Carolina Panthers at Oakland Raiders (-3, 49.5 o/u)
After the way their season started, it seemed nearly impossible that the Carolina Panthers (4-6, 1-3 away) would get an opportunity to defend their NFC Title come the postseason. Yet as Thanksgiving weekend arrives, the once 1-5 Panthers sit just two games clear of first in the South.
They can ill-afford to drop another game, which means having to overcome a team with Super Bowl aspirations of its own, when they visit the Oakland Raiders (8-2, 3-2 home) this Sunday at the Coliseum (4:25 PM Eastern).
The Raiders, winners of four-straight and led by an offense that can’t be slowed down, come into this game the talk of the AFC. Oakland is averaging 30 points per game during this streak, and is getting it done on the ground and through the air. Their big-play passing attack led them over Houston last Sunday (27-20), as Derek Carr threw for scores of 17, 35, and 75 yards.
But if there’s one thing the Panthers have been trying to limit since their bye week, it’s surrendering huge plays in the passing game. New Orleans destroyed Carolina through the air in a Week 5 clash, but they flipped the script last week. The Panthers’ zone scheme kept Drew Brees hitting underneath options all night, and by the end of the game, the Saints only had two pass plays of over 20 yards (one of which was a desperation play late in the fourth quarter), as Carolina hung on to win 23-20.
They still haven’t looked like the team that ran train over everyone on the way to a 15-1 record last year. Ron Rivera’s squad has been incapable of putting together a complete game this season, surrendering 17 points in the fourth quarter in consecutive weeks. Their late mental collapse cost them a game against Kansas City in Week 10, and if they don’t tighten it up, it will cost them against Oakland: the Raiders are third in the NFL in fourth-quarter scoring.
Cam Newton still makes one or two dazzling plays a game, but his offense isn’t consistently moving. The Panthers are still struggling to run the ball, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. That run game may find more difficulty moving this weekend, with center Ryan Kalil joining left tackle Michael Oher on the sidelines. The good news for replacement center Gino Gradkowski is the Raiders have one of the least effective pass rushes in the league. Dead-last in sacks and 24th in adjusted sack rate, Oakland will have a hard time getting Cam to the ground.
As if the injury to Kalil wasn’t bad enough, the Panthers’ defensive leader Luke Kuechly won’t be in the lineup Sunday, and neither will the team’s leader in sacks, Mario Addison. Yet despite all their woes, I still like Carolina in this spot.
Coming off a mini-bye thanks to last week’s Thursday night game, I expect a much more prepared Carolina team versus the Raiders, who face a short week after a Monday nighter in Mexico. Oakland is only 1-3 ATS in games actually played at their home stadium, and 3-12 straight up in the last 15 against NFC opponents.
Consider it a trap game that a young Raiders team seems poised to fall into.
Pick: Panthers +3.
Photo Credit: Erik Drost (Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]
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