By Danny Cox
When the 2016 NFL regular season started, many expected the Denver Broncos, the defending Super Bowl champions, would contend for the AFC West crown. While they’re definitely still in the race at 8-4, the Broncos are third in the division, behind the Oakland Raiders (10-2) and Kansas City Chiefs (9-3).
This week’s Thursday Night Football matchup between the Raiders and Chiefs promises to be one of the season’s most important and most exciting. The AFC West lead is on the line, in a game with playoff seeding implications. A Raiders win would strengthen their division lead. A Chiefs win would give them the same record and the division lead, by virtue of their previous win over the Raiders in Week 6.
The Raiders had no trouble moving the ball against the Bills last week, even as they settled for three Janikowski field goals in the first half. Any sluggishness seemed to disappear after halftime. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr continued his masterful season, leading his team to 29 unanswered points on 260 yards passing for the day. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running backs Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard certainly helped.
The defense, not really a Raiders’ strength in recent years, seemed to come on later in the game too, tormenting the Bills’ speedy Tyrod Taylor, getting big hits and forcing turnovers. Defensive end Khalil Mack, AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, registered a sack in his seventh straight game. The unit looks more and more like those legendary Raiders’ defenses of old as the season progresses.
Their division rival and opponent has been no less impressive this season. Andy Reid has made this Chiefs team his own, having won 19 of their last 22 regular season games. And in typical fashion, they still manage to fly under the radar, possibly because their wins come through defense and the run. Kansas City has won four straight against Oakland and leads the series 61-52-2
The Chiefs absolutely throttled the Raiders 26-10 earlier this season, handing Oakland one of its two losses. Running back Spencer Ware had his best game of the season with 131 yards and one touchdown. Jamaal Charles added another TD. And Alex Smith, generally seen as a game manager, put on a passing clinic, completing 19-of-22 attempts for 224 yards. The offense dominated the game in time of possession.
The Raiders didn’t help their cause in that Week 6 loss, stalling out on good drives. Derek Carr seemed off too, though the sloppy playing conditions likely hurt them more than they did the Chiefs. Carr finished that day with one interception and two fumbles (one lost), and was sacked twice. If not for Amari Cooper’s 129 receiving yards, the offense would have looked positively anemic.
The Chiefs know the keys to defeating the Raiders and have the tools to pull it off . But can they do it again? The Raiders have corrected their Week 6 mistakes and are riding a six-game winning streak. They will extend that mark, ending their recent losing streak to their division foe. Oakland won’t win easily, but they will win.
Prediction: Oakland Raiders: 35, Kansas City Chiefs: 30
Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.