HOUSTON – Two weeks ago, the Oakland Raiders were heading for the playoffs with MVP candidate Derek Carr at quarterback.
Now they’re down to rookie third-string quarterback Connor Cook as they prepare for their first postseason game since the 2002 season with a wild-card matchup against the Houston Texans on Saturday.
Cook was named the starter this week after Carr broke his leg on Dec. 24 and backup Matt McGloin injured his shoulder on Sunday. Cook, who made his NFL debut last week, will be the first quarterback in NFL history to make his first start in a playoff game.
But the Raiders (12-4) aren’t feeling sorry for themselves.
“You do the best you can regardless of the circumstances,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “To me it’s a great opportunity. You have these great opportunities in life to be at your best, and you get these great challenges.
“So, how do you respond? What we want to do is respond like men and go in there full of energy and belief and fight our (tails) off.”
Cook was a fourth-round pick after a four-year career at Michigan State where he threw for 9,194 yards with 71 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
He expects to be a bit nervous early on Saturday, but believes his big-game experience with the Spartans will help him calm down quickly.
“You always have the nerves leading up to the game and once you get out there you have a couple snaps and you get hit, get knocked down then all of that stuff kind of goes away and you start to play ball,” he said.
The Texans (9-7) also had a quarterback shakeup this week and Brock Osweiler returns to the starting lineup after being benched two weeks ago.
Tom Savage started Houston’s last two regular-season games, but is out this week after suffering a concussion on Sunday.
Osweiler is looking to redeem himself and help Houston to its first playoff win since the 2012 season after failing to live up to expectations in his first season after signing a $72 million contract.
Under his guidance Houston’s passing game has been one of the worst in the league and he’s thrown more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15).
The Texans liked the way he performed after taking over when Savage went down on Sunday and expect him to build off that against the Raiders.
“There’s nothing different from a regular-season game to a playoff game,” Osweiler said.
“The stakes are higher, obviously … but it’s just a normal football game. I’ve had great success in this league playing football, so I’m very confident. I’m very confident in my teammates and I know we’ll be ready to go.”
Some things to know about the Raiders-Texans game:
While Houston’s offense has struggled this season, the defense has flourished despite a season-ending injury to star defensive end J.J. Watt. The Texans ended the regular season ranked first in the NFL for the first time in franchise history by allowing 301.3 yards a game. The emergence of 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney , who has a career-high six sacks and 16 tackles for losses, has been a key to Houston’s success against the run, and safety Quintin Demps starred in the secondary with a career-high six interceptions.
Out of the backfield
While the Raiders struggled to run the ball in the first meeting with a season-low 30 yards on 20 carries, that didn’t mean it wasn’t a productive game for the running backs. Latavius Murray, Jamize Olawale and Jalen Richard combined for 199 yards receiving on 11 catches, including a game-tying 75-yard TD pass to Olawale in the fourth quarter.
“We’re a threat out of the backfield against any linebackers or their defenders who try and cover us,” Murray said.
“We’re always trying to attack that weakness because we feel we’re good in space once we get out of the backfield catching the rock.”
Texans running back Lamar Miller will return after missing two games with an ankle injury. It will be the first career playoff game for Miller, who had a career-high 268 carries for 1,073 yards in his first season in Houston after four years with the Dolphins. After being banged up for much of the season, he feels fresh after getting a couple of weeks off.
“I feel like it’s Week 1,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of treatment, getting massages, doing the little things to prepare myself for this upcoming week.”
With questions at quarterback, the Raiders know their defense must play better than it did in the season finale at Denver when numerous missed tackles contributed to the 24-6 loss. Oakland allowed an opening-drive touchdown, a 64-yard run from Justin Forsett to set up a field goal and a 43-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Devontae Booker on a third-and-18 late in the first half.
“If you want to win in the playoffs, you can’t have 20 missed tackles,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “You can’t have missed assignments. You can’t have mental errors. That’s how you’ll be sitting at home next week.”
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