All eyes will be on the Oakland Raiders (12-4) and rookie quarterback Connor Cook Saturday afternoon as they travel to take on the Houston Texans (9-7) in their first postseason game since losing the Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003.
Cook, who is making his first career NFL start, becomes the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era for that to come in a postseason game.
Cook did get some game action in the Raiders Week 17 loss to the Denver Broncos though, replacing injured quarterback Matt McGloin in the second quarter. He completed 14-of-21 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, but he had both an interception and a lost fumble in the game.
In four years at Michigan State University Cook had 9,194 yards passing to go along with 71 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He led the Spartans to the College Football Playoffs last year, but was defeated by Alabama 38-0 in a game that he had 210 passing yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Unfortunately for Cook the man that would usually be protecting his blindside, Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn, will not be able to go Saturday as he is dealing with a knee injury. This will be the first game Penn has missed in his entire 10-year career.
Penn was a big part of a very successful Raiders offensive line this season that has given up a league low 18 sacks. Penn gave up just one of those sacks, although it was a crucial one as it was the one that broke Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr’s fibula likely ending his season.
With Penn out Menelik Watson, who has started five games this season at right tackle, will likely get the start at left tackle and have the challenge of keeping former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from getting to Cook. Clowney, who was named to his first Pro Bowl this season, had six sacks and a forced fumble in 14 games this season.
While Cook has not had much time to develop chemistry with his wide receivers, he does have a pair of 1,000-yard receivers to throw to in Amari Cooper (1,153 yards and five touchdowns) and Michael Crabtree (1,003 and eight touchdowns).
Houston is the second best defensive team against the pass though, giving up 201.6 passing yards per game, so to be successful offensively the Raiders will likely have to do it on the ground.
Latavius Murray will lead a very good Raiders rushing attack, as he had 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. Oakland also has a pair of rookie running backs, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, that will use their speed to be a change of pace to Murray’s power.
Defensively the Raiders will be led by All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack, who was tied for eighth in the NFL with 11 sacks on the season. He was also tied for third in the league with five forced fumbles behind only teammate Bruce Irvin and Vic Beasley Jr. of the Atlanta Falcons, who each had six.
Mack and Irvin will attempt to get to Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, who was named the starter by Texans head coach Bill O’Brien earlier this week.
It has been a rough season for Osweiler, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Texans last offseason after starting just seven career games with the Denver Broncos.
In 15 games (14 starts) this season Osweiler completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,957 yards, 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. His 5.8 yards per attempt ranked dead last among 30 qualified quarterbacks.
When the Raiders defeated the Texans earlier this season 27-20 in Mexico City, Osweiler completed 26-of-39 passes for 243 yards, a touchdowns and an interception.
Osweiler and the Texans offense will be aided by the return of running back Lamar Miller, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury. In 14 games this season Miller rushed for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns.
Houston’s biggest threat outside is wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. After a career year in 2015 when he had 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns, Hopkins struggled to find chemistry with Osweiler this season and had a down year as he had just 954 yards and four touchdowns.
Saturday’s game is the first of four Wildcard playoff games, and is slated to begin at 1:35 p.m. Pacific time and will be aired on both ESPN and ABC.