Rare is it that we, members of the football-loving populus, are treated to a vintage, late-season, intra-division, prime time rivalry game featuring two conference favorites with postseason pole position on the line and more than 50 years of bad blood brewing between them. So let’s appreciate the goodness that is the Week 14 edition of Thursday Night Football.
The Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, birthed by the forefathers of the American Football League, have been going at it since 1960, when the Chiefs were known as the Dallas Texans and the Silver and Black sported Black and Gold. The two franchises appeared in the first two Super Bowls and remained bitter rivals through the John Madden era, the Raiders‘ move to Los Angeles (and back), Joe Montana’s move from the Bay to the K, the Rich Gannon resurgence and beyond.
The rivalry has stayed dormant on the national stage for some years now, ever since Oakland spiraled into irrelevance post-Jon Gruden. But now in 2016, both the Raiders and Chiefs are playoff, nay, Super Bowl contenders, boosted by gutsy play-calling, transcendent defenders, timely turnovers and breakout offensive weapons.
Oakland currently leads the AFC West and owns the tiebreaker for the AFC’s top seed, but a win by Kansas City at Arrowhead on Thursday night throws the entire playoff picture into a blender, spitting out a completely different arrangement that could change the trajectory of this confusing season — at least for a week.
1. At first glance, Thursday’s tilt is a clash of cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than the quarterback position. Derek Carr and Alex Smith are both winning games, but they’re winning in different ways. Carr, the young stud in the midst of a career year, is a mastermind on throws down the field, completing a league-best 58.8 percent of his 15-plus air yard passes with a passer rating of 120.8. The Raidersquarterback is also on pace for yuge franchise-best numbers (4,500 passing yards, 32 TDs). Smith, regarded as an overlooked game-manager, is most comfortable short of the sticks; last week, he was 18-of-18 on passes under 15 air yards. Kansas City’s “gunslinger” has thrown just 11 scores this season, second-fewest of any QB who has started at least 10 games this season.
Where these two foils find common ground is in their late-game heroism. Carr’s comeback magic is well documented; his 10 fourth-quarter comebacks are the most in the NFL, one more than Matthew Stafford and his Cardiac Cats. When trailing, Carr has thrown 14 TDs and zero interceptions with a 113.0 passer rating. But Smith’s proclivity for leading late game-winning drives has flown under the radar. Heading into 2016, Smith had just 15 seven-plus-point comebacks in his 121 prior starts, but this season he has completed six, the most such in the league. His latest trick? Storming down the field in Mile High on Sunday Night Football against a vaunted Broncos secondary to tie the game, and then completing two similar drives in overtime to secure the win. They are more alike, my friends, then they are unalike.
2. Khalil Mack‘s second-half surge has him leading the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year. Alongside Bruce Irvin, Mack has terrorized quarterbacks and struck the decisive blow in Oakland’s last two victories, strip-sacking Cam Newton and Tyrod Taylor late in consecutive weeks. But across the field, there is a more feared trio of pass rushers laying in wait.
The Chiefs boast arguably the best troika of front-seven studs in the loaded AFC West — and therefore the league — in Dee Ford, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Unfortunately, the three of them have rarely seen the field at the same time this season, due to injuries; Houston only just returned from his ACL-induced hiatus and now Ford and Hali are struggling with hamstring and knee ailments, respectively. Should we see the triumvirate on the line together on Thursday night, we’ll be privy to a fascinating matchup.
Oakland’s offensive line is arguably the league’s best, save for maybe Dallas’, and is dominant in pass protection. The Raiders have allowed 12 sacks in 12 games this season, the fewest in the league and the fewest at this point in the season since the 2010 Giants. Since Week 8, the Chiefs have tallied 18 sacks, the second-most in the league. Ford is third in the NFL with 10 sacks and Houston has recorded four sacks in three games since returning from injury. This game will likely be won or lost in the trenches and in the backfield, so look to this matchup as an early microcosm of how things will play out.
