The Oakland Raiders are 10-2. This is a remarkable achievement given the recent run on futility. The last time this franchise reached double-digit wins: 2002, which also happens to be the last time they had a winning record or made the playoffs. That season, Oakland lost in the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay. That team, which featured Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Charlie Garner, didn’t get its 10th win until Week 16.
Now, 14 seasons later, it’s Derek Carr , Amari Cooper , Michael Crabtree and Khalil Mack . And while the names have changed, some similarities remain. The Raiders currently features the NFL’s No. 4 offense (fourth in passing, fifth in rushing), according to Football Outsiders’ metrics.
The 2002 version ranked No. 2 (third in passing, fourth in rushing).
Carr, who is a legit MVP candidate, ranks fifth in total QB value and sixth in value per play; in ’02, Gannon ranked first in total QB value and fourth in value per play.
The glaring differences come on the other side of the ball; this Raiders defense is fast, athletic and … inconsistent. The unit ranks 26th overall and is only slightly better against the pass (22nd) than the run (27th). The latest reminder that, despite some playmakers, this group remains a work in progress, came last Sunday.
The Raiders found themselves down 24-9 at home against the Buffalo Bills partly due to their inability to stop LeSean McCoy , who finished with 130 rushing yards. Of course, Oakland scored the final 29 points to win decisively, but as December gives way to January, the Bills of the NFL world will be replaced by teams like … well, the Kansas City Chiefs — an upstart outfit that took a month to find itself but once it embraced its strengths has been virtually unbeatable.
So while Thursday night’s rematch is important for the race to the top of the AFC West, it also could be a preview of a playoff game.
A year ago, the Chiefs limped to a 1-5 start before catching fire and winning 10 straight thanks to a steady-as-she-goes approach on offense and an under-the-radar defense. The team ranked fifth in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders (sixth on offense, sixth on defense, ninth on special teams) and won a wild-card game before running into the New England Patriots in the divisional round.
Through 13 weeks, the Chiefs are 9-3 and rank eighth in efficiency and second on special teams, though they have neither a top-10 unit on offense (15th overall) or defense (13th overall). One of the biggest knocks on Andy Reid’s offense is that it’s bland, boring and risk-averse, which makes for some less-than-exciting football, even if that’s exactly what Reid wants.
Taking the long view, it’s hard to argue with the results; the Chiefs have won seven of eight games, including back-to-back victories over the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons . That said, no one is confusing Alex Smith for Trent Green. In fact, Smith has been the definition of replacement-level these past two seasons: In 2015, he ranked 15th in value per play; this season he’s … 15th. But we also have to consider what’s asked of him. He’s Captain Checkdown, the unofficial spokesman for the game manager who won’t lose it for you, but probably can’t win it for you either.
For Reid, this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
The great irony is that Smith isn’t particularly adept in the short-passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, he grades out negatively on throws behind the line of scrimmage and is only slightly better on throws of 0-10 yards. Turns out, Smith is best at throws in the range of 10-19 yards, where his passer rating is around 100. These numbers mirror Smith’s performance last season, too. Given that the Chiefs have twice been a top-10 offense in that time — despite Smith’s middle-of-the-pack quarterback ranking — suggests that Reid knows exactly what he’s doing, even if media, fans and critics in general want him to open up the offense.
But Reid is also open to mixing things up. We got a glimpse of that last Sunday, when we collectively groaned at his decision to punt from midfield … only to pick our jaw up off the floor when this happened early in the third quarter:
Like the Falcons, the Raiders can score points in bunches, a fact that hasn’t been lost on Reid, who certainly sounds open to the idea of mixing things up — including having Smith throw downfield more often.
“We knew we were playing one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League, if not the most explosive, and we had to be on our ‘A’ game offensively and do some things in the first half and trade blows with them,” Reid said after beating the Falcons, via ESPN.com. “They have a good group.
“I just felt like points were going to be important and not necessarily field goals when you play a team like this. As great of a defense that we have, you have to make sure offensively you take care of business.”
The Chiefs finished with seven plays of at least 20 yards against just two for the Falcons. This is noteworthy because Smith came into the game ranked 20th in deep passing, completing just 34 percent of his throws for a 62.7 passer rating.
A big part of that downfield success? Travis Kelce , who sometimes gets lost in the mix of the NFL’s best tight ends. He had eight receptions for 140 yards and, in general, is a nightmare matchup for just about any linebacker or safety.
“One of the most unique tight ends in the NFL,” Smith said following the Falcons game. “He has so many different strengths. We isolated him a lot, and he just continued to make plays for us. He’s so good after the catch. For a big guy to have the kind of vision that he does, you saw it on the opening drive, the first catch to go up and get that in traffic, and then he beats the safety one-on-one to get us down there [to] the goal line.”
