OAKLAND (AP) — The Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders have undergone a bit of a role reversal the past 10 months.
The Panthers (4-6) have gone from a team that played in the Super Bowl behind MVP quarterback Cam Newton in February to one struggling to reach .500, much less the playoffs.
Oakland (8-2) has moved in the opposite direction. After missing the postseason for a 13th straight year in 2015, the Raiders have ridden the play of MVP candidate quarterback Derek Carr to first place in the AFC West heading into Sunday’s game against Carolina.
With four straight wins for the first time since 2002 and a tie for the best record in the AFC, Oakland has an opportunity to do far more than just end the playoff drought.
“Our focus is strictly on beating Carolina,” Carr said. “It’s going to be a tough task because they are 10 months out from playing in the Super Bowl, or however long it was. This team coming in is such a good football team. Their record doesn’t show how good they are.”
The Panthers just haven’t played that way this season. They followed up the Super Bowl loss to Denver by starting this season 1-5. They have rebounded to win three of the past four games, but have little margin for error if they want to get back to the playoffs.
How they play on a two-game West Coast swing will be a big part of determining if that will happen. The Panthers will stay in the Bay Area after the game to prepare for next week’s trip to Seattle.
They will even practice at the same field at San Jose State that they used in preparation for the Super Bowl.
“This is a very important stretch,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “We’ve got to go in with the right mindset. Even though it’s going to be in California when we’re getting ready for Seattle, we have to treat it just the same. We can’t enjoy the beaches. ... We have to approach it the right way.”
Here are some other things to watch:
SHORT WEEK: While the Panthers come in with extra rest after playing a Thursday game last week, the Raiders have a quick turnaround after a Monday night game in Mexico City . Making it even more difficult, that game was played at an elevation of 7,380 feet, taking even more out of the players. Coach Jack Del Rio backed off his players on Wednesday, but the team believes its conditioning program will have the players ready Sunday.
“Really the only disadvantage in a short week is that extra day where you can get a little extra in or whatever,” Carr said. “But, you just make it up on the back end.”
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: All signs point to 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly missing this game with a concussion after a disturbing scene on Nov. 17. The middle linebacker was shown on TV replays weeping uncontrollably and staring blankly ahead as he left the field on a cart. Last year Kuechly missed three games with a concussion, so there is concern about how his second head injury will affect him long term. The Panthers are hoping A.J. Klein will be able to step in and start, but he, too, is coming off a concussion.
“A.J. is a guy that we have a lot of faith in,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “He always comes in and plays extremely well and we don’t expect it to be any different this weekend.”
CONTAINING CAM: The Raiders’ improving defense will have a unique challenge this week against Newton. He can pick a defense apart from the pocket and adds a power-running threat with his size and speed that make him hard to sack and capable of breaking off big plays.
“Great athlete, big arm,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “If you don’t rush him right, he’ll take off and make you pay.”
RUNNING GAME STRUGGLES: The Panthers are looking for ways to establish the running game, so expect a full dose of Jonathan Stewart early. After rushing for at least 100 yards in every game last season, Carolina’s ground game has stalled and the Panthers are averaging a mere 69.3 yards per game the last three weeks. The Raiders have struggled against the run, allowing 115.7 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry this season.
BY AIR OR BY GROUND: One game after rushing for 218 yards in a win over Denver , Raiders running backs were grounded against Houston as the team gained 30 yards on the ground. That’s not to say the backs didn’t produce. Led by fullback Jamize Olawale’s 75-yard tying touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, Oakland’s backs combined for 11 catches for 199 yards, with Jalen Richard adding a TD catch in the second quarter, and Latavius Murray setting up the winning score with a 39-yard reception.