CHARLOTTE, N.C. Any hope the Raiders have of entering the offseason with a little momentum starts today against the Carolina Panthers.
It's a tall order in that Oakland has lost its last nine games in the Eastern time zone four of them this season. The solution is easy enough in theory.
"You've got to come out fast," Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer said. "They're a team that scores fast and has struggled late, so we need to match their intensity early."
Indeed, in its last four games, Carolina has totaled seven touchdowns and a field goal in its first two possessions. The Raiders are scoreless over the same span.
The last time the Raiders had a touchdown on their opening drive was last season's regular-season finale, when they drove 95 yards in 12 plays, capped by Palmer's three-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Since then, the Raiders have four turnovers and eight punts on opening drives, have turned it over once on downs and have scored once on a 38-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski in a 37-6 loss in Denver.
Opponents, on the other hand, have six touchdowns and a field goal on their first possessions.
"This is a chance to change all that," Palmer said.
To coach Dennis Allen, beating the Panthers on the other side of the country is a necessary step forward if only to prove it's possible.
"The distance that you travel, the time of the game those are factors but what it really boils down to is your mindset," Allen said. "You've got to block out those external factors and focus in on the things you've got to do to win the game."
The Raiders could use a strong finish to alter perception of a season that has been bitterly disappointing.
Although Allen, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver have preached patience in building a new foundation and culture, the Raiders have mostly been noncompetitive in 2012 after back-to-back 8-8 seasons.
Three of Oakland's four wins have come against Kansas City (twice) and Jacksonville, the two teams vying for the NFL's top draft choice with 2-14 records.
In the other 11 games, the Raiders are 1-10 and have been outscored 363-186 an average score of 33-17.
Carolina, 5-9 and the winner of two in a row against Atlanta and San Diego, is playing its final home game of the season. Quarterback Cam Newton is a running and passing threat unlike anything the Raiders have seen, with his favorite targets Steve Smith (66 receptions, 1,056 yards) and tight end Greg Olsen (59 receptions, 747 yards) capable of getting free on timed patterns or scramble drills.
Carolina runs a college-style read-option offense with Newton either keeping or pitching to the flat. The Panthers use a conventional running attack with backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.
Carolina's defense can rush the passer from either end with Greg Hardy (11 sacks) and Charles Johnson (10 1/2 sacks). Luke Kuechly, a potential Pro Bowl player as a rookie, anchors the middle.
One thing Allen and Carolina coach Ron Rivera have in common is they've reminded players that with the playoffs out of the picture, they are being watched closely and not just by their respective teams.
"It's one of the realities of football," Rivera said. "Every time you play, whether it's the first game or the last game, there are 31 other teams that will see this tape. Do your best. Show your best."