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Five things we learned as the Chiefs beat the Raiders

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The big win to take control of the AFC West came with a few lessons

The Kansas City Chiefs took control of the AFC West on Sunday, defeating the Oakland Raiders 40-9 at Arrowhead Stadium.

Here are five things we learned during the game:

The Raiders are gonna Raider

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Raiders, sometimes it’s just too easy.

Of course Derek Carr threw an interception on Oakland’s opening drive, which led to Kansas City’s first touchdown. Even when Oakland did something good — like pinning the Chiefs at their own 2-yard line with a punt and then stuffing Darrel Williams on first down — of course they were called for a neutral zone infraction that gave the Chiefs room to work. Even after the Chiefs had given them the ball on downs and the Raiders were able to move the ball down the field, of course there was a false start penalty that moved them out of field goal range.

And all that was just in the first quarter.

Yet to come was a defensive holding call that ruined a stop on third-and-11 — extending a Chiefs drive that resulted in the second Kansas City touchdown — and another Carr interception, which rookie safety Juan Thornhill took to the house for the third Chiefs score.

That was just in the first half.

There’s plenty of reason to think the Raiders will be a good team in the years to come. They have lots of young talent they can develop — and with the personnel moves they’ve made, they’re in a good position to get more. But until they can figure out how to stop Raidering, it might not make much difference.

Patrick Mahomes is back at 100%

NFL: DEC 01 Raiders at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In his third game back after sustaining a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos, Mahomes looked like he was really, truly back to form. As we’d expect, he’s been saying he’s been 100% for three weeks — but on Sunday, his claim was much more believable.

Those who only look at his statistics from Sunday might come to a different conclusion; 15 of 29 for 175 yards and a touchdown aren’t exactly big-time numbers. But those who watched the game could see it clearly. He was moving around in the pocket easily, attempting those throws that only he can make — and when he saw an opening from the pocket on a first-and-10 play at the Raiders 13-yard line, he easily sprinted for a touchdown.

On similar plays since his return, Mahomes has looked like he wasn’t running with the same assurance we have come to expect. There was no sign of that against the Raiders on Sunday. To be sure, Mahomes didn’t pass with the same assurance (or success) we would normally expect, but the weather conditions — high winds and cold temperatures — weren’t friendly for either quarterback.

Darwin Thompson deserves a shot

NFL: OCT 13 Texans at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before Sunday, the rookie running back has had very limited opportunities — just 21 offensive snaps across seven games — in which he gained only 18 yards on eight touches.

But with Damien Williams inactive on Sunday — and with Darrel Williams on the sideline with an injury late in the game — Thompson looked impressive, getting 44 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, playing a big role in closing out the game. Most of those runs were between the tackles — an area where the Chiefs have not had a lot of success in 2019.

I’ll admit it: I’m biased towards Thompson. He made quite an impression on me during training camp. The young man has a great attitude — and from all accounts, works his butt off. He’s undersized, but it’s not as if there haven’t been similarly-sized NFL running backs who have had successful careers.

The Chiefs went to a little trouble to get Thompson — and once he got a chance to play for more than a handful of snaps, he made good use of them. There’s a good chance that both Williamses will be unavailable next week against the New England Patriots.

Let’s see what the kid can do at the grownups’ table.

The run defense still wasn’t very good — and it didn’t matter

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

I’d hazard a guess that in the first half, there were more than a few Chiefs fans who were terrified watching Josh Jacobs average 6.8 yards per attempt against the Chiefs defense. It doubtless brought back memories of losses the Chiefs suffered earlier in the season, when opposing teams were able to run at will — especially late in the game.

But against the Raiders on Sunday, there were two things that were different.

One was that the Chiefs offense — finally healthy — was reasonably effective. By the end of the first half, the Chiefs had built up a three-touchdown lead. No NFL team is going to emphasize the run when they’re down three touchdowns.

The other thing was that in the second half, the Raiders were less effective running the ball; the Chiefs defense did a good job of adjusting to limit their running game. After halftime, Jacobs averaged just three yards per attempt.

As our Ethan Douglas has repeatedly emphasized in his Stacking the Box Score series, rushing is not an effective way to gain yardage in the NFL. It is still called on about 40% of offensive plays for two main reasons: to make passing plays more effective by keeping defenses honest — and to drain the clock while protecting a lead at the end of a game.

So it’s not that rushing defense isn’t important. It’s that it’s important only in certain contexts. If your offense is consistently effective — and your defense can at least prevent the other team from scoring while you build up a lead — the importance of run defense is greatly reduced in that game.

The Chiefs offense still isn’t consistently performing at the level it did in 2018. But on Sunday, it was a lot closer to it than we’ve seen for quite a number of games — effective enough that the defense’s weakness against the run just didn’t matter that much.

We’d all be a lot more comfortable if the Chiefs were better against the run; if the team faces the Baltimore Ravens again this season, it could matter a lot. But against most teams, the more consistently the offense can succeed, the less the run defense will matter.

We still don’t know what pass interference really is

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Following the egregious pass interference penalty officials missed at the end of last season’s NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams — an error that almost certainly changed the outcome of the game — the stage was finally set for NFL owners to do something they should have done a long time ago: reduce the number of such mistakes by making them reviewable.

But the experimental rule hasn’t worked out very well. Going into Week 13, just 15 of 77 challenges of pass interference have been successful — and seven of those have been challenged not by teams, but by booth officials after the two-minute warning.

And many of the plays referees have declined to overturn appeared to be officiating errors just as bad as the one between the Saints and Rams.

Sunday’s game included reviews of two plays with potential pass interference. The first was investigated after the Chiefs challenged a no-call; the second came on a mandated review of an interception.

To my eye, they seemed pretty equivalent: both could be argued to be examples of defensive pass interference, but neither one was obvious. Yet the first no-call was upheld, while the second was overturned. The first ruling hurt the Chiefs (although the team eventually scored a touchdown on the drive anyway) while the second one helped the Chiefs; it erased a Mahomes interception and led to another touchdown.

Any discussion about review of pass interference must recognize that these calls have always been — and will always be — subjective; we’re just never going to satisfy everyone. But so far, the application of the rule change seems pretty random.

The league has a real opportunity to improve the perception of its officiating. By itself, allowing the review of the most-often disputed (and costly) penalty in the game went a long way to improve that perception. But until the league can at least give even the appearance of some kind of standard in its use of the new rule, it’s just making things worse.