At the start of the year, the AFC West was dubbed as one of the best divisions in football. They had two representatives in the playoffs last year, with both the Chiefs and Raiders finishing with a 12-4 record. The Broncos (9-7) almost made it three. However, they missed out by a solitary game. The Chargers, ultimately, dropped the last five games to end 5-11.
Fast forward a year and the division has quite frankly been a mess. After a 5-0 start, Kansas City has lost 6 of 7. LA has gone 6-2 since beginning 0-4. Oakland has been up and down week-to-week. Denver, after finishing the first quarter 3-1, has been defeated in the last 6.
So, in conclusion, we have three 6-6 teams, tied at the top of the West. Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders all have a chance to take advantage of this less-than-dominant division and sneak into the playoffs.
At FPC, we’ve brought together a member of each potential division winning team (sorry Denver). Terry Biggs, editor for the Raiders. Chiefs’ contributor Braden Holecek. And myself, Thomas Herd, for the Chargers.
The highest and lowest points of your teams season?
Terry (Raiders): The Thursday night victory versus the Chiefs brought a new energy to the team. With the season on the brink, the Raiders executed offensively. For the first time all year, Todd Downing opened up the offense. Amari Cooper flashed next-level talent.
When the Raiders arrived in Mexico, they thought the Patriots were a litmus test. As a result, the team failed miserably. Additionally, the defense failed to adjust. Mexico served as the downfall of Ken Norton. Everyone knew Brandin Cooks would torch Sean Smith. Yet, Norton stubbornly refused to alter the plan.
Braden (Chiefs): The Chiefs were flying high in September and they were able to reach a 5-0 start. They were the last remaining unbeaten team in the NFL, and that stretch was certainly the best point of their season by far. Of those five wins though, the most impressive had to be on the opening night of the season, facing the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Many people thought the Chiefs could possibly keep it close, but they were able to ride a strong second half performance from both sides of the ball to beat the Patriots in their own building, which is rare in this decade. Kansas City put forty-two points on the board, something many teams have never even sniffed against a Bill Belichick-led team. The energy and emotion in that stadium during the pregame ceremony was nowhere to be found, and the only noise was from the Chiefs players and their sideline. That is arguably the best game they have played all season, as well.
On the other hand, the lowest point of the season has been during the current four-game losing streak. Once the Chiefs were beaten by the Giants, for only the Giants second win of the season, it was clear the Chiefs were not even close to the Super Bowl caliber chances they had back in September. That has now followed with two more losses and there is no consistency or clear direction the Chiefs have built for themselves for the final stretch. The Chiefs have now lost their division lead and most fans are ready to move on and get ready for the 2018 NFL season.
Thomas (Chargers): Shutting out anyone in the NFL, is significant, so of course, the 21-0 win over Denver is up there. However, I think I’d say the Thanksgiving win in Dallas. It was the standout game when the schedule was announced, and in their powder blues, the Bolts duly delivered on national television. It helped the Chargers that this came during Zeke Elliot’s suspension, but I believe they still win, even if he played.
There’s been so many tough defeats to take this year. Opening day vs Denver and the home opener vs Miami were equally impressive in how they lost those games. One that tops that is the overtime road defeat in Jacksonville. A 3-point lead going into the final two minutes; they picked off Blake Bortles twice in that period and you still don’t go away with the W?! Four weeks later and I’ve still no idea how they lost that game.
What key component do your teams need to improve on to ensure a chance at the division?
Terry: The Raiders’ secondary must execute better. Too often, Reggie Nelson arrives late and taking poor pursuits to the ball. As a result, the secondary looks out of rhythm and slow. The depth is not talented enough to compensate for a safety with declined acceleration. Hopefully, rookies Obi Melifonwu or Shalom Luani see more field time.
Braden: The Chiefs are not completely done for the season and still have a chance to win the AFC West. However, they will not be able to do that unless there is an improvement in game-breaking situations. The Chiefs have not seemed to have played good situational football since the bye week occurred. The sense of urgency has not been completely absent from the entire team, but when the bounces don’t go your way it gets hard for players to want to continue to do their jobs when the leadership has been slighted. Once the Chiefs lost Eric Berry in the win at the Patriots, their defense lost their pulse and now the defense is in a hole that has gotten deeper and deeper and may be too much to get out of at this point. If the Chiefs are able to find peace, play loose and find ways to make plays they will find success
Thomas: Stopping the run is so important for the Chargers going forward. They’ve been lucky in the last few weeks that they’ve got early leads, so teams have had to abandon their run game. The way the Bolts step up in a lot of nickel packages makes it harder to stop. It’s almost like they realize they don’t have the right players to make an impact and are relying on their elite pass defense. The return of ‘backer Denzel Perryman has been huge for this team though.
