The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs have lost just once in 2020. That means an opportunity for revenge is at hand with this weekend's "Sunday Night Football" matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders.
It's a game that comes with a postseason feel even though we're still in mid-November. A victory in this matchup would give the Chiefs a chance to lock up the AFC West before Thanksgiving, turning their attention toward the No. 1 seed and that all-important first-round bye.
For the Raiders, it's a last-gasp effort to keep their division within reach. At 6-3, they're already two games behind the 8-1 Chiefs with seven games left to play. A season sweep pulls them back to within striking distance while holding the all-important division tiebreaker. A loss, meanwhile, leaves Las Vegas 6-4 in a conference where 10 wins are almost certainly needed to make the playoffs.
The Chiefs come in rested off a bye but still shaking their head at a four-game win streak nearly snuffed out by the lowly Carolina Panthers. They escaped with a 33-31 victory two weeks ago only because a last-ditch, 67-yard field goal attempt by Panthers kicker Joey Slye fell short in the final seconds. The Panthers put together a formula the Raiders know all too well from their 40-32 victory last month, finding their way through a porous defense that allowed 300 passing yards, over 100 rushing, and scores on almost every possession.
Can the Chiefs' defense buckle down a second time against these Raiders? Or will a Raiders defense saddled with issues of its own end a chance at a season sweep before it begins?
Sunday Night Football: Kansas City at Las Vegas
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 22 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will the Raiders' defense respond to the challenges of COVID-19?
On paper, this game was all about the Chiefs and their ability to bounce back from adversity. But that's before the Raiders had a bout with COVID-19 that leaves their defense struggling to simply field a unit for Sunday night's game.
No less than 10 defensive players, including eight starters, are in isolation after a positive test from defensive end Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell is not expected to play, along with linebacker Corey Littleton, although there's hope eight others will be cleared after contact tracing protocols took them off the practice field.
"I don't know how we can beat these guys with a full lineup at practice, let alone with three-quarters of your lineup not being here all week," Las Vegas defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Thursday. "We're playing the world champs. They've got a great quarterback, great receivers, a great tight end. The line's physical, and they're coming off a bye. So it's a daunting task."
When your team's own defensive coordinator is questioning if they can win? That's a problem. Keep in mind quarterback Patrick Mahomes was already motivated after throwing the lone interception of his year against the Raiders. Putting up the junior varsity squad isn't exactly the recipe to beat him twice.
Unfortunately, the Raiders have been through this before... with terrible results. The team's entire offensive line was out all week due to COVID-19 protocols before an Oct. 25 game against Tampa Bay. While most of the unit eventually was cleared on game day, the team struggled, losing 45-20 while posting a season-low 76 rushing yards.
You shudder to think where a decimated defense might leave them Sunday night. So, keep an eye on who's cleared and who's not, especially for betting purposes as a "next man up" mentality only does so much when you're competing against the best offense in the AFC.
2. Can the Chiefs' defense recover?
Kansas City's defense nearly collapsed against Carolina, giving up 14 points in the fourth quarter while allowing them to go 3-for-3 on fourth-down conversions. The final totals (31 points, 435 yards) were the worst since, you guessed it, that Oct. 11 loss to the Raiders.
In that game, the Chiefs gave up 40 points, their most since November 2018. The Raiders scored on three of their final four possessions, converted both of their fourth-down attempts, and produced 490 yards of total offense while wearing down their rivals. It was a strategy that worked behind a solid run game, exceptional quarterback play by Derek Carr and an offensive line that negated the Chiefs' pass rush (one sack).
The Chiefs are now ranked just 14th in total defense and 29th against the run. Especially with a decimated defense themselves, expect the Raiders to produce the same type of game plan. Running back Josh Jacobs has only gotten better since his two-touchdown performance last month; he's got 100-yard efforts in two of the last three weeks. Only Derrick Henry has more rushing yards in the AFC than Jacobs' 700.
What's new in their plan of attack is Devontae Booker. Booker has three touchdowns in the last two games against division rivals Los Angeles and Denver, proving to a good change-of-pace back before cleaning up in garbage time. His emergence has allowed the Raiders to go over 200 rushing yards in two of their last three games, all wins. Their 139.2 rushing yards per game places them seventh in the league.
3. Can Derek Carr outplay Patrick Mahomes?
Of course, the Raiders can only go so far in this matchup as their quarterback takes them. After an early interception, Carr had his best game of the year -- 347 passing yards, a dazzling 11.2 yards per attempt -- against the Chiefs to pull off the upset. The deep ball paid off with two touchdown catches that went for 50-plus yards, one for Nelson Agholor (59) and the other Henry Ruggs III (72).
Can lightning strike twice for Carr? He'll need to keep from turning the ball over and be a true game manager. Aggressive plays need to be mixed in with long drives to keep the Chiefs' offense off the field.
Mahomes had an off day the last time out, his lone interception combining with a season-high three sacks. His 340 passing yards proved deceiving as 7.91 yards per attempt was one of his lowest outputs all season.
But that's been the lone blip on the radar for him. A 106.3 career passer rating against the Raiders is the best for Mahomes against any AFC West division rival. Twice, he's torched them with four TDs or more in a game and is motivated to put October's misstep behind him.
"They came out and won the football game," Mahomes said about the Raiders this week. "So we'll have to do a better job this time, know that we're playing against a good opponent, and know that we're going to have to give our best shot if we want to come out with a win."
The Raiders are actually one of the league's pleasant surprises in 2020. Head coach Jon Gruden has built the foundation of a young team in position to succeed long-term out in Vegas.
But the Chiefs know the value of this game when it comes to putting the division away. Add in the COVID-19 uncertainty of the Raiders' defense and it seems any chance of an upset disappeared the second they all got put in quarantine. It's not a question of if the Raiders can win on Sunday night; it's now a question of whether they can keep it close.
Prediction: Chiefs 41, Raiders 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.