The Oakland Raiders finished last season eight games behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the battle for AFC West supremacy. As little as two months ago, it was hard to imagine them making any sort of challenge in their final season before moving out to Las Vegas.
Yet here we are, five games left in the NFL season and the Raiders remain within striking distance. Tied for the final AFC Wild Card spot, an upset against the Chiefs on the road Sunday could suddenly put the division title back within reach. Injuries to Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, inconsistent running back play and a leaky defense have left the Chiefs vulnerable. They already have as many losses (four) as they had during the entire 2018 regular season.
The Chiefs are seeking their first back-to-back wins since the first four games of the year. Ever since, they’ve gone 3-4 although every opponent that’s beaten them has a winning record. The comfy confines of Arrowhead Stadium, one of the sport’s best home-field advantages, has been wiped out with a gaudy 2-3 record. It’s already the most losses at home for them since 2013.
Will the Raiders take advantage of what seemed to be a near-impossible opportunity at the start of the year? Or will the Chiefs right the ship just in time to sail toward another AFC West division title? A victory here gives them the equivalent of a three-game lead with four games left to play.
Oakland at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 1 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Patrick Mahomes back to 100 percent?
Oct. 17, the Chiefs feared the worst as Mahomes lay crumpled on the ground at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver. Initially, a torn ACL was feared as Mahomes struggled to walk off under his own power. Further testing revealed a dislocated kneecap, an injury that typically takes around six weeks to heal.
Mahomes defied the odds, coming back in just three-and-a-half weeks while putting together a remarkable performance against the Titans. Passing for a season-high 446 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, he kept the Chiefs in the game until the defense ultimately let up in a 35-32 Titans upset. But you could tell, even with those gaudy numbers, the quarterback was less than 100 percent. Mahomes was less effective against the Chargers in Mexico City the following week, throwing for a season-low (besides the injury week) 182 yards, just one touchdown, and an interception. At least an ankle injury suffered in the season opener appeared ready to ease up; he ran for a season-high 59 yards on the ground.
Either way, it's clear the bye week came at the perfect time to give Mahomes one last chance to rest before the stretch run. And what did we say about the kneecap? We're right at the six-week timeline.
"I think he's physically feeling better," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said during the bye. "He's been kind of battling through the injury and I think starting kind of mid-week (last week), I mean, he was going, 'Man, I'm feeling better here."
So if Mahomes is back near 100 percent, laser-sharp throws combined with rushing speed the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player will wreak havoc. Favorite weapon Tyreek Hill is now healthy, too, recovered from a hamstring injury and that dynamic duo will be difficult for the Raiders to stop. Hill didn't play against the Raiders earlier this year but posted a 67-yard touchdown catch in the 2018 season finale.
2. Was the Jets game just an aberration for the Raiders?
The Raiders, in position to tie the Chiefs atop the division last week, put together their worst performance of the year in losing to a 3-7 Jets team. They scored a season-low three points, shut out for the game's first drive. Quarterback David Carr was pulled in the third quarter after throwing a pick-six that made the score a lopsided 34-3. The defense gave up 315 passing yards and let Jets signal-caller Sam Darnold, who was out with mono for most of the season, complete pretty much any pass he wanted.
"You ever been on a boat that's sinking?" Head coach Jon Gruden said after the game. "It's not happy. It's not pleasant. It's adversity. It's football. You've got to respond to adversity."
Was pulling Carr enough to get his attention? A hot start by the Raiders quarterback has tailed off in the past three weeks, throwing a total of just two touchdowns and two interceptions. His season-long QB Rating remains above 100 but Carr hasn't done enough to keep teams from keying in on rookie running back sensation Josh Jacobs. The Raiders are 3-1 when Jacobs runs for 100-plus yards and 3-4 when he doesn’t.
Jacobs, of course, had a season-low 34 yards in a Jets game where it was impossible to run when they fell so far behind. The Raiders need to remember the magic offensive formula of building around Jacobs, managing the game with Carr and limiting giveaways (just 12 thus far this season) in order to be successful again.
3. Can the Chiefs' defense cause turnovers?
The struggles of Kansas City's defense have been well documented. Even in a win against the Chargers in Week 11, the Chiefs gave up a season-high 345 passing yards to Philip Rivers. The week before, it was 225 rushing yards against the Titans, allowing Derrick Henry to earn 188 of them. His 68-yard TD run gave his team the lead in the second half and ultimately made the difference.
So why did the Chiefs prevail against the Chargers and not the Titans? Simple: four interceptions by Rivers. Those takeaways shifted momentum and minimized the damage from the defense giving away chunks of yards at a time.
Carr showed last week against the Jets he can be vulnerable to those types of big plays. A pick-six might be needed again by a soft defense who could be hit by all sides from an overachieving Raiders offense.
I do think the Chiefs will eke this one out. But a spread of 11 points? That seems a little extreme, overemphasizing Patrick Mahomes' return to 100 percent while treating the Jets game for the Raiders as "the beginning of the end."
Jon Gruden isn't getting enough credit for the culture he built in Oakland following Antonio Brown's departure. This team is building with young players, like Josh Jacobs, and Derek Carr is not in some sudden freefall. Carr is seasoned enough to bounce back, the Chiefs' defense giving him room to make some plays in a game that'll come down to the closing seconds.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Raiders 31
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.