A stunning upset win that capped a most tumultuous week has the Kansas City Chiefs still alive in the AFC West race heading into the final two weeks of this 2011 season, while a poor December stretch has the Oakland Raiders on the brink of postseason elimination.
With both teams' playoff fortunes hanging by a thread, the longtime division rivals will square off Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in a Christmas Eve showdown with major implications for both the present and future.
The Raiders had emerged as the favorites to claim the wide-open AFC West less than a month ago after a string of three consecutive victories gave the longtime postseason absentees a 7-4 record and a one-game lead atop the division. Oakland has dropped three straight contests since, however, and now trails Denver by one game in the standings heading into Saturday's crucial clash.
While a win this week would keep the Raiders in the mix for a playoff spot, a loss to the Chiefs could ensure the Silver and Black is left out of the tournament for a 10th year in a row depending on how some of the other Week 16 matchups play out.
"Three weeks ago we were 7-4 and feeling pretty good about ourselves and now all of a sudden we have gotten to .500," Oakland head coach Hue Jackson remarked. "So that's not where we want to be. but I think we understand the predicament that we have put ourselves in and so what we need to do is get the ship right and go to Kansas City and play well."
The Raiders did fare better in last weekend's home clash with Detroit that followed back-to-back blowout defeats on the road to Miami and Green Bay. but still wound up on the short end of a 28-27 decision after the Lions rallied for 14 unanswered points in the final five minutes. The go-ahead score, a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson, came with just 39 seconds left to play and capped a drive in which Detroit marched 98 yards in under two minutes.
Though the Chiefs currently reside in last place in AFC West, they do have a slim chance of taking the division if able to knock off both the Raiders and front-running Denver in their final two outings, though the Broncos would also have to lose at non-contending Buffalo on Saturday to keep Kansas City afloat. San Diego, which is one game ahead of the Chiefs and tied with Oakland in the pecking order, must also fall in one of its two remaining bouts for Kansas City to come out on top.
The Chiefs are more concerned about finishing strong with all the uncertainty that presently exists regarding the organization's long-term plans. The team fired head coach Todd Haley shortly after its 37-10 loss at the New York Jets on Dec. 11 and replaced him on an interim basis with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, a possible candidate to keep the job permanently.
Crennel's credentials got a big boost after Kansas City shocked the previously- unbeaten Green Bay Packers in the onetime Cleveland Browns sideline boss' first game in charge. Quarterback Kyle Orton, a free agent at season's end, also made his case to be retained by leading the offense to a season-high output in his initial start as a Chief.
After being held to 252 total yards or less three times and mustering a combined total of 32 points over a four-week stretch with Haley favorite Tyler Palko at the controls, the Kansas City offense piled up 438 total yards in the club's 19-14 triumph over the reigning world champion Packers this past Sunday. Orton, obtained off waivers from Denver last month, completed a sharp 23-of-31 passes for 299 yards without a turnover in his first shot at the regular's role.
"Kyle made a lot of stuff easy for us [last week]," said Chiefs fullback Le'Ron McClain. "He kept everybody calm in the huddle and ran his offense, big ups to him."
Crennel's defense made a statement as well, holding the high-powered Packers to a season low in points and total yards (315). Green Bay signal-caller and league MVP contestant Aaron Rodgers hit on just 17-of-35 attempts and was sacked four times by a swarming Kansas City unit.
The Chiefs also dominated on that side of the ball in a 28-0 whitewash of the Raiders in Oakland back on Oct. 23, intercepting the quarterback combo of Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller six times and returning two of those picks for touchdowns. The defense has yielded an average of 275 total yards over its last four games.
Kansas City holds a 53-47-2 edge in its all-time regular-season series with Oakland and will be shooting for its first home-and-home sweep of the Raiders since 2006. Oakland has had great success at Arrowhead Stadium in recent years, however, coming out on top in each of its last four trips there and handing the Chiefs a 31-10 home loss in the 2010 regular-season finale. The visitor has had the upper hand in this set as of late, prevailing in nine of the past 10 encounters between the clubs. Kansas City last bested the Raiders on its home turf via a 17-13 verdict in 2006.
These longtime rivals have also squared off three times during the postseason, with the Chiefs winning two of those tests. Oakland posted a 41-6 home rout of Kansas City in a 1968 AFL Division Playoff, but the Chiefs returned the favor with a 17-7 road triumph in the 1969 AFL Championship. Kansas City also topped the visiting Raiders in a 1991 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Crennel owns a 2-1 career record against Oakland as a head coach, with all of those games coming during his four-year tenure with the Browns from 2005-08. Jackson lost his only previous meeting with the Chiefs as a head man with the Raiders' Week 7 result and will going head-to-head against Crennel for the first time.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Expect Oakland to have a superior showing on offense than the mistake-laden performance the team put forth in its shutout loss to the Chiefs earlier in the season, as it did come with something of an excuse. Palmer (2099 passing yards, 10 TD, 13 INT) was forced into duty with little grasp of the playbook in that game just a few days after being acquired in a trade with Cincinnati, and understandably bombed in his debut. The veteran quarterback was razor-sharp in last Sunday's loss, however, making good on 32-of-40 passes for a season-best 367 yards and a touchdown without a turnover, but a four-interception meltdown at Green Bay the week prior speaks to his overall inconsistent season. The Raiders did compile 155 rushing yards against Kansas City back in October, with lead back Michael Bush (841 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 8 total TD) gaining 99 yards on 17 carries, and enters the week sixth in the NFL in that category (138.3 ypg). Bush is averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt and hasn't eclipsed 78 yards in his last four games, however, leading to wonder whether a heavy workload created by the extended absence of backfield mate Darren McFadden has taken its toll. He did record 139 yards from scrimmage against Detroit, though, including 62 yards on seven receptions, and his strong pass-catching skills provides a reliable outlet for Palmer and a good complement to gifted wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey (51 receptions, 3 TD). The former first-round pick has established himself as the team's No. 1 receiver and is coming off a career day in which he amassed 155 yards and a touchdown on eight catches, with seasoned pro T.J. Houshmandzadeh adding six grabs for 52 yards out of the slot last week in his most productive game since joining the Raiders in midseason.
