Here are 10 matchups worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Patriots-Raiders game:
Rob Gronkowski against Tyvon Branch: Through three games, Gronkowski and Wes Welker have been Brady’s two steadiest options in the passing game, and this game sets up very nicely for both of them, especially Gronkowski. The Raiders secondary is banged up, but will likely go with Branch, their leading tackler, on Gronkowski (even though he gives up six inches and 60 pounds to the tight end). Two things to look for: one, the Raiders used a lot of zone coverage last week against the Jets, something they could go with again this week. And two, New York tight end Dustin Keller had five catches for 87 yards last week against the Raiders, many of them down the seam against Oakland’s pass defense. That route remains one of Gronkowski’s biggest strengths. (For what it's worth, with a touchdown Sunday, Gronkowski would set a new franchise record for most consecutive games with a touchdown catch. The record is five, shared by four players, including Randy Moss.)
Jerod Mayo against Darren McFadden: New England’s best defensive player against Oakland's best offensive player. This isn’t to suggest that the Patriots will match up Mayo with McFadden in single coverage -- as we know, the Patriots’ defensive philosophy is to always try and deny their opponents’ No. 1 option, and that means they will try and take McFadden (who’s tied with Wes Welker for the league lead in most yards from scrimmage with 477) out of the game by any means necessary. That means Mayo will try and lead a complete team effort that should include more beef up front (look for Gerard Warren to get lots of snaps in his return) and a combination of linebackers and defensive backs to shadow him when he bounces out of the backfield as a receiver (he’s the leading receiver on the Raiders with 11 catches).
Deion Branch or Wes Welker against Stanford Routt: The Oakland secondary is struggling and banged up, and so the Patriots should be able to throw the ball on the Raiders. That being said, Routt is Oakland’s best cover corner (according to our pals at Pro Football Focus, Routt leads Oakland’s corners by only allowing eight catches on 18 targets), and will likely draw either Branch or Welker when the Raiders are matched up in man coverage. (Although, as previously stated, Oakland used a lot of zone coverage last week against the Jets.) Interesting to see the splits for Welker and Branch -- through the first three games, New England has appeared to rely heavily on one or the other (Welker last week against the Bills, while Branch the week before versus the Chargers). One other thing worth mentioning, as we detailed here -- last week, 210 of Mark Sanchez’s 369 passing yards against Oakland came after catch, while the Patriots lead the league in YAC with 601.
Tom Brady against his memory: Brady threw four picks last week against the Bills, one of his worst performances of the last few seasons. History tells us that Brady has almost always managed to bounce back after four-interception games -- as we detailed here, in his five previous games where he's thrown four picks, he’s followed it up with an average outing of 25-for-36 with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while the team has posted a 4-1 mark. Not up the standard he’s set over the last year-plus, but it’s the sort of outing that should be good enough for a win Sunday in Oakland.
Nate Solder against Lamarr Houston: The Patriots offensive line has now gone six consecutive quarters without allowing a sack -- the last one they gave up was in the second quarter of the win over the Chargers -- and while he has been a bit of a mixed bag through his first three games (according to our pals at Pro Football Focus, Solder graded out as +3.7 against San Diego but a -2.8 last week against the Bills), he has mostly managed to hold his own. With Sebastian Vollmer sidelined again this week because of a back problem, Solder will again get the start at right tackle for a Patriots team that is once again thin at tackle. The Raiders use a rotation at left defensive end, one where Houston, a second-year defensive end out of Texas, appears to get most of the snaps.
Logan Mankins and Brian Waters against Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly: We know that this foursome won’t necessarily be going head to head, but the matchup of New England’s two best offensive linemen against Oakland’s two defensive tackles should be a classic battle. Look for the Raiders to also try and exploit the inexperience of Patriots’ center Dan Connolly. If Waters and Mankins can win the day (and not force the Patriots commit double-teams to Seymour and Kelly), it should open things up in the running game for New England, which was unable to put together any sort of consistent running attack last week against the Bills. If Seymour and Kelly are able to control the trenches and command double-teams, it could mean more chances for Oakland pass rushers to get after Brady.
Julian Edelman against Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski: The Oakland punter and kicker are two of the best at what they do -- Lechler leads the league at an astounding 56.2 yards per punt, and unleashed a 77-yarder earlier this season. Meanwhile, just last week Jankowski had a streak of 10 straight quarters where opponents were unable to return a kickoff (a string of 13 total kickoffs), with all his kickoffs in that stretch landing deep in the end zone or completely out the back of the end zone. Over the first three weeks, Edelman has assumed the role of the Patriots punt and kick returner, and is in the middle of the pack in both categories (11.3 yards per punt return and 23.9 yards per kick return, both good for 12th in the league).
Jason Campbell against the Patriots pass defense: Campbell isn’t a guy that chucks it up there all that often -- only three teams have fewer pass attempts this season than the Raiders (82) -- so the Patriots’ defensive numbers should improve (New England is ranked at or near the bottom of all major pass defense categories, including total passing yards allowed and average passing yards allowed per game). However, special attention must be paid to whom Campbell will be throwing the ball to when he does toss it up there. The Patriots have allowed an NFL-most 23 completions of 20-plus yards, which means the Raiders could try and look downfield for youngster Denarius Moore, a rookie receiver who broke out for nine catches, 180 yards and a touchdown last week against the Jets. If history holds, Oakland will break the huddle and look for Devin McCourty -- according to PFF, through three games, McCourty has been targeted on 28.8 percent of opposing pass attempts. (Overall, the New England pass defense this year has yielded 30 catches for 271 yards and two touchdowns to running backs; eight catches, 794 yards and four touchdowns to wide receivers; and eight catches for 98 yards and one touchdown to tight ends.)
Patriots pass rush against the Oakland defensive line: For all the different looks -- and added pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- New England showed during the preseason, the Patriots really aren’t much different than last year when it comes to getting after the quarterback. Through three games this season, opposing QBs have 129 dropbacks against New England and have been hit 16 times, including two on 40 dropbacks last week against the Bills. Through three games last year, the Patriots had 13 quarterback hits on 108 dropbacks. This season, New England has six sacks (tied for 20th in the league), with Mark Anderson leading the way with two sacks. If the Patriots can get some pressure on Campbell (who has only been sacked twice through three games), it can start at domino effect that, in theory, could lead to a New England win.
Both teams against the whistle: Sunday will mark a meeting between two of the three most penalized teams in the NFL when it comes to total yardage. Oakland is first in the league with 271 penalty yards, while the Patriots are third at 223, including 93 yards last week against the Bills. (The Raiders have been flagged a league-high 30 times, while New England has been hit with 23 penalties.) While there will be lots of talk about winning the turnover battle, chances are good that when you play Oakland (a team almost always at the top of the league in penalties every year), if you commit fewer penalties, you'll win the game.