You know who’s first in deep passing? Matt Ryan , who completes 60 percent of those looks and sports a 137.1 passer rating. And the Chiefs can expect more of the same from Carr, who ranks third in deep passing (58.1 percent, 117).
But unlike the Raiders’ secondary, which just lost D.J. Hayden to injured reserve and was already a bottom-third pass defense, the Chiefs are 11th against the pass thanks to playmakers at every level: Marcus Peters in the defensive backfield, Derrick Johnson at linebacker and Justin Houston as a pass rusher.
Houston, by the way, has impeccable timing. He began the year on the PUP list, returned in Week 11 and then went off in Week 12 against the Broncos, where he logged three quarterback sacks, six quarterback hurries and batted a pass for good measure. He got another sack against Ryan on Sunday and will be a focal point for the Raiders’ offensive line.
Ten minutes you won’t get back
Derek Carr is the definition of Most Valuable Player
Carr’s numbers speak — loudly — for themselves, but you don’t need to look at a stat sheet to see what kind of impact he’s having. Just ask his teammates.
“Bruh, you’ve been seeing this the whole season — we’ve been doing the same thing as we did today,” Crabtree told NFL.com’s Mike Silver after the Raiders’ comeback win over the Bills. “When we hit a rough patch, we respond, plain and simple. When you’ve got a team like this, bruh, when you’ve got this many weapons, the sky’s the limit. …
“I was watching the Andre Ward fight [recently] — he was here today, too. He got knocked down in the first part of the fight, but he just kept standing in there and came back and won. That inspired me. We’ve got the same type of drive on this team. That’s what I was thinking about when we got down today. And trust me, bruh, we didn’t flinch one time.”
And Carr, who was on a Raiders outfit that started 0-10 during his rookie season, is only going to get better.
“The game has slowed down for me,” Carr said. “It’s so much easier than it was. I feel like I see things better, and I can take advantage of what I see.”
So yeah, it sounds like Carr is just getting warmed up — which is why he’s currently No. 1 on my hypothetical MVP ballot, and why on the latest CBSSports.com MVP ballot, he’s second behind only Tom Brady .
The last time we met …
The Chiefs rolled to a 26-10 win over the Raiders back in Week 6 in Oakland, thanks in large part to Spencer Ware rushing for a career-best 131 yards and Smith looking more like Carr; he finished an efficient 19 of 22 for 224 yards and Kansas City held Oakland scoreless in the second half.
And while it’s unlikely that 346-pound defensive lineman Dontari Poe will factor in the Chiefs’ passing game Thursday night, he did just that back in the October matchup:
“I’m taking credit for that one for all the chubby guys out there,” Reid said at the time. “[Poe’s] got phenomenal hands. … It’s just a matter of looking it in, be patient and then cut the beast loose.”
It’s Color Rush Thursday, y’all (again)!
Meanwhile, Kelce wasn’t exactly blown away with the Chiefs’ color scheme:
Dispatch from Fantasy Island
Dear Raiders coverage team, please don’t kick to this man:
Less of a concern? When Tyreek Hill and his 4.24 speed line up at wide receiver — at least for Fantasy purposes. From CBSSports.com’s Chris Towers, who writes about Hill being overrated:
I’m actually not sure Hill is being overrated by Fantasy analysts, most of whom have pegged him as a No. 3 wide receiver in light of his breakout. However, I think it might be fair to say Fantasy owners have gotten a bit too excited about the potential Hill has shown, as he was started in 51 percent of CBSSports.com leagues in Week 13. …
Hill is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, as he proved in a dynamic performance in Week 12, scoring as a receiver, a runner, and a return man. However, he has been pretty pedestrian otherwise, topping double figures in Fantasy scoring in standard leagues just once in four games without Jeremy Maclin. He played just 51 percent of the Chiefs offensive snaps in Week 13 as well, a sign that, despite his talents, he isn’t quite ready for a full-time role just yet.
‘TNF’ on Twitter
Thursday’s game will be on Twitter and you’ll be able to stream it here: tnf.twitter.com.
You can use your mobile device or tablet with the NFL Network app. Kickoff is at 8:25 p.m. ET.
In addition to live streaming, the NFL-Twitter partnership also includes in-game highlights from Thursday Night Football and pregame Periscope broadcasts from players and teams.
Here’s the remaining NFL-Twitter TNF schedule:
Be sure to CBSSports.com’s Pro Football Rundown for all the latest NFL news and commentary.
Tagged with: feature