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Optimism August: The division is up for grabs

I understand, it has been awhile. Four years since the last playoff appearance, 18 years since the last playoff win and Super Bowl appearance, and 37 years since the last championship. The Raiders, whether they be in Los Angeles or Oakland, have not had the success fans had come to expect after the tenures of John Madden and Tom Flores. Seven playoff appearances and six postseason wins since Flores was replaced by Mike Shanahan in 1988.

That can change in Las Vegas and fans may not have to wait for long. The Raiders have plenty to be optimistic about and there’s no greater time for hope than before the games begin.

This month I’ll run through a few of the main points of why the Las Vegas Raiders can win the AFC West and reach the Super Bowl next season.

The Kansas City Chiefs are fallible

It’s hard to get a gauge on what happens to Super Bowl winners in the last 20 years because the New England Patriots exist and are so atypical of what to expect from the other 31 franchises. The Patriots have reached at least three times as many Super Bowls in this century than any other franchise.

Well, one thing we know for sure with New England is that Tom Brady is in Tampa Bay. That’s one roadblock potentially out of the way. The bigger block that Las Vegas has to worry about is in Arrowhead.

The Chiefs are 12-2 against the Raiders since Andy Reid arrived in 2013, with each Oakland victory coming in narrow Thursday night contests. Last season, Kansas City won both games by a total of 68-19. That must, and can, change right now.

First of all, I am not saying that the Chiefs can’t win the Super Bowl again or shouldn’t be favored given the quality of players they have at certain positions, beginning with Patrick Mahomes. However, I love to discuss false narratives and to challenge commonly held beliefs that may not be as infallible as suggested. Like that the Chiefs are some perfect machine now.

There is a reason no team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since 2004 and that only the 2014 Seahawks and 2017-2018 Patriots have managed to reach two or more Super Bowls in a row.

Kansas City went 12-4, but not always in dominant fashion.

They needed to complete 4th-and-8 with 1:55 left to keep hope alive against the Detroit Lions, eventually winning on a touchdown with :20 seconds on the clock.

They needed two late field goals and a Kirk Cousins string of bad passes to beat the Minnesota Vikings 26-23. (Albeit with Matt Moore starting.)

They were helped by Philip Rivers Philip Riversing to hold off the LA Chargers in the final minute.

Brady had 1st and 10 from the KC 12 with 2:39 remaining, down by a touchdown, and this time the Patriots couldn’t manage.

This is also a team that lost four of six games in the middle of the season and found themselves down by double-digits in all three playoff wins. I’m not saying Kansas City wasn’t a great team because they were — third in DVOA, an MVP at quarterback, several greats on defense — but our perceptions of a team sure do change after they win a ring.

Let’s say instead that the Chiefs blew those games against 3-12-1 Detroit and 5-11 LA. They go 10-6 instead of 12-4. They win the division but must host the Titans in round one and if they win that, must go on the road to play the Ravens or Patriots.

How scary does Kansas City look at that point, even though it is essentially the exact same team?

Their offseason surprised me in that they were somehow able to keep Sammy Watkins and Chris Jones while extending Mahomes. They even replaced Laurent Duvernay-Tardif with Kelechi Osemele at right guard, a probable upgrade. But I’m not fully sold that the Chiefs can’t be closer to .500 than everyone will predict.

A) The defense repeating its performance would surprise me.

The Chiefs were 26th on defense by DVOA in 2018, including 32nd against the run and 12th against the pass. In 2019 they added Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark and improved to 14th overall, including sixth against the pass. But they were still 29th against the run.

Maybe the run defense woes aren’t concerning, after all they’ve gone 24-8 in the last two seasons with a Super Bowl win, but can Reid’s defense get any better than what they just were?

I would expect that unless improvement in the run defense is coming — for an unknown reason because there aren’t many changes here — the only way for KC to regress is down. I think 14th on defense might actually be their ceiling and despite an average DVOA, they were seventh in points allowed. I expect more points allowed.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s best defenses came with the Giants in 2008 and 2016, when they were fifth and second in points allowed respectively, but he also had six seasons as a head coach or DC in which his defense was 26th or worse in that category; that’s the majority of Spag’s career.

Mathieu has been considered a star and key to their success, albeit as a player who was on his third team in three years. Mathieu was a first team all-pro in Arizona in 2015 and then by 2016 he was missing games and those same Cardinals fans were wondering what happened.

It’s hard to find fault with Jones, but he missed three games and was on the injury report six times with groin and hamstring injuries last season. Clark missed two games and was on the report five times with neck and shoulder injuries.

Now read the names of the other eight “starters” on defense and ask if this is going to be a top-10 unit: Alex Okafor, Derrick Nnadi, Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, Charvarius Ward, Juan Thornhill (recovering from torn ACL), Bashaud Breeland, and maybe Rashad Fenton?

Cornerback/safety Kendall Fuller went back to Washington and Emmanuel Ogbah, who had the best pressure rate on the team, went to the Miami Dolphins.

