The Oakland Raiders have two different paths to the playoffs still available to them. The first would be to win the AFC West crown and go into the playoffs as a divisional winner. The second option would be to land the one final wild card spot still available.
For most, it would seem clear that the Raiders should want to win the AFC West, but would be happy to settle for a wild card slot. The reasoning is simple, prestige and bragging rights come with winning your division, not to mention that you are guaranteed a home game in the playoffs as a divisional winner. In fact, up to this point, it seemed so obvious, I had not even questioned whether or not it might actually be better for the Raiders to win the wild card and finish second in the AFC West.
However, as the playoff picture begins to become more clear, it may, in fact, be in the best interest of the Raiders to win the wild card instead of the AFC West for one simple reason: match-ups.
Sure, winning the AFC West would guarantee a home game in the playoffs. However, that home game would be against the Pittsburgh Steelers, arguably the third best team in the AFC. Winning the wild card, on the other hand, would mean that the Raiders would travel to Houston to take on TJ Yates and the reeling Texans. Based purely on the opponent, it would appear that the Raiders are better off as the wild card winner.
However, there is certainly something to be said about home field advantage, especially in Oakland where the Raider Nation can really go crazy. All one needs to do is take a look at the Seattle Seahawks last season to know how big of a difference home field in the playoffs can make. I am sure that someone somewhere made the argument that had they been eligible for a wild card spot, the Seahawks would have been better off doing so in order to avoid hosting the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. Then Marshawn Lynch went into beast mode.
Despite all of the positives that come with a divisional championship, I truly believe the Raiders would be better off with a wild card berth. First of all, the Raiders have not exactly been dominant at home this season. With only one home game remaining, the Raiders have a somewhat embarrassing 3-4 record in Oakland. Meanwhile, the Raiders have been road warriors this season as they boast a 5-3 record on the road.
In addition, traveling to Houston does not mean going to the east coast, something that has proven very difficult for this Raiders team. A trip to Houston is much shorter and does not involve crossing as many time zones, making it much less daunting than traveling to face an east coast team.
Finally, lets not forget that the Raiders have already played and beaten the Houston Texans, in Houston, with Matt Shaub healthy. Obviously that is no guarantee that they will win this time, but it certainly lends a credence to the idea that the Raiders can win in Houston as a wild card.
While the Raiders will clearly be happy with any playoff spot, but if beggers can be choosers, the Raiders may want to choose the wild card over the AFC West.