game going in order to unleash their quarterback.
2. Find the tight ends
Darren Waller torched the Bengals for seven catches for 116 yards in the first meeting, with four of those catches for at least 15 yards. When Waller wasn't controlling the middle of the field, Foster Moreau had a touchdown catch in the game on one of his two targets.
The Raiders' wide receivers were a major disappointment in the Week 11 loss, but the tight ends were able to get the offense moving. The Bengals have struggled against tight ends all season, allowing 96 catches (third-most in NFL) for 1,083 yards (fifth-most in NFL) and eight touchdowns.
If Waller is unable to play (back and knee injuries), that's a huge blow for a Raiders offense that needs him to dominate the middle of the field and score points. Moreau can move the chains, but this pass offense needs Waller to advance past the wild card round. Vegas runs "12 personnel" 17% of the time (per Sharp Football Stats), yet that number should increase if Waller plays.
3. Pass rush has to get home
The Raiders pass rush had 18 pressures in the Week 11 loss to the Bengals, sacking Joe Burrow three times and hitting him five times. Maxx Crosby didn't have a sack, yet finished with a 25% win rate and five pressures on 28 pass rush snap (per Pro Football Focus), controlling his matchup on the line.
The Bengals allowed 55 sacks in 2021, the third-most in the NFL, and Crosby was the only player in the league with 100 pressures this year (101). Crosby has to be the difference marker on the line and force Burrow out of his comfort zone to stop Cincinnati from making big plays down the field.
Yannick Ngakoue and Quinton Jefferson were able to take advantage of Crosby's dominance, finishing with two sacks on just three pressures. They'll have to get a better win-rate and create more discomfort for Burrow, which is asking a lot. Against the Bengals offensive line, this is a matchup the Raiders have to win.