Oakland right there despite stumbles
It sounds crazy. The Oakland Raiders have lost two straight. When given an opportunity on Sunday to seize control of the AFC West, at home, coming off a bye, against an inferior opponent auditioning a flawed quarterback, the Raiders failed miserably. Turnovers, defensive lapses, penalties, another blown halftime lead -- it was all there, the Oakland of old, in a 38-24 loss to Denver.
But the Raiders are not out of it. They actually are in the thick of it. At 4-4, they are tied atop their mediocre division with the maddeningly underachieving San Diego Chargers and the hot-and-cold Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos sit a game back.
Oakland can and should win the AFC West.
Up until Jason Campbell broke his collarbone during a win Oct. 16 over Cleveland, the Raiders were one of the surprise teams of this season. They had taken on the personality of their fiery first-year coach, Hue Jackson, who wanted the Raiders to be bullies. They had one of the most formidable rushing tandems in Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, and they were winning despite a young secondary and an inconsistent defensive line.
The team has stumbled without Campbell, losing to Kansas City and then Denver, which is somewhat understandable. Not only do the Raiders have to transition to a new starting quarterback, that quarterback was not with the team, or any team, three weeks ago.
Carson Palmer has thrown six interceptions in two games. He was rusty. But he gives Jackson and offensive coordinator Al Saunders the ability to open up their playbook. Palmer has good, young receivers, a security blanket in former teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a reliable tight end in Kevin Boss and an offensive line that has given up only 10 sacks, the second fewest in the league.
The Raiders need Palmer to develop chemistry with his teammates quickly, but more important, they need McFadden's sprained foot to heal so that he can return to his early-season form, when he was on pace to lead the NFL in rushing. They need the defense to pressure the passer. They can't give up 230 rushing yards in a half, as they did against Denver, and they can't commit 15 penalties for 130 yards.
The schedule is not easy, but Oakland has two games left with San Diego. If the Raiders want to win the division, they can start by beating the Chargers on Thursday.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Rivers gives San Diego best shot
Even though the San Diego Chargers look like a lightning bolt lacking electricity, they will still win the AFC West.
I could be proved wrong if they lose to the Oakland Raiders on Thursday, but let's say the Chargers win that home game. They may have a hard time beating the Chicago Bears on the road the next week, but they have easily winnable games against the Broncos and Jaguars the following two weeks. The worst-case scenario if they beat the Raiders is that they head into their final four games with a 7-5 record.
Philip Rivers is clearly struggling, but he still gives the Chargers a better chance to win than the other quarterbacks in the AFC West. Carson Palmer has thrown six interceptions in two games since coming off his couch in the trade from the Bengals.
It's hard to figure which Kansas City Chiefs offense will be on the field each week. After winning four in a row, against the Miami Dolphins the Chiefs looked like the team that started the season being outscored 89-10 by Buffalo and Detroit. To make matters worse, the Chiefs face the toughest part of the schedule over the next month and a half, including games against the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Bears, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers.
By the time they play the Raiders on Dec. 24, they could be 5-9 and eliminated.
When Jason Campbell broke his collarbone, the Raiders seemed to snap. Their defense can't stop the run anymore. They struggle against passing teams. Hue Jackson changed the offense after the Palmer trade, and they don't seem to be in sync. T.J. Houshmandzadeh took playing time away from Darrius Heyward-Bey on Sunday, and the speedier young receiver didn't like it.
The Chargers may not be executing well, but they are tight as a team. Rivers has control of the locker room and the faith of his teammates. It's not out of the question for the Chargers to finish 10-6, but in all likelihood, they could win the division with a 9-7 record and end up as the No. 4 seed in the AFC.
Sunday's 45-38 loss to the Packers was disappointing, but that game is now behind the Chargers and that is significant. The Raiders have to travel to Green Bay in December. That potential loss could be the one-game difference that allows the Chargers to win the West.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.