It all comes down to this week. OK, maybe not all. The Chiefs are sitting at 9-3 and in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. Everything they want is in front of them. Standing in their way? The finally good Raiders who are having a very similar season to the Chiefs. Both teams have found ways to win each week, even when playing from behind in the second half. And so they meet on Thursday night in front of a national TV audience for the division lead and one of the top seeds in the AFC.
Here are a few things I’m watching for in this game:
Can the Chiefs establish the run?
Going into the season, the LAST thing I was worried about was the Chiefs ability to run the football. Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Knil eDavis were fantastic depth to hold the Chiefs over until the triumphant return of Jamaal Charles. The offensive line would be much improved for 2016, and Alex Smith had just completed one of the better QB rushing seasons in the league.
Well ... stuff happens. Charles ended up on IR, Ware and West have each been banged up and have been fairly ineffective the past few games. Whether it’s other teams stacking the box against KC or the injury to guard Parker Ehinger or Chiefs receivers not getting downfield blocks or Smith not choosing his spots to run, something is off with the Chiefs ground attack. My guess is that it’s a little of all of the above.
Regardless, they are going to need to get it going in order to make a playoff run. That starts this week versus an Oakland defense that is 29th in the league vs the run.
Will injured guys like Jeremy Maclin, Dee Ford and Phillip Gaines be back at full strength?
The Chiefs have mostly been conservative bringing guys back from injury. Holding key players out and going with the next man up philosophy until they’re 100 percent. Against Atlanta, we noticed several regular players rotating out more, perhaps in order to make sure they were a bit more rested for the short week. The NFL is a war of attrition as every team faces injuries, but it’s often the healthiest teams that make the most noise in the playoffs.
Depth is also a huge factor, of course. This Thursday should be treated like a playoff game in all regards. Any of the Chiefs starters that have been nursing injuries will likely be on the field and needed to get the win and control the AFC West. Maybe, just maybe, the Chiefs that have been winning narrowly without some of these guys will look more dominant when closer to full strength.
Can the pass rush get home against a very good offensive line?
Dee Ford has silenced critics with his first double-digit sack season, even though he’s missed some time over the last three weeks. Justin Houston is back, and Tamba Hali seems to be as fresh and strong as we’ve seen him in a while. Chris Jones is looking dominant on the inside.
In theory, this is an ELITE pass rushing defense. In practice, they are certainly affected by the level of competition.
Oakland invested heavily in their offensive line (pun intended), and many think they are one of the top two lines in the the league. Watch to see if Ford, Houston, Hali and Jones are able to consistently win their matchups against Oakland, or if Chiefs DC Bob Sutton has to get creative to pressure Derek Carr.
Are the Raiders still the Raiders?
The storied rivalry has typically included plenty of bad blood and physical play. Another thing you could always count on was the Raiders playing sloppy and undisciplined football. Just give them time, they’ll beat themselves, Marty Schottenheimer would say. Sure enough, Oakland is again the league leader in most penalties accepted and total flags, particularly on the road. The Chiefs are middle of the pack, even after the first half of the Atlanta game. Turnovers are a bit of a different story. The Chiefs lead the league in turnover ratio at plus-14 and takeaways at 25. Oakland is third at plus-12, with fewer giveaways than KC.
As they say you can throw out all the tendencies, stats and rankings when it comes to division games because of the familiarity factor. It very likely could be ugly, sloppy and nasty. The win is all that matters. Of course, winning the turnover battle is the primary way the Chiefs win games ... so, hopefully, that trend continues this week.