For years now, the AFC West has basically been irrelevant in the grand scheme of NFL supremacy. For the last five years, experts, annalists, and broadcasters alike have been able to ink the San Diego Chargers in as the AFC West Champions. At the start of this season, they all wrote the Chargers in the playoffs again, but I hope they did it with a pencil this year.
The Chiefs have come out of the gate running at full sprint after an abysmal 2009 season in which they finished 4-12. As of now, the Chiefs hold a 1.5 game lead in the division through week eight heading into the "Black Hole" this week to play the Raiders. If I told you that, and you hadn't watched any NFL football this year, you'd think that they held this slim lead over the incumbent AFC West Champion Chargers—and you'd be wrong.
The Raiders are coming into this week's division matchup against the Chiefs in second place in the West. They have also began looking like the improved team that everyone was talking about at the end of last year. After a rocky 2-4 start, the Raiders have won back to back games in impressive fashion, outscoring their opponents—the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks—92-17.
The Chiefs are also coming into this rivalry game riding a two game winning streak, but their last two wins have come in quite a different fashion. While the Chiefs did blow out the Jacksonville Jaguars 42-20 in week 7, they won their week eight game against the Bills with a 35 yard Ryan Succop field goal that hooked through the uprights as time expired in overtime.
The Chiefs have been playing inconsistently on offense, but the one thing that has been solid all season is the Chiefs' defense. Aside from the week six game against the Houston Texans, the Chiefs have held every opponent to 20 or less points. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has the Chiefs' young defense playing better than anybody thought they were capable of playing.
On the other side of the field, the Raiders have been inconsistent in almost every aspect of the team's play. After getting blown out by the Tennessee Titans 37-13 in week one, the Raiders beat the St. Louis Rams 16-14 in a sloppy game in week two. In weeks three and four, they lost in shootouts to the Cardinals and Texans, then beat the Chargers in a shootout in week five.
They followed up their encouraging week five victory by handing the San Francisco 49ers their first win of the season in one of the worst games I've watched all season. Then the Raiders suddenly exploded with their recent blowout extravaganza. The Raiders' teeter totter tendencies have laid tracks for a tumultuous train ride of what is their 2010 season.
The only constant in the Raiders head-scratcher of a season has been the running game. Raiders' running back Darren McFadden is averaging 113.4 yards per game, and his four rushing TDs are matched by teammate Michael Bush's four rushing TDs. These two backs are the four-legged beast that has carried the Raiders to relevancy, leading the second ranked rushing attack in the NFL.
The only team running the ball better this year than the Raiders is their week nine opponent, the no. 1 ranked rushing attack of the Kansas City Chiefs. Veteran running back Thomas Jones and third year breakout back Jamaal Charles have fused together in the a Chiefs' backfield that has produced 1,333 yards in only seven games.
Charles himself has 666 yards on 103 carries, giving him an astounding 6.5 yards per carry—the best yard per carry ratio of any back with more than 100 carries this season. However, the Chiefs greatest asset is coupled with it's struggling passing offense, which is ranked dead last. Chiefs QB Matt Cassel has been very efficient, touting a 90.4 passer rating, but the team's lack of depth at wide receiver has limited his throws. The Chiefs are 31st in the league in pass attempts.
This doesn't bode well for the Chiefs, who go up against the Raiders' fourth ranked passing defense. One of the biggest matchups of the day, however, is in jeopardy of being postponed until the teams meet again in January. Raiders star corner back, Nnamdi Asomugha, may be sidelined in week nine due to injury. He will be needed if the Raiders plan to stop the Chiefs' no.1 threat in the passing game, Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
The Chiefs' fourth year wide out is finally living up to the expectations of being a first round pick. Bowe has had trouble holding onto the ball—no other receiver has dropped more passes than Bowe since he came into the league in 2007—but since dropping an important, sure TD in the Chiefs' week five game against the Colts, Bowe has caught five TDs in the team's last three games.
Still, this game is probably going to come down to which team can contain the other team's running game. While both teams have a great running offense, only one has a strong defense against the run. The Raiders are ranked 20th in run defense, while the Chiefs are seventh in stopping the run. This is a good sign for Chiefs fans, as it appears that the Chiefs will be able to continue running the ball at will on Sunday with the possibility of limiting the Raiders in their own rushing attack.
The tight end battle is a bit of a push, as Raiders tight end Zack Miller has a clear advantage in overall production, but Chiefs rookie tight end Tony Moeaki is an integral part of the Kansas City offense. Moeaki is nothing short of a go-to guy in third and long situations.
The Chiefs are 23rd against the pass, but this is a misleading stat. While the Chiefs have given up a good deal of yards this year, Texans QB Matt Shaub is the only quarterback who has completed at least 60 percent of his passes through the Chiefs' first seven games. Teams are forced to pass more against the Chiefs because they have so much trouble running the ball.
Rookie safety Eric Berry has hauled in a pick in each of the Chiefs' last two games, and third year cornerback Brandon Flowers has two interceptions this season as well, which leads me to the second most important facet of the game: the turnover battle. The Chiefs have forced nine turnovers to the Raiders' 12, but the Raiders have turned the ball over 10 times, while the Chiefs have been extremely stingy in this department, giving the ball up only four times.
As for the points scored vs. points allowed, which is ultimately the most important stat of all, we have a very interesting matchup here. The Raiders are fourth in the NFL in points scored per game after their recent offensive outburst, while the Chiefs are a respectable 11th in this category. In the points against battle, the Raiders are 15th, while the Chiefs boast a league rank of seventh in this category.
It is still unclear which Raiders quarterback will get the nod from coach Tom Cable. Bruce Gradkowski seems to be the logical choice since the team seems to play better as a whole with him in the lineup. However, Jason Campbell has started in the teams last two games. which have yielded 92 points for the Raiders offense. This should keep the Chiefs guessing how to gameplan for them right up until game day.
This marks the first time in many years that the Raiders and Chiefs have played each other as the no.1 and no. 2 teams in the division. This game is the most important game for both teams so far this season, and looking at both team's remaining schedule, it appears to be a must win for the Raiders if they want to keep pace in the race for AFC West supremacy.
Any good preview should include a prediction so here goes: It should be a hard fought battle between two worthy teams, but the Chiefs win in the end, 27-20
The Chiefs play the Raiders again on January 2nd in week 17, and that time the game will be in Arrowhead. But for now, it's Oakland, California, that will host the game of the week. This game actually has playoff implications, and I for one am eagerly looking forward to this battle of division rivals. It's one of the oldest and biggest rivalries in NFL history, and, for at least a week, it holds all the mystique and magnitude that it did once before.