It's a critical December game, the kind of game Bills fans have been anticipating for years. The Bills travel west to play the Raiders Sunday. Here are the top seven storylines for this week's game:
1. STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH-BILLS PASS RUSH VS OAKLAND O-LINE
It's the matchup of strong suits—Buffalo brings the NFL's top pass rushing team to play against the number one pass protection unit in the league. The Bills have 33 sacks so far this season. The Raiders have allowed just 13.
The Raiders have invested big money into their offensive line this past spring. They kept LT Donald Penn on the roster with a two year, $14 million dollar deal. They re-signed center Rodney Hudson to a five- year, 44.5 million dollar contract, making him one of the highest paid centers in the game. And they signed unrestricted free agent Kelechi Osemele away from the Ravens in a five-year deal worth 60 million.
The Bills have some highly paid, highly productive pass rushers on their roster. So it's money versus money; strength versus strength when the Raiders line up to pass on Sunday.
And the fact that Oakland employs a quick-strike passing game designed to get the ball out of Derek Carr's hand means sacks could be hard to come by for the Buffalo offense.
- CARR'S HAND UNDER SCRUTINY**
Speaking of Derek Carr's hand, the pinkie finger on his throwing hand will be closely monitored all week. Carr dislocated his finger in two places taking a snap in the third quarter of the Raiders win over Carolina. He got the finger popped back into place and returned to the game but he still felt pain, "probably some of the most pain I've ever felt in my life," he said after the game.
Carr finished the game with his right hand protected by a glove. Will he wear the glove this coming Sunday against the Bills? Will he be able to take snaps from center, or just shotgun snaps like he did after returning to the lineup against the Panthers?
3. BILLS SHOULD BE IN A HURRY TO GET RUSHING GAME GOING
Buffalo remains the NFL's top rushing offense and the Raiders are 26th in the league against the run. But the Bills are looking to regain their edge in the run game this Sunday.
They got almost half of their 153 yards on the ground against Jacksonville on one play—Shady McCoy's 75-yard touchdown jaunt. And the Bills had six rushing plays go for losses, an inordinate amount.
Look for Buffalo to try to grind out the rushing yards early against the Raiders smallish defensive front.
4. MACK ATTACK ALERT
Raiders DE Khalil Mack had a game for the ages this past Sunday against Carolina. He became the first NFL player in six years to record a sack, an interception returned for a touchdown, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in the same game.
Mack sealed the victory for Oakland when he sacked Cam Newton, forced a fumble and recovered it to snuff out Carolina's chances. His coach, Jack Del Rio, said Mack earned the big play.
"Great desire," Del Rio said. "He just collapsed that tackle, really nullified the chip just by powering that guy and took the ball away and then recovered it. It was a great play."
Western New York football fans are very familiar with Khalil Mack's skill set after his decorated career at the University at Buffalo.
5. BILLS DOING THE WIDEOUT SHUFFLE…..AGAIN
They've got Sammy back. But the wide receiving corps is once again in flux thanks to another spate of injuries. The Bills will spend the week trying to figure out who's going to be ready to line up and catch passes against the Raiders.
Rex Ryan doesn't sound hopeful about Robert Woods chances of returning from his knee sprain this week. And he's not sure Percy Harvin will be ready to practice and play after battling migraine headaches and missing the Jaguars game.
It could mean more playing time for WR Justin Hunter, the author of a spectacular leaping TD catch against Jacksonville. Four of Hunter's seven catches with the Bills this year have been touchdowns validating his status as a significant red zone threat. But Ryan says it may be time to get Hunter on the field outside of the red zone.
"He gives us a huge red zone threat, but also I think he does warrant more playing time," Ryan says. "So we will with some of the injuries we have there is no reason he shouldn't be able to play more."
- OLD AFL RIVALS WITH NEW SCORES TO SETTLE**
The Bills and the Raiders were charter members of the American Football League in the 1960s, and Bills founder Ralph Wilson famously loaned $400,000 to the Raiders in the 60's to keep the floundering franchise solvent. Over the years, the two teams have played 37 times and Oakland has won 20 times.
Two years ago, the last time the teams met, Oakland squeezed out a 26-24 win over Buffalo, a Bills loss that ended their playoff hopes. The Raiders went into the game with a 2-12 record and Buffalo was coming off a stirring win over the Packers in Orchard Park.
Sunday's game will be the 16th time the Bills have played the Raiders in Oakland and it could be the last. Raiders owner Mark Davis says he remains committed to moving his team to Las Vegas despite last ditch stadium financing efforts in Alameda County.
7. 'ZO GOES HOME
It's Lorenzo Alexander's 10th season in the NFL and probably his most memorable. The Bills LB ranks second in the NFL with 10 sacks with just five games left in the regular season. And this week he gets to go home.
Alexander played for the Raiders last season excelling in special teams. But he grew up right around the corner in Berkeley and attended St Mary's High School there. He played collegiately at Cal-Berkeley. The remarkable story of 'Zo's career renaissance will no doubt have many friends and family cheering him on Sunday in Oakland's "Black Hole."