8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Chiefs -2.5, Over/Under: 51.5
Bitter division rivals clash tonight in Sin City, as the Kansas City Chiefs look to extend their first winning streak of the campaign to three games on the road against the Las Vegas Raiders, who are desperate to maintain their tenuous hold on the division after yet another major turn of events has rocked their franchise. With roughly half of the season in the books, it’s safe to say that the Chiefs (5-4, T-3rd in AFC West) have been the most disappointing team in the National Football League, toiling away at 5-4 after three straight trips to the AFC Championship Game, including back-to-back appearances in the Super Bowl. Make no mistake, Kansas City ran roughshod over the NFL over the last three years, but this season has proven to be particularly challenging for (Head Coach) Andy Reid’s charges, who finally climbed above .500 following a narrow 13-7 victory over the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers last weekend. Even with that said, the Offense struggled for the third consecutive week in producing a season-low 237 total yards and 160 passing yards; apart from a lengthy 15-play, 64-yard drive culminating in a one-yard touchdown toss from (All-Pro Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes (65.2%, 2,534 YDS, 6.46 NY/A, 20 TD, 10 INT, 54.3 QBR) to (All-Pro Tight End) Travis Kelce (54 TKL, 628 YDS, 11.6 Y/R, 5 TD), the hosts would spend much of the game stuck in neutral, turning it over on downs on the following possession before punting on six of their final eight drives of the evening. If not for Rodgers testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, this affair may have featured a very different result, as (Sophomore Quarterback) Jordan Love struggled mightily in what was the first start of his career. Fortunately, the Chiefs were able to take advantage of his inexperience, which is precisely what (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s troops needed; the home side relinquished a season-low seven points and 179 passing yards, as they relegated Love to 19-of-34 passing, while forcing a fumble and picking him off as well. It was the second consecutive outing in which the Defense managed to excel against a poor Offense, which Reid and Spagnuolo hope has allowed them to build some confidence heading into this matchup with the Raiders. Against the Giants and Packers, this unit allowed an average of 12.0 points on 300.5 total yards, which is a MAJOR improvement on the 29.0 points on 404.6 total yards that they had issued over the first seven games. Moving forward, this group should benefit from a return to health from many key contributors, including (Defensive Linemen) Chris Jones (12 TKL, 4 TFL, 8 QBH, 3.0 SK) and Frank Clark (12 TKL, 2 TFL, 7 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), along with the addition of (veteran Edge-Rusher) Melvin Ingram (11 TKL, 2 TFL, 6 PD, 1.0 SK, 1 PD), who they added at the Trade Deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The three-time former Pro-Bowler amassed forty-nine sacks over nine years with the Chargers, with his presence allowing the aforementioned Jones to shift back inside to Tackle, where he has proven to be far more effective in his natural position. However, as the Defense shows signs of life it has been their teammates on the opposite side of the football that have suddenly proven more concerning, for over the past few weeks this one-time juggernaut has fallen flat on its face. Kansas City averaged a stellar 30.8 points on a robust 433.5 total yards through the first six weeks of the campaign, only to turn around and produce a meager 12.0 points per game on 313.0 total yards in the three outings that have followed. With that said, what in the name of Christian Okoye is going on in Arrowhead, you ask? Well, at this point we’re all well-acquainted with the fact that Mahomes & Co have been by far and away the most turnover-prone team in the league, committing a staggering NINETEEN through their first nine games, which is good for the second-most in NFL history through this point of the regular season. Reid’s charges are 2-0 when they don’t give away the football in 2021, opposed to 3-4 in all other contests, and if you’re looking for a culprit then look no further than Mahomes. Indeed, the 2018 MVP has provided us with a host of prolific performances throughout his five years in the league, but his most recent campaign has seen him routinely make a myriad of reckless mistakes and unable to adapt to how Defenses are playing him. It seems that last February’s 31-9 loss in Super Bowl XLV served as the blueprint for the rest of the NFL, as the Buccaneers opted to drop a plethora of defenders into coverage rather than blitz him, leaving him with just 270 yards, a fumble, and a pair of interceptions on 26-of-49 passing. In what has long-been a copycat league, the secret to slowing him down is very much out this season, though it’s been baffling in how the 26-year old has continued to bullishly challenge the increasingly crowded coverages downfield rather than simply take advantage of all of the underneath real estate that they’ve given him; Mahomes has tossed TEN interceptions thus far, which is one shy of matching the total of picks that he threw in the previous two seasons COMBINED, while he’s also seen a considerable decline in a number of statistics across the board including completion percentage (65.2%), yards per attempt (7.0), yards per completion (10.7), and net yards per attempt (6.46), along with more advanced stats such as intended air yards per attempt (7.8) and completed air yards per completion (5.1). Compounding matters is a completely rebuilt Offensive Line featuring five new starters from the one that started in Super Bowl XLV, which at this point has yet to develop the requisite chemistry to assure their Quarterback of his safety. While there is certainly plenty of time for Reid and Mahomes to figure this all out, with every week that passes by it feels more and more like this is simply who the Chiefs have become, which doesn’t bode well moving into the second half of the season; no team faces a harsher remaining schedule than Kansas City, who apart from a bye week in late November face the Raiders and Broncos twice, along with the Cowboys, Chargers, Bengals, and Steelers, who together own a combined record of 31-19 (.620). Perhaps a matchup with Las Vegas will cure some ills, for the Chiefs have OWNED the Silver & Black during Reid’s tenure with the franchise, winning thirteen out of sixteen meetings dating back to 2013, with Mahomes 5-1 against them with a whopping SEVENTEEN touchdowns in comparison to just four turnovers. Furthermore, Kansas City is looking for another boost on primetime after besting the Giants (20-17) in their last showing under the bright lights following back-to-back losses to the Ravens (35-36) and Bills (20-38).
