8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Chiefs -3, Over/Under: 46
First place is on the line tonight in the AFC West as the Oakland Raiders travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Chiefs in a matchup that doesn’t just have heavy implications on the division, but the AFC Playoff Picture as well. After a lengthy rebuilding process, the Raiders (10-2, 1st in AFC West) have reaped the rewards of patient management and player development, ascending to first place in not just the West, but the AFC as well, clinching their first ten-win campaign since 2002. Indeed, it’s been quite a while since this franchise was even a factor at this juncture of the season, as they enjoy their first NON-LOSING season since…you guessed it, 2002. So what’s changed for Oakland, you ask? General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Jack Del Rio have done masterful jobs of changing the culture for the downtrodden franchise, while a number of blossoming young talents have emerged as bonafide stars. First and foremost is Derek Carr, the third-year Quarterback who has thrown his hat into the MVP conversation with his unbelievably clutch play. As QB-starved as they’ve been over the years, Raider Nation must be elated with the play of the heady gun-slinger, who has completed 65.5% of his passes for 3,375 yards (7.07 NY/A), twenty-four touchdowns and just five interceptions. However, when the game has been on the line, he’s miraculously taken his play to another level; Carr has totaled SIX Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game Winning Drives this year, while throwing fourteen of his touchdowns with ZERO interceptions while his team has been trailing. His success has been predicated in large part to the evolution of his Supporting Cast, featuring a two-headed attack in the Receiving Corps with Amari Cooper (68 catches, 981 yards, 4 TD) and the revitalized Michael Crabtree (67 catches, 785 yards, 7 TD), bolstered by one of the most expensive Offensive Lines in the league, which has yielded just twelve sacks of the Quarterback. Cultivating all this talent has resulted in one of the most explosive Offenses in the NFL today (nine touchdowns of 20+ yards), as Oakland has averaged 28.8 points (3rd Overall) on 395.9 Total Yards (5th Overall), including 281.3 through the air (4th Overall) on 7.1 Net Yards per Attempt (7th Overall), and another 114.6 yards on the ground (7th Overall) on 4.3 yards per carry (12th Overall). This group has proven adept at adapting to whatever situation they face; in a 30-24 victory over Tampa Bay they torched the Buccaneers with the pass, racking up a staggering 498 aerial yards, only to flip the script and bludgeon the defending Super Bowl Champion Broncos with 218 rushing yards the following week in a 30-20 win. The Defense on the other hand, is proving a bit longer to come together, despite the additions of high-priced Free Agents such as Edge-Rusher Bruce Irvin (42 TKL, 5.0 SK), Cornerback Sean Smith (34 TKL, 2 INT, 11 PD), and Safety Reggie Nelson (55 TKL, 3 INT, 9 PD, 3 FR). The Raiders have shown an alarming propensity for giving up big plays (eight touchdowns of 20+ yards), whether via the pass or via the run, which has placed their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball in so many trailing situations. Take last week’s 38-24 comeback win over the Bills for example; Del Rio’s charges nearly allowed 200 rushing yards in the FIRST HALF, and trailed 24-9 at one point in the Third Quarter, only to explode for twenty-one unanswered points in a nine-minute span. Only two teams in the league have relinquished more yards than these guys (389.6), who rank twenty-ninth and next-to-last respectively in Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (7.1) and Yards per Carry Allowed (4.9). With that said, they’ve managed to compensate for all that yardage by forcing turnovers, registering a healthy twenty-one takeaways (7th Overall) leading to a very favorable Plus-12 Differential. All-Pro Defensive End Khalil Mack has wrecked havoc on opposing Backfields, logging fifty-eight tackles, ten sacks (eight in his last six games), four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, while picking off one pass which he returned for a touchdown. Though they carry an unblemished mark on the road thus far (5-0), leaving Arrowhead victorious will be a difficult task for this team, which hasn’t played a true road game in well over a month (October 30th). Oakland has not been very successful in Kansas City of late, losing three consecutive contests, including six out of their last seven meetings overall regardless of the venue.