Palmer figures to be challenged by a Kansas City defense that's played exceptionally well over the past month and stymied Green Bay's explosive attack in last week's upset. A resurgent pass rush has keyed the Chiefs' excellent run, with Crennel's crew having racked up 14 of its season sum of 27 sacks over the past three games. The charge has been led by standout outside linebacker Tamba Hali (56 tackles, 12 sacks), who delivered three sacks and forced a fumble as a one-man terror against the Packers, and the development of rookie Justin Houston (47 tackles, 4 sacks) as a threat on the opposite side has certainly helped the cause. A young secondary made its mark as well in the Week 7 rout of the Raiders, with fourth-year cornerback Brandon Flowers (54 tackles, 4 INT, 19 PD) picking off a pair of passes and returning one for a touchdown and sophomore free safety Kendrick Lewis (53 tackles, 3 INT) also running back a pick for a tone-setting score in the first quarter. Active inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (119 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) contributed 13 tackles to that win and is the top stopper on a group that's been overall ordinary in stopping the run, having surrendered an average of 130.4 rushing yards per game (24th overall) for the year.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
The insertion of Orton (1278 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT) made a night-and-day change to a Kansas City offense that was stagnant under the direction of the marginally-talented Palko. The 299 passing yards the Chiefs put on the Packers was easily the team's best number of the season, and Orton connected with 10 different receivers in a very impressive display after being essentially idle for more than two months. Accomplished wide receivers Dwayne Bowe (69 receptions, 986 yards, 4 TD) and Steve Breaston (56 receptions, 2 TD) served as the primary targets in last week's spread-it-around game plan, with McClain (14 receptions, 1 TD) registering four catches while being utilized as a safety valve. Kansas City also ran the ball persistently in the big win, though the duo of 12th-year vet Thomas Jones (385 rushing yards) and Jackie Battle (541 rushing yards, 2 TD) only managed a pedestrian 85 yards on a combined 25 carries, and neither can be characterized as game-breaking player. Diminutive teammate Dexter McCluster (440 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 1 TD) has been the most effective member of a backfield committee that's had to withstand the loss of All-Pro speedster Jamaal Charles in Week 2, with the second-year pro averaging 4.4 yards per attempt while also ranking third on the team in catches.
Oakland's main sore spot on defense for most of this season has been an inability to contain the run, with the team having allowed a subpar 5.1 yards per carry and an average of 135.0 yards per game on the ground. That wasn't a problem in last week's matchup, with the Lions gaining a mere 57 rushing yards, but the Raiders' attempts to slow down the combination of Stafford and Johnson proved to be futile. Detroit finished the day with a whopping 375 net passing yards and four touchdowns through the air, with Johnson shredding Oakland's secondary for 214 yards and two scores on nine catches. The Raiders didn't have their usual potency in the pass-rushing department in that game, generating only two sacks and failing to apply consistent heat on Stafford, but that's not normally an issue for a team with 39 sacks in 2011 and a bevy of capable pressure-creators in the tandem of tackles Richard Seymour (27 tackles, 6 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (37 tackles, 7.5 sacks) as well as disruptive outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (53 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT). Linebacker Rolando McClain (81 tackles) has added five sacks on the season, and the defense's knack for creating havoc up front is a big reason why Oakland has limited enemy quarterbacks to a 52.7 percent completion rate that's second-best in the league.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Pressuring the quarterback. The Raiders came up empty in this area against the Lions and paid the price, but sacked Orton five times when the quarterback was still with the Broncos back in Week 1 and came up with a victory that night. With a secondary that's hampered by injuries, Oakland needs its pass rushers to come through and prevent Kansas City's new gunslinger from duplicating last week's fine effort. The Chiefs' stout recent play on defense has been fueled by an upgraded pressure package, and Palmer has been susceptible to mistakes when hurried this year.
The turnover battle. This was the single most important element to Kansas City's Week 7 win over the Raiders, with 21 of its 28 points coming off Oakland giveaways. The Raiders are 5-0 this season when forcing more turnovers than its opponent, but 0-5 when having a negative margin.
Intensity. Having lost three in a row and with their playoff chances close to being on life support, the Raiders are going to come out ready and determined to give their best shot. Kansas City shouldn't be lacking confidence after just dealing the defending world champions their first loss in nearly a full calendar year, but could be in position for a letdown after last week's inspired performance.
With both teams still having something to play for and the rivalry that exists between these two franchises, motivation isn't going to an issue here. That means it's going to come down to who executes the best, and the Chiefs seem to hold an advantage based on recent results. Kansas City's defense has been mostly terrific over the past four weeks, and Orton brought a much-needed spark and stability to an offense that was sorely lacking in those aspects. Oakland, meanwhile, continues to cripple itself with mistakes in all sorts of forms, whether it's turning the ball over in bunches, defensive breakdowns or a troubling plethora of penalties. The Chiefs seem to be the more sounder of these two participants, and that grasp of fundamentals could wind up being the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 23, Raiders 14