Meanwhile, if the Raiders (5-3, T-1st in AFC West) thought that 2020 was a pain in the ass, there is no way that they could have envisioned its successor being exponentially more arduous. Simply put, there has been no team in the NFL, or perhaps in any of the professional sporting leagues in this country that has dealt with more adversity this season off the field of play than Las Vegas, who has been rocked to their core on three occasions over the last six weeks. First, after the federal government conducted a lengthy investigation into the Washington Football Team and notified the league of a slew of recovered emails from (former Head Coach) Jon Gruden which included controversial (and explicit) denouncements of a number of sensitive subjects in today’s game, the 58-year old abruptly resigned from his post just five games into the schedule. To their credit, the team rallied under (Interim Head Coach) Rich Bisaccia, winning their first two games after Gruden’s ousting, heading into their bye week in lone possession of first place within the crowded AFC West. Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last as (emerging Wide Receiver) Henry Ruggs III (24 REC, 469 YDS, 19.5 Y/R, 2 TD) crashed his sportscar in a horrific drunk driving collision, injuring himself and his passenger, while sadly killing a woman and her dog. Reports indicate that the 22-year old was driving approximately 156 miles per hour with a blood-alcohol level twice that of the legal limit in the state of Nevada, while carrying a firearm no less. A day after the accident, (General Manger) Mike Mayock released the 2020 First Round Pick altogether. Without a player that was very much a growing part of their attack, Las Vegas traveled to the Big Apple for a matchup with the struggling Giants, only to meet defeat in a listless 23-16 performance in which the Offense committed a season-high three turnovers. While you could forgive the team for being preoccupied with such a tragedy, the hits didn’t stop as the Silver & Black released their other First Round Pick from that Draft, (Sophomore Cornerback) Damon Arnette (4 TKL, 1 PD) a day later after a video surfaced in which he was brandishing a weapon and threatening another person. Needless to say, that’s A LOT to digest for a team that is trying to snap a four-year postseason drought, with a difficult schedule of their own looming; while not as perilous as the Chiefs’ remaining gauntlet, Bisaccia’s charges face Kansas City twice, along with rematches against both the Broncos and Chargers, with dates with Cowboys, Washington, Bengals, and Colts in-between leading to a combined record of 32-28 (.533). Indeed, this series of unfortunate events has left their play on the gridiron largely unappreciated, which is a shame because this year’s Raiders are easily the best version of the team since their last playoff appearance in 2016. (Veteran Quarterback) Derek Carr (67.3%, 2,565 YDS, 7.40 NY/A, 13 TD, 7 INT, 53.7 QBR) has enjoyed his finest campaign with the Silver & Black thus far, showing his leadership skills in the face of the Gruden and Ruggs sagas, all the while persevering behind a rebuilt Offensive Line that has struggled to open up lanes in the run game; the 30-year old is posting career-highs in yards per attempt (8.2), yards per completion (12.2), and net yards per attempt (7.40), while showing a growing confidence in pushing the football downfield on 8.5 intended air yards per attempt and 6.8 completed air yards per completion. Even though he was responsible for each of his team’s three turnovers this past weekend, Carr has largely been a model for consistency in 2021, and looks primed for a contract extension in the offseason. As a gift Mayock even brought in a quick, veteran replacement for Ruggs in the form of DeSean Jackson (8 REC, 221 YDS, 27.6 Y/R, 1 TD), who mutually parted ways with the Los Angeles Rams a week ago; even at 34-years old, the three-time Pro-Bowler still has the speed to represent a quality deep threat much in the same vein as his predecessor, and should be a seamless fit into the Raiders’ Offense, which continues to run many of the same principles that it did under Gruden, which are similar to that of the Rams, with their Head Coach, Sean McVay, serving under Gruden during the formative stages of his coaching career. With that said, it remains to be seen just how durable Jackson will be after missing twenty-four games over the past two seasons with a variety of injuries. However, arguably the biggest reason for their sustained success thus far has been the growth of the Defense, which has quite frankly been a long time coming. Simply put, this unit had been TERRIBLE for years, posting the NFL’s fewest sacks (66) and takeaways (47) from 2018 to 2020, which prompted Gruden to hire another of his former colleagues, Gus Bradley, to steer them back to respectability. The architect of the famed Legion of Boom in Seattle, Bradley has performed one hell of a job in Sin City, turning this once hapless Defense into a fringe Top-10 unit; Las Vegas has allowed 23.6 points per game (15th Overall) on 340.6 total yards (10th Overall), thanks in large part to an improved pass-rush that has accounted for twenty-one sacks (11th Overall), matching their total from 2020 in half as many games. (Third-year Defensive End) Maxx Crosby (21 TKL, 5 TFL, 20 QBH, 5.0 SK, 2 PD) has absolutely flourished under his tutelage amassing twenty-two pressures and twenty hits of the Quarterback, while (former Bradley protege) Yannick Ngakoue (7 TKL, 4 TFL, 12 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FF, 3 PD) leads the team with six sacks on the opposite edge. Though this team has certainly struggled against the Chiefs over the bulk of the last decade, they did play them extremely close in each of their two meetings from last season, even handing them their first loss in Arrowhead no less; the Raiders stunned them in a 40-32 shootout in Kansas City which featured Carr throwing a number of bombs downfield, while the return leg at Allegiant Stadium saw Mahomes & Co enact revenge in a 35-31 thriller on a Sunday night. Furthermore, few opponents have given Carr the kind of problems that the Chiefs have throughout his career, winning just three of fourteen meetings with twenty-one touchdowns opposed to fifteen interceptions while suffering thirty-three sacks, with those latter two figures representing the most logged against any single opponent.