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Five things to watch as the Chiefs face the Raiders

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The Chiefs descend into The Black Hole to face the Raiders — maybe for the last time.

The Kansas City Chiefs travel to California to face the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. The Chiefs will be gunning for their 10th win of the season, while the Raiders will be trying to avoid their tenth loss. Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. It’s Raiders Week

Barry Word
Chiefs running back Barry Word carries the rock against the Raiders a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

You might as well assume this will be the first thing I will bring up any time the Chiefs play an AFC West opponent. For any team in the NFL, division games are important matchups that figure prominently in whether they can reach the postseason. The league is deliberately set up that way — so that games between historical or geographic rivals also become important games on the schedule.

And that’s great. We’re all in favor of things that make our favorite sport more fun and interesting to watch.

But AFC West games — particularly against the Raiders — somehow get kicked up to another level. Remember any of these?

  • In 1969, a 10-6 loss that gave the division to the Raiders — still one of the best Chiefs games I’ve ever seen — followed three weeks later by a 17-7 playoff victory that sent the Chiefs to New Orleans to win the Super Bowl.
  • Len Dawson against Daryle Lamonica in any game in any season — or, for that matter, Ben Davidson against Len Dawson on a particular play in 1970. Don’t worry if you don’t remember that one. Watch enough Chiefs-Raiders games on TV, and you’ll see a grainy film clip of the play.
  • A 1987 game that now seems like it was plucked from a different space-time continuum, where Jack Del Rio played linebacker for the Chiefs, and Marcus Allen played running back for the Raiders.
  • A James Hasty interception return to win an overtime game in 1995.
  • Grbac versus Gannon in 2000 — a tie tilted to the Raiders by an overtime field goal.
  • In 2003, a fourth-and-14 pass from Trent Green to Marc Boerigter that set up the winning field goal with just nine seconds remaining.
  • Terrelle Pryor lining up under center for a third-and-48 in 2013 — and later in the same game, a Hussain Abdullah interception return for a touchdown.
  • Just last season, when the Raiders somehow ran seven plays in the last seven seconds of the game (I still can’t figure it out how this is even possible) to win 31-30.

Pick your era. There are plenty of moments from Chiefs-Raiders games to bring either joy or anguish to your soul.

I know. It’s not 1994. During Chiefs practices this week, Marty Schottenheimer hasn’t been pacing the sideline shouting, “It’s Raiders Week, men!”

Instead, it’s 2018. Patrick Mahomes knows ketchup, but he doesn’t know Ben Davidson from Ben-Gay. This week, Andy Reid probably hasn’t looked up from his spread-game analysis long enough to notice that the opposing team will wear black jerseys. There’s a process to follow, you see.

I get it. It’s a lot more likely the Chiefs win this one in a walk than it is that the Raiders somehow make it close.

But it’s a division game. It’s best not to ignore that fact. I’m just saying.

2. The spawn of the Devil

Oakland Raiders v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Is it just me, or does Raiders quarterback Derek Carr look like he is descended directly from Beelzebub? Maybe it’s just guilt by association — he does, after all, play half of his games in a place called The Black Hole!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m absolutely certain that he’s a fine, upstanding young man that loves children and puppies. But I can’t help it: the guy just creeps me out!

The look in his eyes always reminds me of Al Pacino’s insanely uncomfortable performance as Satan masquerading as a high-profile Manhattan attorney in The Devil’s Advocate. At any moment, I expect Carr to do that disturbing tongue-and-lip thing Pacino crafted for the role — one of the things that made his performance as The Prince Of Darkness so compelling. Maybe Carr is even doing it behind his chinstrap in this photo!

My (completely unreasonable) prejudices aside, there is certainly no evidence Carr has made a pact with the devil — at least when it comes to playing the Chiefs under Andy Reid and Bob Sutton. Carr has been selected for the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons, but against the Chiefs, his performances have been consistently poor. His passer rating in eight games against the Chiefs is 72.2. 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 21 sacks.

And all of this was before head coach Jon Gruden started trading his receivers for magic beans draft picks.

With Justin Houston healthy, Dee Ford ascending to elite status as a pass rusher, and Chris Jones getting hungrier with each passing week, it’s likely to be a long — but seldom lonely — afternoon in the devil’s backyard.

3. A tale of two coaches

Jon Gruden

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden — pictured here during his first incarnation as Raiders head coach from 1998 to 2001 — have known each other for a long time. They both served as assistant coaches with the Green Bay Packers under Mike Holmgren from 1992 to 1994. They entered the head coaching ranks just a year apart — Reid became Philadelphia Eagles head coach in 1999 — and have coached against each other in five games. Gruden has won four of those games.

But their approaches to coaching could hardly be any different. Gruden is a fiery, shoot-from-the-hip taskmaster — it amused me to notice that on Gruden’s Wikipedia page, some Internet wag has listed his position with the Raiders as Head Coach, Overlord — while Reid is a laid-back player’s coach.

Their approaches to team-building could hardly be any different. Reid’s biggest move in Kansas City remains the acquisition of Alex Smith in 2013. This certainly polarized the fanbase, but allowed Reid to build the roster the way he wanted while making the team competitive in the short term. Gruden, on the other hand, has ravaged the Raiders roster during his first season, trading away high-profile players like Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper for high picks in the 2019 draft — and has cut many others.

