These Carolina Panthers aren’t the same guys who nearly went undefeated last season.
Even if they were, the Raiders from this season would give them a test, at least, and Oakland should be able to handle them with ease on Sunday.
But a major need for the Raiders is another big game from Bruce Irvin, who played what defensive coordinator Ken Norton and any other observer can and have called his best game since signing with Oakland.
Irvin has played well in spurts this season, but putting a complete and dominant game together has been tough to do for the veteran linebacker. Oakland needs him to do it again while dueling with the league’s most athletic and slippery quarterbacks, Cam Newton.
Because the Oakland secondary is still piecing together underwhelming performances, the whole linebacker group will need to keep their heads on a swivel, more so against Carolina than any other opponent they’ll face this season.
It’s not that the Panthers offense has a number of dynamic weapons, Newton is in fact their only one. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula, though, has managed to get every ounce of production from the team’s roster.
It’s why Shula received my vote for assistant coach of the year last season, despite the brilliance of Wade Phillips and the Broncos defense. To me, Shula — who didn’t have big bodied receiver Kelvin Benjamin in 2015 — is the best offensive mind the league has ever seen, including Saints head coach Sean Payton.
It doesn’t matter who is out there against the Raiders defense, any one of the 11 players can hurt them.
Which means this is a game that can help make the Raiders defense, or help break them. The Panthers aren’t known as an offensive juggernaut, but they are certainly there.
It’s obvious that Norton respects the bond between Newton and Olson, perhaps more than any other tandem on the team. There’s some good reasons why he should: Olson is on pace to catch more than 80 balls this season, and notch his second straight season with more than 1,100 receiving yards.
Olson and the young gun Benjamin create the most dangerous tandem of big receivers in the NFL, and big guys are difficult to cover when they’re slow. Carolina’s pair are not, they can move fluidly and create a serious matchup problem. Linebackers aren’t quick enough, and the defensive backs are undersized in this situation.
Even Sean Smith, standing a lean 6-foot-2, will have a tough time.
The defensive performance should decide whether the Raiders seal their ninth win of the season. The offense has proven to be capable, and extremely dangerous at times throughout the season. This should be a game where Derek Carr and co. are able to move the ball at will.
An even larger question: can rookie safety Karl Joseph become a factor on Sunday?
He’s gotta be the glue. That much is certain.
The Panthers are going to take their shots, at Hayden, Smith, and certainly Joseph. They’ve proven to be the weaker links wearing home jerseys in Oakland. They’re who gets picked on. But rookies, no matter the draft position, get picked on the most.
And Oakland’s top rookie just happens to be their last line of defense.
It’s easy to predict an up and down game for Joseph, but I’m going to take the contrarian stance and project Sunday as a learning experience for him, a very painful one.
There will be times where his instincts tell him to cheat up and defend the quarterback run, until he notices Ginn or Philly Brown sprinting passed him downfield and the ball following shortly thereafter.
There will be times where he remains in his lanes, and the Panthers still make the big or important play. There will be times where he’s indecisive, and it’s bites him. That’s just what playing safety against Newton and the new-look Panthers will do.
It’s far from an indictment on Joseph, who has already become an average safety and should get better by the rep.
If he make plays that matter, though? Well that would be something. Perhaps even enough to take to the bank in postseason projections.
But he’s gotta live by the old adage: I can show you better than I can tell you.
By 5 p.m. on Sunday, I expect the Raiders to be celebrating their ninth win. But it all hinges on the defense coming together, and that expectation has bit me before.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.