One by one, after 12 seasons out of the playoffs, the Raiders have begun to check off items on their lengthy must-do list.
First, there was an elusive road victory. Then a win against a playoff-caliber opponent. Then a 4-3 start, their best after seven games since 2011.
Sunday, the Raiders are in position to mark off another one — a win on the road against a playoff contender — and they can do it in Pittsburgh against the Steelers, one of their most bitter rivals in franchise history.
The game has potential playoff implications. The Raiders currently own the top spot in the AFC wild-card race. A victory would give them a 1 1/2-game lead and the tie-breaker over the Steelers (4-4), who also are in the wild-card chase. They also own the tie-breaker against the New York Jets (4-3), whom they beat last week.
“We’ve got a heck of a match-up [against] a good football team, a playoff-like atmosphere,” said coach Jack Del Rio, who got to know the Steelers well in his Jacksonville Jaguars days. “Two teams that want it real bad. It should be a great environment. I’m looking forward to being a part of it.”
For all their other struggles, the Raiders have had unusual success against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers over the years. They’ve beaten them four times in five tries, a streak that dates back to a 20-13 victory at home in the 2006 season.
Last week, Roethlisberger returned after a four-game absence, the result of a right MCL sprain, and the two-time Super Bowl champion was off his game. He threw three interceptions in a 16-10 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals at home.
Nonetheless, Roethlisberger and wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant will pose big challenges for a banged-up and vulnerable Raiders secondary. League-wide, only the New York Giants have allowed more pass yards than the Raiders to date.
“It requires discipline in the secondary,” Del Rio said of Roethlisberger and his uncanny ability to keep plays alive. “It requires relentless pursuit out of rush. The thing about rushing him is that when you get there, you have to tackle him with grown-man strength, because he won’t go down with a little finger.”
Said coordinator Ken Norton Jr.: “[Roethlisberger] is big, strong. He has really good control and understands his offense really well. They’ve always been able to surround him with some really good receivers. He has the confidence just to throw it up there. He has the guys to go up and get it. They have the speed to break away, they have the hands to catch it and they work really well together.”
Coverage linebacker Neiron Ball (knee) will sit out a second consecutive game, while the status of cornerback T.J. Carrie (hip, shoulder) is questionable. Safeties Larry Asante (knee) and Taylor Mays (ankle) also appear on the injury report. Be certain that Charles Woodson, having another All-Pro season at 39, will play despite shoulder and knee issues that have bothered him most of the season.
Barring a setback, linebacker Khalil Mack (hamstring) was expected to play after he took part in a full practice Friday.
“[Roethlisberger] has been very successful with throwing the ball deep, so it’s important for us to find ways to be successful on deep balls,” Norton said. “Again, it’s a lot of film study, a lot of preparation and we’re using this week to our advantage to have ourselves in position to play those deep balls.”