Week 9 AFC West Roundup

A weekly update on the AFC West, to keep up with the division and discuss the chances of the Oakland Raiders making their first playoff appearance since 2002.

The Cubs won the World Series. Donald Trump is the President of the United States. The Raiders are a legitimate first-place team in the AFC West after nine weeks.

Clearly the fall of 2016 is not obeying the rules of convention.

The Raiders are in sole possession of first place in the AFC West — equal in the loss column with the Chiefs, who have played one less game — this late in the game for the first time since 2011. That 2011 squad was smoke and mirrors, though. This team has a real shot to do something beyond for the first time since 2002.

They’ve done it in many ways. Nail-biting comebacks, holding on for dear life, ballsy two-point calls. But it was their thorough domination of defending Super Bowl champs and perennial AFC West winners the Denver Broncos that really cemented them as a team to watch.

Few took the Raiders very seriously until Sunday night. Few risk taking them lightly now. The Silver & Black march into their bye with a 7-2 record, tied with the Cowboys and Patriots for most wins in the NFL. They just played their best game of the season.

The Broncos haven’t looked themselves recently and are a little banged-up, but are still dangerous. The Chiefs continue to win with glue and duct tape and great coaching by the Walrus despite numerous key injuries and a watching paint dry offensive scheme. The Chargers are a team that probably buried themselves too far early on but that nobody wants to play now.

This division is tough, deep, and difficult.

With the Raiders enjoying a much-deserved Week 10 bye, let’s check in with the AFC West.

Nov 6, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) reacts after the Denver Broncos were called for a penalty in the fourth quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Broncos 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 6, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) reacts after the Denver Broncos were called for a penalty in the fourth quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Broncos 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Oakland Raiders

1st Place in AFC West

Record: 7-2 (2-1 Division)
Last Game: Defeated Denver Broncos 30-20 in Oakland
Next Game: Week 10 Bye, Week 11 vs. Houston Texans, Monday Night in Mexico City

Wow. This team continues to impress in a multitude of ways. A week after needing overtime to beat the Bucs due to an NFL-record 23 penalties, and needing Derek Carr to throw for a franchise-record 513 yards to do so, the team eschewed the pass against Denver’s “no-fly” zone and simply destroyed the Broncos at the point of attack instead.

The Raiders need Carr to throw for a gazillion yards efficiently and make big plays — check.

The Raiders can take the air out of the ball and demoralize defenses by running it down their throats — check.

The Raiders can rely on the defense to make big plays and get stops when needed — in the past three weeks, check.

The Raiders can basically adapt and win however based on game circumstances — check.

After Sunday’s performance many are talking of the Raiders as potential Super Bowl candidates. Chalk that up to a weak AFC (and top of the NFL overall, honestly) and some long-dormant success for a beloved franchise.

But is it unrealistic? No it’s not. The Raiders currently have the #5 offense in the NFL, and it’s quite balanced (#5 passing, #4 rushing). Carr has shown multiple times he can win games for the team. He’s also shown he can manage games and make plays when needed, like Sunday night.

The defense has languished toward the bottom of the NFL since #1 and #2 offenses (New Orleans and Atlanta) lit them up early in the season. But they’ve steadily been improving, and have allowed an average of around 22 points and 290 yards over their past three games. They’ve improved from the worst defense in the NFL through the first six weeks to 27th overall (398 ypg) and 21st in points allowed at 24.8.

Add that to the fact that they should be getting stalwart DE Mario Edwards Jr. back from injury after the bye, and that Aldon Smith could potentially be reinstated very soon and this defense is becoming scary. Khalil Mack has once again overcome a slow start to the season and has four sacks and two forced fumbles in his past two games. He’s beasting out again, and the entire defense is better because of it.

The Raiders are entering their Week 10 bye playing their best football of the year. They’re getting back key pieces on defense. They’re getting rested and healthy. The bye gives Jack Del Rio and the coaching staff a chance to plot and scheme for Houston in Mexico, and the rest of the season.

They have put themselves in excellent shape to contend for the division title, and, barring an epic collapse, at least a wild-card berth. The AFC is pretty weak-sauce right now, particularly beyond the AFC West. The Chiefs, at 6-2, and the Broncos at 6-3 currently hold the two wild-card spots. The next best record? Miami and Pittsburgh, at 4-4.

The Raiders want the West, though. Going into the bye, they couldn’t be in better shape.

Oct 16, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (32) escapes Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) during the third quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Oakland Raiders 26-10. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 16, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (32) escapes Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) during the third quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Oakland Raiders 26-10. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs

2nd Place in AFC West

Record: 6-2
Last Game: Defeated Jacksonville Jaguars 20-16 in Kansas City
Next Game: at Carolina Panthers

The Chiefs have impressively overcome injuries to their starting quarterback and anyone who carries a football in a red shirt to stay in lock-step with the Raiders at 6-2.

The Chiefs also hold an advantage, having beaten the Raiders in Oakland in Week 5 in a sloppy, rain-soaked game Kansas City physically dominated.

This team is never going to win style points, and will sometimes leave you with an empty feeling after they win where you’re kind of like “how the hell did that just happen?”

But Kansas City is one of the best teams in the NFL regardless of how boring and ugly their games are. They’ve won 18 of their last 20 regular season games — which is astonishingly incredible — and just can’t seem to lose. Even with a backup QB, twelfth-string RB twice removed and a TE who can’t keep his towels to himself.