3. Outside the numbers, Oakland looks to have the advantage on offense. The Raiders‘ receiving duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree is among the league’s best in nearly every category: targets (216), receptions (135), receiving yards (1,766) and 100-yard games (7). If one is covered, Carr will look toward the other with no hesitation. The Tri-C connection is a nightmare for teams with limited corner play to defend against, which is why K.C. might struggle on Thursday night. Marcus Peters is a top-five cornerback and has had success against Oakland in the past (two INTs in three games), but unless the Chiefs have developed revolutionary cloning technology in the past three days, then we’re afraid they’ll be shorthanded against the Raiders‘ dynamic duo. Phillip Gaines was exposed often against the Broncos in Week 12 and Steven Nelson is a serviceable, but not elite, substitute.
4. Talk all you want about the testicular fortitude of Jack Del Huevos/BlackJack Del Rio. In recent weeks, it’s Andy Reid who’s been bold with his brass. Often mocked for his conventional playcalling and slow-burning offense, Reid has gone deep into the well of creative plays, employing gutty strategy to win close games. Just last week, the Chiefs coach successfully went for it on fourth-and-goal in the first half and then called for a fake punt run on the very first drive of the second half, which went 55 yards for six. The call was yet another example of how K.C. has scored in unorthodox ways in 2016.
The Chiefs‘ defense and special teams have scored 49.5 percent of the team’s points this season, the highest in the league. In their last 11 trips to the end zone, Kansas City has scored via safety, post-safety punt return, pick six, fake punt run and pick-two. In the Chiefs‘ first meeting with the Raiders, Kansas City even scored on a one-yard pass play to defensive tackle Dontari Poe! All these hijinks make Kansas City finally fun to watch.
Part of the Chiefs‘ odd scoring habits have to do with their lack of downfield offensive weapons and the absence of Jeremy Maclin, who should return Thursday. But it is also due to the emergence of Swiss Army jackrabbit Tyreek Hill, who in Week 12 became the first player to score via run, reception and kick return in one game since Gale Sayers in 1965. With Maclin out, Hill has been Smith’s top target through the air and is a special force on K.C.’s dangerous jet sweeps. The rookie was barely a factor in Kansas City’s Week 6 meeting with Oakland, so how he is used on Thursday night against a defense that struggled mightily against LeSean McCoy‘s shifty running style will affect the pace of the game and Reid’s decision-making.
5. Whoever wins the turnover battle will likely win the game. Period. The Chiefs (+14) and Raiders(+12) are first and third, respectively, in turnover differential. K.C. is undefeated (9-0) when they have no more than one giveaway; Oakland is 9-1 under the same circumstances. Last week, Eric Berry (two “interceptions”) and Khalil Mack (one FF, one FR) single-handedly secured victories via turnovers. Who will step up this week?
6. Weather! These teams’ Week 6 matchup was marred by sloppy conditions, which played into the hands of the run-heavy Chiefs at the time. On Thursday night, weather could play a factor yet again, as the temperature is expected to dip into the mid-20s. Carr especially could be affected by the frigid conditions; he’s less than two weeks removed from dislocating his pinky and took all of his snaps out of shotgun last week. The third-year quarterback has also never won in front of the Arrowhead crowd, which is notoriously hostile in prime time games and will attempt to destroy the decibel record/Carr’s hopes, dreams, eardrums, etc.
7. Oakland can get one step closer to a playoff berth with a win on Thursday night. If victorious, the Raiders will need a loss from the Broncos or Dolphins on Sunday to clinch their first January without golf since 2002. A win would also secure Oakland’s best start to a season since 1976, which culminated in the Raiders‘ Super Bowl XI win over the Vikings.
Of course, K.C. has other plans. A Chiefs win would lock the two rivals in a tie atop the AFC West and see Kansas City take control of the tiebreaker — and the second seed — with a 4-0 division record. The Raiders would then be subjugated for a week to the fifth seed.