AFC West has been a bumpy ride for three-way leaders
This is a fairy tale that takes place in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
It centers on a team called the Chiefs, and how they were headed toward greatness, then fell down the rabbit hole.
And a team called the Chargers, who climbed out of that hole. And the Raiders , who keep digging holes for themselves, yet have emerged.
There’s also this rainbow, at the end of which is a silver trophy all three covet.
Well, that’s really going beyond where this trio might be capable of traveling.
The not-so-magical land they live in is called the AFC West. It was projected to be very Oz-like heading into the 2017 NFL season. Now, it looks more like a gravel-strewn back road than any yellow brick variety leading to a flashy palace.
Mediocrity, or worse, will do that to you.
Kansas City, Oakland and Los Angeles are tied at 6-6. There are enough head-to-head matchups over the next few weeks for them to settle the division crown by themselves.
Or, a team such team as the Jets – who beat the Chiefs 38-31 Sunday and next play at Denver and have LA on Christmas Eve – could be a factor.
Regardless, the ride could get even bumpier, and it’s unlikely more than the division winner will make it to January.
The dynamic bunch that upended New England and Philadelphia – merely the top two teams in the NFL for much of the schedule – in September and began 5-0 has hit the skids. Kansas City rediscovered its big-play offense against the Jets, but the defense sprung all kinds of holes. It’s gotten so bad that Andy Reid’s team has fallen twice in the New Jersey Meadowlands in three weeks, and we’re not talking Joe Namath’s Jets or Lawrence Taylor’s Giants.
And KC completely self-destructed with a series of penalties in the red zone late in Sunday’s loss.
”We definitely can’t show frustration,” wide receiver Tyreek Hill said, ”because if we do, it’ll definitely get the best of us.”
Which it is. The once-stingy secondary has lost its edge, with even its surest cover guys and tacklers looking sloppy and making terrible decisions. A powerhouse running game has gone flat. Reid’s play-calling had stagnated and he gave up those duties against the Jets; at least that worked with Matt Nagy handling such duties.
”You just continue to fight and try to win a game,” quarterback Alex Smith said. ”We’ve been in some close ones a bunch here lately and have come out on the wrong side. Keep fighting and try to find a way. We know we have a couple of big division games coming up, so you have to assess this and get ready.”
In a few years, they will live in Las Vegas. This year, the Raiders are rolling some sevens.
A four-game slide in which the offense disappeared, particularly when quarterback Derek Carr was sidelined, didn’t ruin their chances. When the Chiefs came back to the pack, Carr got healthy and the schedule got a bit easier.
In Sunday’s win over the Giants, Oakland caught a break because spiraling New York had benched its only proven QB, Eli Manning. So even without its top two receivers – Michael Crabtree was suspended, Amari Cooper was hurt – Oakland had enough.
The Raiders play at the Chiefs on Thursday night and finish at the Chargers.
”You have to stay the course,” Carr said. ”There’s a lot of adversity that happens every season. You wish you could just go out and win them all and do it in a good way. That just hasn’t been our road this year. It’s been a little bit more difficult, a lot of it because of ourselves. But we’re in a situation where all of our goals are right in front of us.”
When they were 0-4, unable to fill a small soccer stadium they are calling home, the Chargers were a laughing stock. Look who is chuckling now.
”No one ever flinched,” coach Anthony Lynn said. ”At 0-4, we still had a lot of football left, and that’s how we’ve always looked at it. To be in this position doesn’t surprise me at all, because guys have worked hard and they’re committed to the process. They never stopped believing.”
The Bolts haven’t beaten a team that has a winning record, but that won’t matter much if they keep storming through the weaker opponents. They don’t have anyone above .500 on their remaining schedule.
There’s veteran leadership thanks to Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. There’s a watch-out sacks duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. And there’s a growing confidence.
”If you had told us when we started with an 0-4 record that we would be where we are now, people would say you’re crazy,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. ”I think we are headed in the right direction. We can win this quarter of the season and be in the playoffs. We have a chance to make some noise.”
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