One of the most telling games of the NFL season Thursday night offered two stark takeaways:
Stop doubting Alex Smith as a quarterback capable of leading his team to greatness.
And let’s not anoint this Raiders team just yet.
The Chiefs, now atop the AFC West standings at 10-3 after sweeping the Raiders, showed in a convincing 21-13 win that the road to the Super Bowl is very much in play. And not despite Smith.
Because of him.
Entering the game, Smith had completed 67.4 percent of his passes. Game manager? Call it what you want. It has worked, and he has been key in helping the Chiefs ascend to the top of what is the best division in football.
On Thursday, Smith completed 17 of his 26 passes, threw a touchdown and was key in the Chiefs doing a pretty solid Raiders imitation in the win: down-the-seam passing, stretching the field, and getting explosive plays. The fact that Smith had an uncharacteristic interception and a lost fumble, and that the Chiefs lost the turnover battle 3-0 and somehow still won, speaks to this team’s resolve — and that of its quarterback.
All season long, Kansas City, behind Smith, has found ways to win. When injuries strike, the Chiefs overcome, just as they did Thursday night with Derrick Johnson going out with a left Achilles injury.
Entering the game the Chiefs averaged the 10th-fewest yards per game in the NFL. But they still managed to be middle of the pack — 15th — in points per game. Some of that, certainly, has to do with one of the best special teams units in football. Tyreek Hill returning a punt for a touchdown in the first half underscored that fact.
But it’s also about the guy in the huddle. Smith has never been wildly celebrated. Offensive guru Jim Harbaugh was happy to let him leave San Francisco, and questions about his arm strength and his ability to put a team on his shoulders has led to too many doubting what he can do.
But football is as much about alchemy as it is talent. Guts, grittiness, how you handle your team in the locker room or the huddle, how you carry the weight of being the face of a franchise, how guys do or don’t respond to you in close games and when things go bad, as they always will in this game — those things matter as much as the things you can measure at a combine.
Smith is efficient. He’s accurate. Despite his turnovers Thursday he protects the ball and avoids mistakes, giving the Chiefs the chance to win close games that otherwise might get away from them. With the huge win against Oakland, the Chiefs have now won eight of their last nine. Six of those wins have been by less than a touchdown.
Two games that weren’t that close? Both of Kansas City’s wins against the Raiders, a 26-10 beat-down in Oakland in Week 6 and their victory at Arrowhead on Thursday night.
Which brings us to the Raiders.
Carr is a rising star, and the Raiders, also at 10-3, are on the ascent right along with their quarterback. But let’s slow down anointing them just yet. On Thursday, Carr and the Raiders did their own imitation of what too many mistakenly view as a caricature of the Chiefs and Alex Smith: a dink-and-dunk team without the requisite offensive firepower to pull out big games.
Carr threw the ball 41 times for … 117 passing yards.
That’s 2.85 yards per pass.
And despite getting three turnovers and not giving the ball away once to the Chiefs, the Raiders went home losers. That’s hard to do.
More problematic than one night: The Raiders, and Carr, struggle in the cold, a particular problem in an AFC West that could go through Kansas City (temperature Thursday in the 20s) or Denver. The Raiders still have a huge game against the Broncos in Denver on New Year’s Day. And we haven’t yet touched on the fact the path to the Super Bowl in the AFC probably goes through (frigid) Foxborough in January.
The AFC West is loaded, and the Raiders are one of the reasons. They’re exciting, solid on the road and have a quarterback who’s emerging as one of the game’s best.
But they’re not in the same class as the Chiefs. Not yet. That was in evidence the moment the Chiefs swept the season series despite that turnover differential, and despite scoring all 21 points in the second quarter.
Smith isn’t as alluring as Carr. His numbers aren’t as gaudy. But whatever the obstacle — weather, turnovers, a close game, three anemic quarters of offense — he’s proved he’s just as capable of getting it done.
The Chiefs are true contenders. And the Raiders, with the loss, find themselves in danger of being anything but.