Take out one of Mathieu, Clark, or Jones and I wonder how the defense performs. Take out two and I think this could be a major concern for Kansas City, a team already in the hat for “Worst run defense in the NFL.” Even if it’s only for a couple of games because we’ve seen how vulnerable even Super Bowl teams can be during a 16-game season.

B) The offense could also be worse than expectations which are based on the past, not always the present or future.

In 2019, the Steelers fell from the sixth-best offensive DVOA to 32nd when Ben Roethlisberger was hurt. The Panthers went from 11th to 28th with no Cam Newton. The Rams fell from second to 17th without the same Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks. The Bucs from 12th to 22nd, the Giants from 13th to 23rd, the Broncos from 14th to 26th, the Falcons from eighth to 15th, the Chargers from third to 12th, the Patriots from fifth to 11th.

Kansas City was first in offense in 2018 and third in 2019. Does an injury have to happen to Mahomes or Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill (four games missed with a shoulder injury) before we believe they could fall to 10th or 14th? Not for me to believe it could.

Dak and Zeke didn’t get hurt in 2018 when the Cowboys dropped from 10th to 24th.

Kirk Cousins wasn’t hurt when the Vikings fell from fifth to 18th that same year.

Carson Wentz did miss five games in 2018 as the Eagles fell from eighth to 16th, but the offense was fine with Nick Foles and they actually went 4-1 in those games.

The Chiefs are bringing back 10 of 11 offensive starters with Osemele for Duvernay-Tardif being the only exception. They also get back left tackle Eric Fisher, who missed half of the season. But center Austin Reiter and guard Andrew Wylie each only have 21 career starts and Wylie missed five games with an ankle injury. Osemele went against the Jets orders and had surgery to end his season after only three games. Fisher missed eight.

Outsider of ironman Mitchell Schwartz, I see plenty of reasons to believe that this “continuity” won’t last long. The team just placed Thornhill and Martinas Rankin, their top reserve o-lineman last season, on PUP.

C) Mahomes missed two games last season and that’s worth monitoring.

I consider this to be an important footnote more so than a red flag. Almost every player gets hurt but there’s been a difference between players like Rivers, Brady, Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, and a few others and say, Roethlisberger, or to a larger degree, Jimmy Garoppolo. Other than when Brady or Manning missed one entire season because of injury, those QBs were assured to always be there. Ben would miss a game or two here and there and then it suddenly became the norm.

Let’s root for Mahomes to not get injured and to play all 16 games because that’s what is best for everyone anyway. But the reality check to check is finding out if the term “oft-injured” will enter the Mahomes vocabulary this year.

D) The schedule and a target on their backs.

Week 1 vs the Texans, Week 2 at the Chargers, Week 3 at the Ravens, Week 4 vs the Patriots. A 2-2 start would not be surprising and probably would not be concerning. The Chargers seem improved to me — everyone in the AFC West except the Chiefs do actually — and whether its Baltimore and Houston or New England and LA, two of these teams dropping a loss on the Chiefs wouldn’t make national news.

Then they host the Raiders.

Kansas City also has Week 6 at Bills, Week 7 at Broncos, Week 11 at Raiders, Week 12 at Bucs, and Week 15 at Saints. I don’t like predicting strength of schedule or wins and losses — you have to really believe you’re something special if you think you can predict the strength of all 32 teams and I don’t think I’m that special — but for you, and only you, I’ll say that this schedule seems difficult.

Road games vs the Ravens, Bills, Bucs, and Saints alone has interesting considerations, not to mention the three road intradivisional games. We have no idea what the impact of coronavirus-related empty stadiums will be so I can only work off of what we do know about the difficult of traveling.

Kansas City was 7-1 on the road in 2019 but as I previously noted, almost lost to Detroit, Minnesota, LA, and New England away from Arrowhead. If January, 2021 comes and the Chiefs went 6-2 at home and 4-4 on the road, that’s not gonna be something to write a book about for historical significance.

And I think any of the other three AFC West teams could equally challenge for 10-6 or better.

Step one in Raiders optimism: Evaluate the team most likely to be situated between Las Vegas and a wild card, a division title, or even a first round bye to see how vulnerable they truly are. The vast majority of analysts and experts headed into next season will pick the Chiefs to a) win the AFC West, b) get the top seed, c) win the AFC, and d) win the Super Bowl.

This will gradually fall off from near-100 percent of “experts” picking the Chiefs to win the division to maybe “only” 25-percent of them pick the Packers, Saints, Ravens, 49ers, or Bucs so that they can avoid having the same predictions as everyone else. Except they all pretty much have the same boring predictions and I do not expect a single mainstream publication to choose the Raiders to win the AFC West.

I disagree. Sure, Kansas City is the favorite and they’ve earned that until a team like Las Vegas or someone else knocks them out of first. But even if they’ve won the last four division titles, in half of those cases (Oakland in 2016, LA in 2018) it came via tiebreaker. The Raiders are not as far from first as the records would indicate, though the most important step to follow through on next season would be at least splitting the season series and as of now, the teams are not scheduled to play on a Thursday.

But the Chiefs do not have an unyielding grip on first place and the Raiders should not be playing for second. The records are 0-0 and Vegas has the same opportunity as Kansas City does.

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