The Kansas City Chiefs face the Las Vegas Raiders Sunday night in critical condition, easily the worst shape they've been during the Patrick Mahomes era. Averaging 24.6 points per game, five points below their pace a year ago, they've racked up more losses (four) than they had throughout the entirety of the 2020 season. Mahomes himself has thrown more interceptions (10) than at any point during his five-year NFL career while missing the MVP magic that could cause an offensive explosion at any moment.
A victory against the Raiders would catapult the Chiefs ahead of everyone except the Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West. It might even give them first place in the division depending on the outcome of Chargers-Vikings Sunday afternoon. And with surprising stumbles by some of the AFC's other top teams, from the Bills to the Ravens, home-field advantage is surprisingly within reach at 6-4.
The schedule sure doesn't help; every game remaining is against a team with a winning record. The AFC West is one of the toughest divisions in football, with all four teams currently above .500. But the Chiefs still have the experience, weapons, and talent on paper to pull it together and run away at any point.
That's where the Raiders step in, trying to throw a knockout punch before the comeback begins. After suffering through the scandalous emails of now-former head coach Jon Gruden, they've won two of three under interim head coach Rich Bisaccia. It's a team that has figured out how to beat the Chiefs at their best, a 40-32 victory last season at Arrowhead Stadium in which quarterback Derek Carr outgunned Mahomes. However, that was just one of the Raiders' two wins over the last 13 games in this rivalry.
This time around, you can argue the Raiders have the more productive offense, outranking the Chiefs' passing attack (second in the NFL) while turning the ball over just eight times, tied for the lowest total in the AFC. Problem is, their receiver corps no longer includes Henry Ruggs III, off the team after a tragic DUI could have him spending the prime of his NFL career in prison.
Without Ruggs, it's clear the Raiders' offense suffered a blow. The lowly New York Giants toppled them 23-16 after their bye week as Carr threw a season-high two interceptions.
It makes Sunday night a battle of which team is going to right the ship first. At 6-3, the Raiders would have just as much of a case for home-field advantage as the Chiefs with a win, pulling 1.5 games ahead of them while holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. Who will emerge from this crowded division as we enter the second half of the season?
Sunday Night Football: Kansas City (5-4) at Las Vegas (5-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 14 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Clyde Edwards-Helaire boost the Chiefs' offense?
Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs' 2020 first-round pick, may return Sunday after spending a month on injured reserve with a knee injury (MCL sprain). In his absence, Kansas City has averaged just 92.5 rushing yards per game, far below the 128.2 with their lead running back in the lineup.
To be clear, Edwards-Helaire has only been cleared for practice, leaving the team up to three weeks to put him back on the active roster. But the need for better offensive balance has been clear, teams keying in on Mahomes as the quarterback suffers through the worst slump of his four-year career (those 10 interceptions put him third in the NFL). The offense is badly in need of a spark that takes some of the pressure off, and it would be prudent for them to activate Edwards-Helaire Sunday night.
The Raiders' defense also has a soft spot against the run, ranking 28th in the league while allowing 153.3 yards per game in their three losses. The backs they allowed to run over them in those games? Austin Ekeler, Khalil Herbert, and Devontae Booker, not exactly a Who's Who of top-tier NFL ball carriers.
If Edwards-Helaire can't make the lineup, the Chiefs will rely once again on Darrel Williams to handle the load. Don't expect much; he's averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and hasn't scored a touchdown on the ground since Oct. 17 against Washington. The pressure will shift to Mahomes to crack the code and find a way through in the passing game, and lately, that's not a good thing.
2. Can DeSean Jackson become the new Ruggs?
The Raiders' signing of Jackson this week was a tacit admission they need a deep threat to replace Ruggs. Hunter Renfrow shined against the Giants, tying his season high with seven catches. Tight end Darren Waller also stepped up, logging seven catches of his own for 92 yards. But neither one is much more than a possession receiver, incapable of stretching the field the way Jackson's speed forces cornerbacks to run on him.
After losing out on the Odell Beckham Jr. sweepstakes, the Raiders hope Jackson is the answer after he didn't work out with Beckham's new team, the Rams. Catching just eight balls in a high-flying offensive attack built around Matthew Stafford, there are legitimate questions as to just how much the 34-year-old has left in the tank.
Just don't tell that to the Raiders, as Carr is already sold on Jackson's speed and veteran experience to help shore up their young receiving corps.
"I mean, when you add a talent like that … I've always loved him," Carr told NBC Sports this week. "It's going to be hard not to get along with that guy, especially … the way he can run.
"With a guy like that, with his understanding of coverage, I don't have to go out there and teach him anything. He already knows what I'm thinking. He's played with so many great quarterbacks, and he's one of, if not the best, deep threats that's ever played."
If that's the case, the Chiefs should be easy prey for Jackson even with his limited knowledge of the offense. They're allowing 7.79 yards per pass play (30th in the NFL) and their losses this season have come against the league's better quarterbacks: Lamar Jackson (Ravens), Josh Allen (Bills), Ryan Tannehill (Titans), and Justin Herbert (Chargers).
Sunday is Carr's chance to prove he's one of those, and let's not forget, he was impressive against the Chiefs last season: 622 yards, six touchdown passes, two interceptions, and more than 10 yards per attempt against a team that went to the Super Bowl. A strong connection with Jackson is needed to maintain that pace.
3. Which team can remember how to close?
Despite winning two of their last three games, the Chiefs have suffered through anemic second halves on offense. The totals are mind-boggling for a team that boasts offensive Pro Bowlers at every position: no touchdowns, nine points, and two turnovers.
Head coach Andy Reid typically doesn't get out-adjusted; his offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, was the hottest head coaching candidate who didn't get a job last offseason. But this is where we are.
Compare that to the Raiders during their short tenure under Bisaccia. Against the Broncos, they were outscored 14-3 in the fourth quarter (although some would argue the game was well in hand). They withstood a furious comeback against the Eagles, 15-3 in the fourth after letting their foot off the gas. And against the Giants, they went scoreless in the final period (6-0) despite remaining within reach right through their final possession, when a Carr fumble defused a potential game-tying drive.
The mark of great teams is how they put their opponents away. Who's going to remember that magic formula? Remember, the last game between these two teams in Vegas went down to the final possession; Mahomes found Travis Kelce in the end zone with 28 seconds left to lift up the Chiefs last November.
With just two touchdowns in the last three games, can Mahomes find that fourth-quarter magic before the Raiders rediscover it?
Mid-November is typically when Reid's teams start turning up the wick; the Chiefs are 33-9 after Veteran's Day under him as head coach, continuing a winning late-season tradition he started during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
But something weird is happening with the Chiefs. Early in the year, late losses to the Ravens and Chargers could have been the result of arrogance, feeling like they could turn the game their way at any moment. I'm not sure they have that power anymore with teams turning Mahomes into just a normal quarterback.
Add in the Raiders banding together through adversity and you get the sense they want it more than the Chiefs right now. Sunday night could be the type of signature win that gets Bisaccia the full-time job with a Raiders franchise looking for some stability and success during their second year in Sin City.
Prediction: Raiders 31, Chiefs 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.