In a league where often there are few surprises, one thing has legitimately shocked me: how many people across the NFL believe the Kansas City Chiefs are the best team in football. I think it's Dallas, Oakland or New England. Take your pick. But the Chiefs? What was I overlooking? In speaking to several front-office executives and veteran players, I was given three main reasons: 1. They are a conservative, defense-oriented team built to win in the postseason; 2. They are well-coached by Andy Reid and his staff; and 3. Their quarterback, Alex Smith, makes few mistakes.
The Chiefs used a ton of presnap motions and shifts to pound the Raiders on the ground in their 26-10 win on Oct. 16. The Chiefs racked up season-highs in rushing yards (183) and carries (40) due to the Raiders' inability to consistently communicate and remain disciplined vs. the run. Del Rio didn't like that — afterward he said the Chiefs do some "gimmicky" things — but the Chiefs could at least see if they've improved in that area. If they haven't, it could help them exploit one of the league's worst run defenses, one that has given up some chunk plays on the ground and is coming off a miserable performance against Buffalo in which they won 38-24 but allowed 212 yards in 30 carries, an absurd 7.1 yards per carry.
1. Their bosses hated each other
It starts, as many feuds do, with two families.
The Hunts and Davises.
"He’s always got the right words to say whatever the situation is,’’ guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said. "Before the game, when he has something to say, it gets everybody fired up. When he says something at halftime, he’s able to keep us focused and keep us ready to go in the second half. When he says something after the game, whether we lose or we win, he always has everybody paying attention.’’
The Chiefs issued their final injury report of the week on Wednesday, and Maclin was listed without a game status -- meaning he will be available to play.
The Raiders rank fifth in the NFL with 391.7 yards per game and third in scoring with 28.8 points. But historically the Chiefs have held quarterback Derek Carr in check. Carr owns a 1-4 mark against the Chiefs in his career, passing for 20 yards below his career average and posting the lowest passer rating against any opponent he’s faced more than once. Johnson said the key to defeating Carr rests with limiting big plays. "If we can eliminate the big plays and explosive plays from him, with the crowd we have at Arrowhead, it should be a good look for us," Johnson said.
"Hate is an interesting word," said Chiefs Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, who’s seen more than most. "In sport and business and life, to be good, you must have someone you deem to be better than you. Your greatness, if that’s what you’re reaching for, has to be supported by an opponent that’s worthy of your best. That’s who the Raiders were for me."
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.
"I think he’s real," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said Tuesday. "He’s putting years together here now. So, that’s important—in particular at that position." In 12 games this season, Carr has compiled 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions and has led the Raiders to a 10-2 record. "He's very safe with the ball, he's very aggressive and he makes good decisions," linebacker Derrick Johnson said.
It’s going to be the coldest game either team has played in all year. That said, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said it won’t affect their game plan when he was asked by reporters about it this week. "Normally, you just call the game and you go," Reid said. "The players are used to that stuff, so it’s all part of it."
Carr might play like an MVP candidate against the rest of the league, but he hasn’t been one against the Chiefs. Even this season, as the Raiders bolted to a 10-2 start, Carr had by far his lowest QBR of the season (31.4) in a 26-10 loss to the Chiefs on Oct. 16, when he was intercepted once and lost a fumble.
These two teams will tangle in a huge matchup Thursday, and the division looks like it will swing with the result. With a win, the Raiders have an 84 percent chance to win the division (27 percent with a loss), according to ESPN's Football Power Index. If the Chiefs win, they're at 65 percent to win the division, but only 11 percent with a loss.
Q: Do you look back at the last game against Kansas City much? Or have you evolved as an offense since then?
Coach Musgrave: "I think a little bit of both. I think we’re better than we were early in the year. We continue to improve, and that’s our goal, each and every week regardless of the opponent. We definitely want to see what happened back there versus this common opponent. There’s a lot to study and a lot to grow from."
The Chiefs and Raiders entered the season finale in 1991 in Los Angeles with identical 9-6 records. That was a time of three divisions and three wild cards, and both teams were assured of making the playoffs. But home-field advantage was on the line. The Chiefs won the final regular-season game 27-21, despite three touchdown passes from Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich, who made his NFL debut in place of the injured Jay Schroeder. In the playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs had four interceptions against Marinovich and won 10-6. It was the Chiefs’ first playoff win since Super Bowl IV.
"It’s a division opponent and a rival opponent that we’ve struggled with," said Raiders running back Latavius Murray, well aware the Chiefs have won the past four matchups. "We know what’s at stake. They stand in the way of our goals of winning the division and so we need to take care of them."
I’ll take you with us on Carr’s drive to work Thursday night on the NBC "Football Night in Kansas City" pre-game show, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET, prior to the game for AFC West supremacy between the 10-2 Raiders and 9-3 Chiefs. (That’s my other job, working for NBC on the football show.) I think you’ll be engaged. America doesn’t really know Carr yet, and I hope you have a better feel for him after seeing this TV piece. And not just for the football—he is on pace to complete 66 percent of his throws for 4,501 yards and 32 touchdowns—but for the kind of person he is. So I urge you to watch.