Why This Week's Raiders-Chiefs Game Is So Important
Grudgingly, and despite it not being the cakewalk it has in the past against a what is a noticeably more aggressive and assertive Raider squad that beat them up from start to finish, the Chargers being 1-0 is not nearly as big of a surprise as the Broncos being 1-0.
The Broncos defense played much better than advertised against Cincinnati, but their offense was fairly stagnant throughout. Credit should go to an improved Bengals defense to a degree; but Denver looked out of sync often and didn't overly impress.
The Broncos were saved by a very fortunate, very unlikely bounce at the end of the game that will go down as one of the least favorite moments of disbelief I've experienced in my own personal NFL history. I don't need to explain; you know.
The Raiders smothered the Chargers on offense for most of the game, but like a scene out of a horror film slipped into the dreaded soft zone at the end of the game. San Diego took advantage of their exposed underbelly to march 89 yards in a 2:16 drive that was as gut-wrenching as it was efficient.
Darren Sproles capped the drive by punching the ball right through the end zone and the hearts of Raider Nation.
The Chiefs acquitted themselves well on the road against a very formidable Baltimore team. They moved the ball on a tough defense and hung in the game until the fourth quarter, at which point Baltimore's home field and talent advantages asserted themselves.
It's safe to say that the much-maligned AFC West didn't look as terrible as expected during their first games.
With both the Raiders and the Chiefs exceeding expectations even in defeat in the first week, they will be looking at the upcoming game at Arrowhead in Kansas City as a litmus test for where they are in their development.
Both of these teams are young, but the Raiders began their rebuilding process a little before the Chiefs so they are a little ahead of the game at the moment. This game carries a tremendous amount of importance for both teams. But, with the expectations of Raider Nation raised after an inspired Monday night performance, it means that much more to Oakland.
As mentioned, each team exceeded expectations by hanging with "superior" teams until the end of the game. The Raiders actually outplayed the Chargers most of the game, and were it not for a lack of aggression on defense at the end coupled with a cold blooded Philip Rivers, would've had the win.
But how much of it is the Raiders being better than people thought, and how much of it can be attributed to it being the first week of the season, San Diego playing down to their competition, or any number of other factors?
The Raiders that came out blazing on Monday night are not the same team we're used to seeing. The played with passion and a hungriness that's been lacking for far too long. The jubilation and genuine enjoyment with which they played the game was entertaining to watch.
San Diego did not play down to their competition. It did not appear to me that the Chargers had superior talent at any place on the field other than quarterback. I'm not knocking JaMarcus Russell, and I'll get to him a little later. But annoying as he is, Rivers has proven he's an elite quarterback. J-Rock has a ways to go before he's there.
Raider Nation has good reason to be encouraged by what we saw on Monday, as the running game got going early and often. Darren McFadden and Michael Bush both looked strong, fast, and aggressive, and only Coach Cable inexplicably straying from the run in the second half prevented D-Mac from breaking 100 yards.
That bodes very well for this Sunday's game against the Chiefs. You see, Bush and McFadden both like playing the Chiefs.
Last season in Kansas City the two backs combined for 254 yards on 37 carries, a 6.9 yard average, and two touchdowns. Throw in Justin Fargas' 43 yards on nine carries, and that's a total of 297 yards on 46 carries for a 6.5 yard average. Not bad for an afternoon.
Although Fargas is back from an injury and ready for Sunday, I still fully expect Bush and McFadden to touch the ball early and often. This is an important game for the Raiders rushing attack, as they've shown they can carve up the Chiefs on the ground, and they need to gain yardage to help alleviate the now considerable pressure on JaMarcus Russell.
This is a very important match-up for Russell's development. He's taken a lot of heat for his misfires on Monday night, while not getting enough praise for gutting out an injury to throw a go-ahead touchdown pass at crunch time. If the run game is effective he shouldn't have to throw the ball very much. But it's important that when he does he completes more passes to his receivers, and puts the ball on target more often.
Raider Nation wants to see JaMarcus succeed, because he shows so many flashes of great talent. But the missed timings and poor throws need to be held to more of a minimum than they have been.
He did many more good things than bad on Monday, and showed the heart and leadership on the field required from a great quarterback. He was a very accurate passer in college, so he has the capability, but this game will go a long way to either alleviating or exacerbating the fears of the Raider hopeful.
No question after the lack of production at the wide receiver position last season carried on into Monday, it's essential to get the kids on track. Starting two rookie wide receivers certainly help amplify Russell's difficulties, and even cause them on occasion.
Louis Murphy has shown flashes of brilliance thus far but has also shown flashes of inexperience, running an improper route that contributed to a 1st-quarter Russell interception. Darrius Heyward-Bey, despite assuring the fans and the press he played a good game, did not have a catch and looked lost at times on the field. These guys have got to get going, and Javon Walker has to contribute. The wide receivers must acquit themselves against an often shaky KC secondary to satiate the fans.
The defense absolutely has to have amnesia and bounce back from a disappointing end to an otherwise dominating performance against San Diego. Coaches Cable and Marshall are on record saying that scaling back the aggression was a poor choice, that they called the game conservatively at the end, and that they have promised to address the issue.
I'll believe that when we have a lead in a tight game on Sunday in the fourth quarter and we'll still up on receivers and in the face of the offense. It's of paramount importance that Cable and Marshall stick by their word should the situation arise again. And if the unthinkable should happen, the Coaches should be absolved of criticism as long as they stay the course.
But until we see it, we won't believe it. And hopefully we'll be too far ahead for it to be a concern anyhow. This team needs to learn to win, and not, as Warren Sapp astutely pointed out (surprising, I know) be afraid of success.
Most importantly, this game must go far toward rewarding the faith of Raider Nation. That team that came out and beat San Diego like it stole something was no mirage. This team is jacked up. They are more aggressive; they are better tacklers, more fundamentally sound, potentially explosive on offense, and getting better as a cohesive unit than they have been in a long time. If they play with the competitiveness showed Monday, they'll walk away with a victory.
But if they come out flat in this game, then the dreaded "here we go again" feeling may loom and threaten to blanket what promises to be a better season than in years past. They simply cannot, in any way, afford a slip of effort or passion in this game. Fans will be devastated after the showing Monday, and belief will dissipate.
A young team will always have kinks to work out, but this game is very winnable despite being on the road, and Raider Nation expects nothing short of a W in KC on Sunday. We love the improvement shown, but without wins, it'll be hollow at best.
It's time for this team to take the next step in it's growth, and right now there is no better opponent. The Raiders-Chiefs rivalry always produces intense, hard-fought games that come down to the wire, but Oakland seems improved and confident. However, both teams believe they can win this game.
Only one of them can be right, and it's imperative it be the Raiders.
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