Meanwhile, winter must be coming once again, as the Chiefs (9-3, 2nd in AFC West) have quietly climbed the ranks of the AFC Playoff Ladder, just as they did last year en route to winning their final ten games of the Regular Season. Andy Reid’s charges are at it again, folks, winners of seven of their last eight outings since their Bye Week, and now find themselves with a golden opportunity to go not only to the top of their division, but the AFC as well. It would be very easy to dismiss Kansas City as contenders for the Lombardi Trophy, given their perceptibly workman-like, yet boringly, conservative nature, but in a business ultimately defined by results, all this group does is win. Perhaps those perceptions are due to the presence of Reid calling the shots on the sideline; despite being very successful in his eighteen-years leading the Eagles then Chiefs (170-113-1 all-time, .600), Reid has been often (unfairly) criticized as an overly conservative play-caller. Maybe it’s Starting Quarterback Alex Smith (57-24-1 since 2011, 3rd-best among starters), another successful punching bag who has since become the prime personification of that dreaded term Game Manager. Or then again, maybe it’s the slew of uninspiring statistics that may (or may not?) define them; Kansas City ranks in the bottom-third of the league in a number of categories, including Total Offense (346.9, 22nd Overall), First Downs (19.08, 22nd Overall), Passing Offense (248.1, 21st Overall), Passing Touchdowns (14, 22nd Overall), Rushing Offense (98.8, 26th Overall), Yards per Carry (4.1, 20th Overall), Total Defense (384.9, 29th Overall), First Downs Allowed (21.92, 27th Overall), Passing Defense (263.0, 22nd Overall), Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (6.7, 21st Overall), Rushing Defense (121.9, 27th Overall), and Yards per Carry Allowed (4.3, 25th Overall). So just how the hell are these guys 9-3, you ask? One word, folks: Turnovers. The Chiefs have averaged 23.4 points per game (15th Overall) while allowing a stingy 20.2 points (9th Overall) despite the outrageous disparity in yardage for and against, and that’s primarily due to Turnover Differential; Smith (67.4%, 2,567 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT) has calmly guided an Offensive Attack that rarely beats itself, committing just eleven turnovers thus far, the ninth-fewest in the NFL, while the Defense has created a league-best twenty-five takeaways, helping create a very, very healthy Plus-14 Differential. However, the Defense hasn’t just stopped there, for they have scored on a number of occasions this year, five times to be exact. Just take last week’s thrilling 29-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons for example; the visiting Chiefs went tit-for-tat with the NFL’s top Offense, but the difference came in the form of a pair of interceptions courtesy of Pro Bowl Safety Eric Berry (59 TKL, 3 INT, 2 TD, 8 PD), who not only returned an errant Matt Ryan pass 37-yards for a touchdown, but ultimately clinched the victory with another interception return for a score, this time via a failed Two-Point Conversion. It was an inspired performance from Berry, who returned to his hometown of Atlanta for the first time in his career, and has also scored a grand total of fourteen points this season, which by the way is more than say… Jeremy Maclin (30 catches, 376 yards, 2 TD), who catches passes from the aforementioned Smith for a living. In fact, Kansas City’s Defense and Special Teams have accounted for six touchdowns thus far, and when you factor in the busy activities of Kicker Cairo Santos, you have two units that have scored a combined 135 points, or in other words 11.25 points per game, or in even more words roughly 48.1% of the team’s scoring output, by far the highest figure in the league. We get it, these guys are boring, but they’re also very consistent, which is why we should all STOP ignorantly discriminating against them. But, hey, you know who’s not boring? Tyreek Hill, the emerging Rookie Receiver out of West Alabama, who has developed into a proverbial Swiss Army Knife at Reid’s disposal. The Fifth-Round Pick has been a dramatic shot in the arm for not only the Offense, but the Special Teams as well, scoring a team-high seven total touchdowns, reeling in fifty passes (on sixty-two targets) for 481 yards and five scores, while carrying the ball thirteen times for eighty-seven yards and another touchdown, in addition to returning twenty-five Punts for a league-best 374 yards, and returning another twelve Kickoffs for 342 yards and one more score. With each passing week, Reid and his Staff have begun to devise more and more ways to get this kid the ball in space, where his track speed can really make a difference.