What’s the toughest game on your remaining schedule?
Terry: For the better part of five years, Alex Smith continues to torment the Raiders. In their first meeting, Smith torched Oakland for over 350 yards. The Chiefs offense remains explosive. They should frighten every Raiders fan. Add in Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt, Kansas City is still the team to beat in this division.
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Braden: The toughest remaining game on the Chiefs schedule is probably the home matchup versus the Chargers. The Chargers have been beaten by the Chiefs a lot lately, and with a chance at the division, the Chargers have a huge chance to make a statement if they can win at Arrowhead. With the way the Chargers are playing right now, it’s just simply the toughest mismatch for what the Chiefs do, compared to the other Chiefs remaining opponents.
Thomas: I saw this week that statistically, Los Angeles have one of the easiest remaining schedules. The NFL is driven by statistics, but I think this is an example where it’s the be all and end all. The underrated Jets and the Chiefs on the road is very tough. It could all come down to the Raiders in the last week, which is never an easy game for the Bolts. The Chiefs, in week 15, will be the hardest. The pressure on that game will be huge. Lose, and the Chargers hopes could be over.
Out of the 3 teams, who can make the deepest run, if they win the division?
Thomas: I rate the Chargers more than the other two. I think most people would. But even as the most optimistic Bolts fans, I believe their peak will be one playoff win. The Patriots and Steelers are just miles ahead of everyone in the AFC conference.
Finally, what’s the record you predict for your teams for the final quarter? Will that be enough for the Playoffs?
Terry: In reality, based on opponents’ makeup and playoff ramifications. I think Oakland will go 3-1 to barely make the playoffs. With Dallas missing Elliott, and Philly possibly clinching home field by then, Oakland could see 2s and 3s playing entire games. Yet, they still need to win these games.
Braden: I think the Chiefs will finish the season at 9-7, with their only loss being at home against the Chargers. Despite the way the defense is playing, the Chiefs seem like they could match up well against the Raiders, Dolphins, and Broncos offenses. The Raiders come into Arrowhead Stadium this week with two straight wins, but they have not been very well played games. If it wasn’t for Marshawn Lynch, the Raiders may not be tied for the division lead right now. The Raiders have had trouble playing defense for the last few years and fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. a couple of weeks ago. This gives Alex Smith and his weapons on offense a chance to have a big day this Sunday. Smith has also been a Raider killer during his entire career. The Raiders also still have to play Dallas, Philadelphia, and the Chargers after the Chiefs. I don’t think the Raiders are a good enough team to win enough of these four games. The Dolphins and Broncos are also just not sound enough to beat the Chiefs. Also, once they get through the Raiders and Chargers, it seems like the Chiefs could play their most dominant than they have in a while, against both Miami and Denver. But, I think with a loss to the Chargers, the Chargers will win the division and the Chiefs will be on the outside of the AFC playoff picture.
Thomas: The Chargers have a lot going for them right now. Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen are virtually unstoppable right now. On the defense, Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, and Casey Hayward could all be considered in the top 5 of their respective positions and they’ve been backed up by the likes of Jahleel Addae and Trevor Williams, who have been improved dramatically this year. In terms of record, I think they need to win-out to make the postseason. If that possible? I severely doubt it. A 3-1 record is probably about right, losing to either the Chiefs or Jets and they’ll just miss out on the division, and wildcard.
It seems as if the Chargers are the most favored right now. But, as a Chargers fan, I can honestly say this one is far from over and what makes it even more fascinating is that all three play each other. It should lead to an exciting last quarter of the NFL season.
Thank you to Terry and Branden for joining me in this discussion. You can follow Terry, @teebiggs and Braden, @ebearcat9.
–Thomas Herd is a Deputy Editor and Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the Los Angeles Chargers. Follow him on Twitter @chargers_uk