“He’s doing it his way, and I think you’re going to see that over the years,” Reid said about Gruden’s approach on Monday. “The way he’s going about it, it’s not going to be a change overnight. It’s going to be something that takes a little time. He understands that, but he’s trying to build that to where it lasts and it lasts for a long time.”

Gruden — holding a ten-year, $100 million contract — may well believe that he has the luxury of time to build the franchise he wants. And perhaps the coming years will show that he does. But history doesn’t suggest that NFL head coaches typically have that luxury — even if they’re under expensive long-term contracts. Owners and fans tend to demand progress — if not outright success — right now. Whether Gruden’s contract gives him a pass remains to be seen.

None of this has a lot to do with the upcoming game — except to say that unless Gruden shows himself to be better at evaluating draft prospects than he was in Tampa Bay, the AFC West ought to be easier for the Chiefs to navigate for years to come — starting on Sunday.

4. Mahomes-fest

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps lost in the concern over Patrick Mahomes throwing three interceptions — and fumbling twice — against the Los Angeles Rams is the fact that Mahomes still threw for 478 yards and six touchdowns, and had a passer rating of 117.6 in the game.

That was enough to enshrine Mahomes above Kurt Warner for the best quarterback start through 12 career games in NFL history.

Hottest Quarterback Starts Through 12 Games

Player Tm From Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A
Patrick Mahomes Chiefs 2017-18 286 426 67.14 3912 37 11 114.5 9.18 9.76
Kurt Warner* Rams 1998-99 232 357 64.99 2901 29 7 109.0 8.13 8.87
Dak Prescott Cowboys 2016 243 358 67.88 2974 19 2 108.6 8.31 9.12
Robert Griffin Redskins 2012 218 325 67.08 2660 17 4 104.4 8.18 8.68
Dan Marino* Dolphins 1983-84 194 324 59.88 2521 25 6 102.4 7.78 8.49

Can Mahomes stay on top? Looking at the same data through 17 games, it certainly seems possible.

Hottest Quarterback Starts Through 17 Games

Player Tm From Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A
Patrick Mahomes Chiefs 2017-18 286 426 67.14 3912 37 11 114.5 9.18 9.76
Kurt Warner* Rams 1998-99 329 510 64.51 4392 41 13 107.9 8.61 9.07
Jimmy Garoppolo Patriots 2014-16 63 94 67.02 690 5 0 106.2 7.34 8.40
Dan Marino* Dolphins 1983-84 290 475 61.05 3963 37 10 104.9 8.34 8.95
Dak Prescott Cowboys 2016-17 335 498 67.27 3935 24 4 103.8 7.9 8.50

The Raiders have one of the poorest pass defenses in the NFL, ranking third worst in opponent passer rating this season. Mahomes has already feasted on four of the 10 worst pass defenses — the Rams, the San Francisco 49ers, the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals — and the Raiders are the worst of the bunch.

From what we know so far, Mahomes’ kryptonite seems to be an elite interior pass rusher — such as the Cardinals’ Chandler Jones or the Rams’ Aaron Donald — and the Raiders have no such player.

So there’s every reason to believe Mahomes will have a big day on Sunday, and extend his blistering start against the rest of the field.

5. Farewell, Black Hole. Maybe.

Kansas City Chiefs v Oakland Raiders Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

It’s possible — but by no means certain — that this will be the last time the Chiefs will face the Raiders in the Oakland Alameda Coliseum.

The Raiders’ shiny new stadium in Las Vegas won’t be ready until the 2020 season. The team currently has no lease with the city of Oakland to occupy the Coliseum in 2019. Meanwhile, the city of Oakland is suing the Raiders over their move to Las Vegas, and there’s enough bad blood between the parties right now to wonder if it’s even possible they could come to an agreement about remaining at the Coliseum in 2019 — even though that’s probably what the Raiders would prefer.

In short, just about anything is possible concerning the whereabouts of the franchise in 2019. That means this could be the last time the Chiefs play in the Coliseum.

It’s tempting to wax poetic about the AFL and NFL memories that have been made at this venue — after all, many of the games I mentioned earlier were played there — but I’m going to resist that temptation.

The Coliseum is a terrible place to play NFL football. It’s old and in poor repair. The Raiders share the stadium with the Oakland A’s, which means that in early-season games, players must contend with a playing surface that is partially dirt. The stadium is situated in an industrial area close to the Oakland International Airport — and as the late George Carlin’s Hippy-Dippy Weatherman so famously noted, nobody lives at the airport.

And worst of all, it’s filled with Oakland Raiders fans.

It’s easy to make jokes about Raider fans in Oakland being on parole — which is extraordinarily unfair to the overwhelming majority of Raiders fans — but there’s little doubt that the fan culture that has developed over decades in the Coliseum has become toxic. There’s no justification for a visiting NFL team to have to contend with batteries being thrown at them, or for fans of other teams to feel threatened when they attend games there.

We know that similar problems with fans exist at other NFL stadiums — Arrowhead Stadium is no exception — but let’s not kid ourselves: Raiders fans in the Coliseum are the poster children for all of them.

So let’s hope that Sunday’s game will be the last hurrah for the Chiefs in the Coliseum, and Raiders fans can build better traditions wherever it is they play in 2019, and in Las Vegas in 2020.