And now? Spencer Ware is coming back healthy. Alex Smith should be back as well. Justin Houston is activated off of IR. Chris Jones is coming on. This team is getting scarier. The window to pounce — like the Jags should have last weekend — is closing.

The Chiefs, like the Raiders, have positioned themselves quite well after the first half of the season to contend for the division title, and have a solid lock on a wild-card position barring an epic collapse.

The best team in the NFL is the New England Patriots. On paper, by the eye test, it’s them. Yet they have not matched KC’s regular-season success over the past two years. Which means KC is set for a regression toward the mean, like any outlier. That bodes well for the Raiders.

But the Chiefs already beat the Raiders handily and have shown they can win in numerous ways as well. It’s far too early to bury a team as good as Denver. But if they can’t fix their offense, the AFC West is looking like a two-horse race – with the real horse on the outside looking in.

October 11, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) is tackled by Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby (29) during the first quarter at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

October 11, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) is tackled by Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby (29) during the first quarter at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos

3rd Place in AFC West

Record: 6-3
Last Game: Lost to Oakland Raiders 30-20 in Oakland
Next Game: at New Orleans Saints

The Broncos have lost two of three games since C.J. Anderson went down with a season-ending meniscus tear and are in potential trouble, with injuries hitting key personnel on the other side of the ball as well.

The Raiders-Broncos game likely takes on a different tone if Denver’s swag-setter and Pro Bowl CB Aqib Talib plays on Sunday night. Talib has an attitude and swagger to him few have, and while he’s a bit of a cheap shot artist and possibly from some accounts a bit of a despicable human being, he sets the tone for the Denver D and brings their arrogance to a boil.

Without him Sunday, T.J. Ward’s attempts to fan the flames seemed contrived and when the Raiders decided we’re bigger, stronger, and meaner than you so let’s just run the ball down your throat, the Broncos had no answer.

This team looked dominant through five games and Trevor Siemian seemed to be the answer. This team now looks a bit lost in Week 10 and Siemian is looking for answers.

The answer? Find a running game.

Devontae Booker was expected to jump in and rush for 4,000 yards after Anderson went down — if you listen to fantasy pundits, that is — but he’s disappointed thus far. Granted he ran into a San Diego defense that’s very underrated and a quickly improving Raiders defense, but he didn’t do much. At all.

To the point where one jump-jive-and-wail screen pass touchdown from well-known Bronco Kapri Bibbs in garbage time has the Denver staff pondering a potential time-share in the backfield.

Siemian cannot win games for this team. At least he hasn’t since they played Cincinnati in Week 2. He makes some nice throws, and he’s got some solid balls standing in the pocket and making tough throws. But he just doesn’t have “it” — see Dak Prescott for “it” — and “that” is very obvious when you watch this team.

Who knew the key to Denver’s success isn’t actually their defense, but C.J. Anderson? Without him or some viable replacement, the Broncos offense is one-dimensional — and that dimension isn’t pretty when teams can key on Siemian and disrupt his timing.

It’s all about the run — running it, and stopping it. The Raiders pushed the Broncos front around for over 200 yards on 5.0 YPC, and held them to 33 yards of their own. That rush differential — the Raiders had 218 yards on 42 rushes — is almost 200 yards. The Broncos were thoroughly dominated up front on both sides of the ball.

The Broncos need Talib back, someone to run the ball well, and need Siemian to start making some plays. Or else they are in real trouble.

October 9, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin (12) runs past Oakland Raiders cornerback David Amerson (29) during the second quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

October 9, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin (12) runs past Oakland Raiders cornerback David Amerson (29) during the second quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego Chargers

4th Place in AFC West

Record: 4-5
Last Game: Defeated Tennessee Titans 43-35 in San Diego
Next Game: vs. Miami Dolphins

In San Diego we again see things regressing toward the mean. And boy has that been good news for the Chargers this season.

Melvin Gordon was a record-breaking touchdown machine at Wisconsin during his college career. Playing against the highest-level college competition, Gordon entered the NFL as the NCAA’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns.

So naturally, he powered his way to exactly zero in his rookie campaign of 2015.

As things tend to do, Gordon began righting that statistical anomaly right out of the gate in 2016 He hasn’t stopped since. His speed and effort culminated in a 196 yard, 2 TD tour-de-force last Sunday against the Titans. This looks closer to the rule than the exception for the kid at this point.

Philly Riv is doing his thing. An underrated and under-appreciated player for most of his career, Rivers is smiling and keeping the faith. This all while San Diegans are voting to kick the team out of the city and rival d-lineman are talking about eating his children.

Rivers is the kind of guy who would smile in a hurricane. That is, when he’s not on the field. On the field he’s a whiny, screaming, uber-competitive testament to petulance. But off the field he’s a pretty happy-go-lucky guy.

So it’s got to be killing him that a) his team found new and exciting ways to blow games three times early this season and b) that he’s playing in the toughest division in the NFL.

Were it not for those two facts, the Chargers — who honestly are playing as well as anyone over the past four weeks — would stand an excellent shot at making the playoffs. As it stands now, not so much.

After the first half of the season the AFC West looks like possibly the toughest division in the NFL. The Raiders are, currently, on top. Can they stay there? That remains to be seen. But at this point, heading to the bye playing their best football and possibly returning some key defensive pieces, they are in good shape.

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