Get over it, NFL: The AFC West is the center of the universe this week.
Yes, I know, Halloween is over. Still, it can’t be denied that the most intriguing matchup of the Week 9 slate will be in Oakland. The suddenly resurgent Oakland Raiders (4-4) play host to the surprise of the first half of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs lead the AFC West with a 5-2 record.
Earlier this week on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” NFL analyst Tim Hasselbeck was chuckling that he couldn’t believe it, but this game is the matchup of the week. The Chiefs and Raiders have played plenty of crucial games against each other in decades past. But relevant games between these rivals from the AFL days have been rare in recent seasons.
But Hasselbeck is right: This game looms large. This is the latest in the season both Kansas City and Oakland have been at least .500 since 2002. In that season, both teams were 4-4 heading into Week 9.
This game is an opportunity for each team to make a statement heading into the second half of the season. If Kansas City wins, it will have a huge lead in the division, showing it can win a tough game on the road. If Oakland wins, it will be the Raiders’ third straight win and they would have defeated each AFC West opponent this season. The Raiders would be a half-game out of first place as they head into their bye week.
“We haven’t experienced this in the last six, seven years around here,’’ Oakland left guard Robert Gallery told reporters this week. “It’s supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to be in games like this. We’ve got to keep doing what we’ve been doing the past two weeks and we have a shot to do some good stuff this year.’’
This is the biggest game in the division since San Diego won at Denver in Week 11 last season. This game might just be a celebration of a power shift in the AFC West. The Raiders haven’t won more than five games in a season in the past seven years. The Chiefs won a total of 10 games from 2007 to 2009.
The Chiefs and the Raiders have been the story of AFC West. The Chargers (3-5) have been floundering because of mistakes, and 2-6 Denver doesn’t look like a team ready to make a difference in the second half of the season. The change has shown in ESPN.com’s Power Rankings. The Chiefs are No. 11, while Oakland is No. 16, San Diego is No.22 and Denver is No. 28.
Oakland has opened eyes around the NFL the past two weeks. After a sluggish start, the Raiders have hit their stride in a big way. Oakland outscored Denver and Seattle by a combined score of 92-17. It scored a franchise-record 59 points at Denver. (The Raiders had scored only 52 points in three games in September.) Oakland has amassed more than 500 yards of offense in back-to-back games for the first time in team history. That’s why Oakland has won back-to-back games for the first time in 24 games.
Oakland has the second-ranked running game in the NFL (behind Kansas City), led by third-year running back Darren McFadden, who is enjoying a breakout season. McFadden is no longer dancing at the line of scrimmage. He is always moving forward and is excelling in the outside and inside games. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Raiders’ running success is opening up the play-action pass. In the past two seasons, Oakland averaged 8.1 yards per pass on play-action plays. This year, the Raiders are averaging 9.4 yards per play. Their passer rating using play-action is 105.6 this season compared with 65.8 the past two seasons.
Oakland is eighth in the NFL in total offense, fourth in points per game and eighth in time of possession. All of those are dramatic improvements from last season.
The offensive line has made major strides in recent weeks and is a big part of the improvement. The key has been the return of Gallery from a hamstring injury and the emergence of third-round draft pick Jared Veldheer at left tackle. He is much better suited at that position, as opposed to center, where he started the season.
“You have to be impressed by Oakland the past couple of weeks,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “They’ve made big strides on each side of the ball. ... This is an interesting game for the Raiders this week.”
As impressive as Oakland has been in the past two weeks, the Chiefs have shown improvement all season. It starts with the NFL’s best running game. The Chiefs are averaging 190.4 yards per game. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones are wearing down defenses. Jones’ presence has helped keep Charles fresh and it has given Kansas City ground toughness. ESPN Stats and Information reports the Chiefs are averaging 4.7 yards a carry while running up the middle. They averaged 3.1 yards up the middle through the first seven games of the season in the past two seasons. Kansas City has earned 24 first downs this season compared with 14 in the past two seasons through seven games.
Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel is benefiting from the strong running attack and he is not making mistakes. In the past five games, Cassel has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception. The offensive line has improved dramatically and this unit is well-coached by Todd Haley and coordinator Charlie Weis. Fine coaching has helped the defense as well. Coordinator Romeo Crennel’s unit is not allowing teams to score much; it is rushing the passer well and is strong against the run and the pass.
“This roster is really impressive,” Williamson said. “It’s well-coached and it is young. This is a team to watch for the immediate future and down the line. ... Things may be changing in the AFC West.”
And that’s why Sunday’s game in Oakland deserves to be in the spotlight.