How exactly do you follow a thrilling and entirely unexpected (at least outside of the Kansas City market) victory over the previously undefeated and defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers?
You get back to work.
That's the message interim head coach Romeo Crennel preached to his players this week, because although some may look back at the Green Bay win and say it made the Chiefs' season, a bigger goal remains for today: make the playoffs. A lot needs to go right for the Chiefs to squeeze into the playoffs, but a lot needed to go right last week for the Chiefs to unseat the perfect Packers.
From the standpoint of Crennel and his staff, there's only one message worth purveying to the Chiefs players: control what you can, and that starts Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium versus the Raiders.
Many will remember the last time these two teams played, although you cant blame Raiders' QB Carson Palmer if he's made every effort to forget it. Just days after Palmer was acquired via trade, he was inserted in the second half and promptly went on to gift-wrap three interceptions for the Chiefs. Hopefully he's feeling similarly charitable this weekend, as it is the holiday season. But I digress.
Since Palmer arrived in Oakland, it's been largely a mixed bag of results. A two-game losing streak to start the Palmer era and a current three-game losing streak sandwich a three-game winning streak, but lest we forget one incredibly vital factor when evaluating the Raiders' play: the absence of RB Darren McFadden.
McFadden left the first game versus the Chiefs with what we now know is a Lisfranc injury, and hasn't been seen since. Speculation is arising that McFadden could return for the season finale, so the Chiefs will likely catch a break and Michael Bush should continue to start for Oakland.
But Sunday, and the rest of the Chiefs' season for that matter, is not about who they are playing; it's about the Chiefs. Last Sunday we saw a glimpse into the capabilities of the Chiefs, on both offense and defense. Kyle Orton proved what many have long known, and that is that he is the best healthy quarterback on the Chiefs' roster, and capable of starting in this league for a good team. The inconsistency on offense seemingly evaporated the moment Orton took the field for the Chiefs, and it was no wonder that they approached 300 yards passing for the first time in 2011. Many are desperate to debate the potential future merits of Orton in comparison to the incumbent starter, Matt Cassel, but reserve that for another day. Orton can make a difference now, and let's look at 5 keys for he and his teammates as they take on the Oakland Raiders this Saturday:
1. Downfield passing game: If you just looked at the box score from the Packers game, you'd have a hard time believing the reality behind Orton's performance: he threw for nearly 300 yards without making more than a handful of true downfield throws. Orton picked apart the Packers with screens and play-action passing, but it didn't involve a downfield threat from his wide receivers; in fact, Jonathan Baldwin's lone catch of 17 yards was the longest reception by a Chiefs' wide receiver. The Raiders' secondary is similar to the Packers in that it allows a high yardage total (bottom ten in the league), but the Raiders lack the individual talent of the Packers to make you pay on mistakes. The Chiefs know 19 points on offense wont always cut it, and establishing a downfield passing game will have a tremendous effect on the Chiefs' red-zone offense, which was a major area of weakness last week. The Chiefs offense essentially operated in a truncated area against the Packers, but looking downfield (with Baldwin, perhaps?) will decongest the other areas that the Chiefs want to attack. I expect another week of preparation and heightened confidence will aid the Chiefs in their quest to aim downfield, and don't be surprised for them to call for a shot play early in the game.
2. Stay the course again offensively: Thomas Jones and Bill Muir have been targets of heavy criticism throughout the 2011 season, but you have to admire the way Muir relied on Jones against Green Bay. Sure, the numbers weren't prolific, but it was clear early on that handing the ball off to Jones was part of Muir's gameplan, and offenses operate most effectively when they dictate the play. The Chiefs unwavering offensive approach last week kept the Packers' offense off the field, and wore down a tired defense in the game's final minutes. No one knows for sure what the gameplan will involve this coming weekend, but what matters is that the Chiefs stick to it. Crennel seems to be preaching the message of consistency to his players, and if the Chiefs can maintain a consistent approach on offense, they'll continue to evolve with Orton as the starter.
3. Set the edge, form the umbrella: It's no mystery that the Raiders' brass (specifically longtime owner Al Davis) has long been enamored by speed, and the current roster is loaded with over-drafted speed demons. Chief amongst them is WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has finally honed his natural talents enough to be productive in his third NFL season. The key to stopping a team that tries to kill with speed is setting the edge in the run game and forming an umbrella in the secondary. In other words, contain. Romeo Crennel loves to set the edge and build the wall on defense as it is, but trust he'll put an increased premium on doing so this week to keep the Raiders from getting outside. Last Sunday, WR Louis Murphy took a reverse for a score against the Lions, and expect the Raiders to try to utilize one or more of their wide receivers in a reverse/handoff fashion again this week. In the secondary, the Chiefs must contain the Raiders receivers and not let them to get behind their safeties, which is precisely what Oakland is gunning for. Speed can be bottled up, and the Chiefs likely will make that a defensive goal for Saturday.
4. Big play on special teams: Usually we try not to just focus on generic keys that would be applicable versus every team, but this weekend seems appropriate to mention a big play on special teams. The Chiefs have yet to break a kick or punt return open for a touchdown, and accomplishing that would be major feather in the cap of special teams coach Steve Hoffman. We all know the rigors of returning a kickoff for a touchdown with the current set of rules, but returner Javier Arenas could make an impact in the punt return game. The Chiefs should improve on offense this week after another week of prep for Kyle Orton, but their pace may remain more plodding than up-tempo, which slows them down and keeps games tighter. A big play in special teams could truly kick start a drive and build the momentum for the Chiefs to put away the Raiders.
5. Field kicks wisely: Some will say the Raiders two best offensive weapons are actually their punter and kicker. Shane Lechler is regarded in some circles as the best punter of all time, and Janikowski showed Oakland enough during college to draft him in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft. The two can change the course of a game dramatically, and Lechler is responsible for flipping the field for the Raiders when pinned deep in his own territory. You have to love the booming spirals Lechler delivers with his right foot, and you have to be a smart returner when handling them. We saw last weekend in the Patriots-Broncos match-up a mishandle by Denver as time was drifting away in the first half, and it equated to 3 New England points. With such powerful kicks from both Janikowski and Lechler, returners will have to make honest and calculated judgments about whether or not to press forward with their return, or simply let the ball sail into the end zone. Playing smart down the stretch is what will separate the playoff teams from those who will head home, and the Chiefs need to be smart when receiving kicks from this dynamic duo.