Yes, they must


Want to kick the Lane Kiffin recycled quote machine into overdrive?

Ask him if the next game is a “must win.”

Kiffin will patiently explain that he doesn’t think that way.

The way he sees it, if you designate a game as a “must-win” game, and then lose, how can you possibly sell your team on the importance of the next game? You’ve already lost the game you absolutely had to have.

Kiffin is big on sales. He talks about “selling” players on attitudes, systems and concepts as if Al Davis is playing him on commission. The Raiders by almost every objective analysis, are a better team than they were a year ago. Yet their 2-5 record is the same.

The biggest difference between being the head coach of the Raiders and a co-offensive coordinator at USC, Kiffin said, is the expectation of success. Coaching a team which is 17-54 since 2003 is an entirely different animal.

“You come from winning 54 of 59 games, and you’re dealing with a completely different locker room,” Kiffin said. “You’re dealing with a locker room where there a number of guys in the NFL that haven’t won anything. So it’s a completely different job.”

While Kiffin wouldn’t agree, the Raiders face a “must-win” game Sunday against the Houston Texans at McAfee Coliseum.

It’s not a “must-win” in terms of the playoff race because the Raiders could lose and, as LaMont Jordan noted last year at midseason, “ten and six is still out there.”

It’s not a must-win mathematically, and it’s not a must-win realistically, either, because face it _ the playoff ship has essentially sailed when you take a closer look at the final six opponents of the season.

Here are some reasons beating the Texans is a must:

— Because the Raiders can win. Not only can win, but should win. There aren’t many of those games out there.

— Because the offensive line badly needs a good game to rebuild its confidence after being pushed around for the last 12 quarters against formidable front sevens (plus a safety, in most cases).

The first four games were not a mirage. It was an offensive line playing at a level far above anything on display last year. Here’s betting you’ll see something closer to that line against the Texans, who are giving up 4.6 yards per carry on the ground.

— Because the Houston game serves as a first step in the possibility of a three-game recovery (Chicago and Minnesota follow) before embarking on a brutal final six games starting Nov. 25 _ at Kansas City, Denver, at Green Bay, Indianapolis, at Jacksonville and San Diego.

If the Raiders could play enough solid football to win the next three, then somehow win two of the last six, they could call it a hell of a year at 7-9.

(Admittedly, this is a lot to ask. The last time the Raiders won three straight was in 2002, when their five-game winning streak from Nov. 11 to Dec. 8 propelled them to their third straight AFC West title).

If they lose to Houston, they’re headed for 4-12 territory.

— Because it gives the Raiders run defense a chance to rise up and stop someone, something it needs for confidence purposes the second half of the season. The Texans haven’t had a running back over 73 yards this season and are ranked 30th in rushing yardage (80.5 yards per game) and dead last in yards per carry (3.2).

— Because the Raiders, in their illustrious history, have never beaten the Texans. OK, they’re only 0-2, but winning would at least add a throwaway line in their press release about having beaten every NFL team. It can go right under “The Team of the Decades” or “Greatness of the Raiders.”

— Because the Texans’ starting quarterback is Sage Rosenfels.

— Because it will reward the 40,000-odd fans who could have stayed home and watched New England play Indianapolis. Show up to this game and you’re hard core.


Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer