AFC West: 2013 NFL Week 16 Double Coverage

Matt McGloin and Ryan MathewsAP PhotoCan Matt McGloin and the Raiders bounce Ryan Mathews and San Diego from playoff contention?
One team hopes to hold on to its flickering playoff hopes while the other team’s head coach could be fighting to keep his job.

That’s what's at stake when AFC West rivals San Diego and Oakland face off at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.

At 7-7, the Chargers have to win out, along with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins losing their last two games, to have any chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

And with his team losing six of its past seven games, Oakland coach Dennis Allen's job could be in jeopardy the final two weeks of the season.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez take a closer look the matchup:

Williams: Paul, with the Raiders mired in a late-season funk, is Allen in jeopardy of losing his job?

Gutierrez: In a word, yes. Especially if the Raiders turn in two more performances like the display they had against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, turning the ball over seven times and allowing a franchise record 56 points. Look, owner Mark Davis has said he knew this was year two of the Raiders’ “deconstruction” phase, and he knows this roster is thin. But he’s also said he wants to see progress, and getting markedly worse every week is far from progress.

Yet the Raiders need continuity, something they’ve sorely missed the past decade. And Allen has not had an NFL playoff-caliber roster at his disposal. That could change with some $60 million in cap room next season. Still, will established free-agent stars want to come to Oakland to play for Allen? Then there’s this: Allen still has two years remaining on his contract, so it’s hard to imagine Davis eating those last two years and paying someone else to come in -- unless that someone else is Jon Gruden or Stanford’s David Shaw. Can’t see it, though. At least, not at the moment. What I can see is Allen having to sweat it out if guys check out -- which has not happened … yet -- and the Raiders get blown out by the Chargers and Denver Broncos. If that were to happen, all bets are off.

Philip Rivers has enjoyed a renaissance of a season at quarterback for the Chargers. He’s always been one of the league’s most dangerous quarterbacks, but has he now taken that next step to “elite” level?

Williams: Patience and focusing on the fundamentals during the offseason resulted in Rivers being more poised in the pocket and decisive in his reads this year. Rivers belongs in the conversation as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL based on his performance this season. Not only has he been one of the best signal-callers statistically, residing among the league leaders in completion percentage (69.9 percent), touchdowns (28) and passer rating (106.9), but Rivers also has done a good job of leading the offense. When the Chargers have needed a play to extend a drive or get into the end zone, Rivers usually has been the one pulling the trigger. He's 32 years old, so the Chargers believe he has a few more years of elite-level play left.

Terrelle Pryor showed flashes earlier this season, and Matt McGloin has played OK of late. Do the Raiders move forward with either of these players as the starting quarterback in 2014, or do they draft a quarterback early?

Gutierrez: It’s obvious this coaching staff is far from enamored with Pryor and that McGloin better fits the offense it wants to run, but I’m not sure even the Raiders are convinced their QB of the future is on the roster now. If there was a certifiable franchise QB in the draft, I would say the Raiders go after him. But even Teddy Bridgewater has too many red flags at the moment, no? Our guru Todd McShay has the Raiders selecting Central Florida’s Blake Bortles with the No. 3 pick in his NFL Mock Draft 1.0. I think Fresno State’s Derek Carr fits this regime’s profile better, though.

Still, with so many other holes and the lack of an Andrew Luck or two in the draft, it might behoove the Raiders to build around the QB position and get a pass-rusher or another offensive lineman and sign a veteran free-agent quarterback, someone such as Josh McCown (remember him?), Matt Cassel or (gulp) Matt Flynn. I kid ... kinda.

Keenan Allen raised a ruckus when he rocked a Raiders cap this summer after the Chargers used a third-round draft pick on him. But he’s answered his critics with his play. How has he elevated his game so much -- a front-runner for offensive rookie of the year -- that so many other teams missed on him?

Williams: First, season-ending injuries to Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd gave Allen the opportunity to show what he can do sooner than expected. Once he got on the field, Allen quickly earned the trust of Rivers by consistently making big plays. The moment has never been too big for Allen. At 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, Allen is cat-quick, which allows him to easily beat press coverage and create separation down the field. Allen also is terrific at battling for contested balls. Mix in his ultracompetitiveness and run-after-catch ability and you have an up-and-coming receiver in the NFL.

Rashad Jennings has 679 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games played, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Darren McFadden is going through another injury-plagued season and is in the final year of his deal. Have the Raiders finally found their every-down back in Jennings?

Gutierrez: They’ve certainly found a durable running back, even if he did miss one game with a concussion. Still, Jennings is not the most explosive of backs -- even with his 80-yard touchdown run at Houston -- but for a rebuilding team, that might be enough. The Raiders still need a “dash” of a runner to go with Jennings’ “smash,” and even then they have to re-sign Jennings, who also will be a free agent. Jennings’ yards after contact per attempt (2.24) is tied for the NFL lead, he has yet to fumble this season and his 4.6 yards per carry average is second in the AFC West among backs with at least 149 carries. He is solid and dependable, something McFadden has not been since the first six games of the 2011 season.

The late Al Davis thought the Los Angeles market belonged to the Raiders, and many still see them moving to L.A. in the near future. But the Chargers also seem to think the Southland -- the entire Southland, mind you -- is their turf. What’s the latest on the Chargers’ stadium situation in San Diego? (The Rams are my dark horse, by the way, for moving back to La-La Land.)

Williams: The Los Angeles market is subject to local TV blackouts when Qualcomm Stadium does not sell out, so that tells us to a certain extent what the NFL thinks about the L.A. market and San Diego. For now, I think Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos and the rest of the organization are in wait-and-see mode until a new mayor is elected in February. Gaining political support locally will be critical for any push for a new stadium deal, so the Chargers have to figure out who their dance partner will be first. The franchise suffered a setback earlier this year when a local commission voted to expand the city’s convention center, rejecting the Chargers’ proposal to build a stadium and expand the convention center near the city’s downtown waterfront. Rumblings have the Chargers resuscitating a proposal to build a new stadium near the current location of Qualcomm Stadium.

 

Double Coverage: Colts at Chiefs

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
10:00
AM ET
Hilton/CharlesGetty ImagesT.Y. Hilton, left, and Jamaal Charles will be called on to provide offensive punch on Sunday.
Two playoff-bound teams meet at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Indianapolis Colts.

The 9-5 Colts have clinched the AFC South but are eyeing improved playoff seeding. The 11-3 Chiefs are tied for first place in the AFC West with the Denver Broncos but have secured at least a wild-card playoff berth. If the season ended today, the Chiefs and Colts would meet in a first-round playoff game in Indianapolis.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Colts reporter Mike Wells discuss the game:

Teicher: Colts QB Andrew Luck appears to be having a better season than last year. How has he progressed? In what specific ways is he a better player than he was as a rookie?

Wells: The biggest difference with Luck this year is that he has improved his accuracy. That may be hard to believe since the Colts have been without future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne for the past seven games. Luck's completion percentage has suffered some since Wayne went down on Oct. 20 because you never know which receiver is going to step up on a game-to-game basis. But ask anybody in the organization and they'll gladly take Luck's 58.7 percent completion percentage over the 54.1 percent he completed as a rookie. He's also making smarter decisions with the ball. He's more willing to take a sack rather than force a throw downfield. That's why he's thrown only nine interceptions compared to 18 as a rookie.

Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles had a game for the ages Sunday with five touchdowns. Everybody is talking about Broncos QB Peyton Manning as the front-runner for MVP, but do you think Charles deserves serious consideration?

Teicher: I do, but I think I’m in the minority. Unlike Manning, Charles has very little offensive help. Quarterback Alex Smith is having a nice season, but otherwise a huge share of Kansas City’s production is coming from Charles. He leads the league in touchdowns and is the one offensive player who has produced on any kind of consistent basis for an 11-3 team. I can’t imagine where the Chiefs would be without him, but I’m certain they wouldn’t be headed for the postseason. If Charles doesn’t win the MVP award, it won’t diminish his accomplishments, at least not in my mind.

The Chiefs allow a lot of big pass plays. With Wayne out, who are the big-play receivers -- or do the Colts have one besides T.Y. Hilton?

Wells: Take a quarter out of your pocket and toss it in the air. That’s the point it’s reached when talking about the Colts’ receivers. It looked like Hilton was going to be Luck’s big-play receiver when he had games of 121 and 130 yards immediately after Wayne went down. But then teams found a way to neutralize his speed by providing help over top. The Colts are doing things by committee at receiver these days. I expect offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to repeat what he did in the first half against Houston on Sunday. The Colts will probably put Luck in the shotgun with some empty-backfield sets and let him spread the ball around to his receivers and tight ends. You may even see running back Trent Richardson line up on the outside some. It’s a whatever-it-takes approach in Indianapolis these days.

The Chiefs are averaging 44 points a game in their last four games. Is it because they actually have a good offense or is it because of the teams they’ve played?

Teicher: It’s probably some of both. The Chiefs have three touchdowns on defense/special teams over the last two weeks, and against the Raiders a flood of turnovers repeatedly gave the Chiefs favorable field position for some short scoring drives. But it’s also wrong to deny the progress they’ve made offensively. It starts with the line, which has improved tremendously since early in the season. Smith is playing much better, as well. He’s completing a higher percentage of his passes and is doing a better job getting the ball downfield. The Chiefs weren’t scoring like this earlier in the season against some horrible defensive teams. They scored 17 points on offense in an October win over Oakland and 49 on offense against the Raiders last week.

The Colts have clinched the AFC South but can still improve their playoff seeding. Will they go all-out to win this game, or might they back off a little and rest some key players?

Wells: The Colts aren’t a good enough team to be able to take things lightly and then all of a sudden flip a switch once the playoffs start. They’ve got too many issues that need to get fixed before the playoffs. They’re still trying to establish a consistent running game and produce steady play at receiver, as I alluded to earlier, and the defense has a tendency to give up big plays, as does Kansas City’s defense. The Colts' goal is to have some momentum heading into the playoffs. Besides, they’ve also got their sights on trying to move up from the No. 4 seed. They need to win their final two games against the Chiefs and Jacksonville, and get some help from Baltimore in its last two games against New England and Cincinnati.

There’s a chance the Colts and Chiefs could meet in the first weekend of the playoffs in Indianapolis. Do you think Chiefs coach Andy Reid will hold back some things because of that?

Teicher: The Chiefs will be all-in this week and they should be. They’re tied with the Broncos for first place in their division, and while Denver has the tiebreaker, the Chiefs have too much to gain by winning the division to back off now. If the Chiefs win both of their remaining games and Denver loses one of its two, the Chiefs would be the top seed in the AFC playoffs, get a first-round bye, and then play any of their playoff games at Arrowhead. Their fate if they are a wild card is no first-round bye and the playoffs on the road. The choice seems simple to me.

 
Peyton Manning and Johnathan JosephUSA Today Sports, Icon SMIComing off an unexpected loss, will Peyton Manning's Broncos overlook Johnathan Joseph's Texans?

Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.

"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."

This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.

Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.

On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?

Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.

Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?

Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.

You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?

Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.

An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?

Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.

That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?

Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.

How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?

Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

AFC WEST SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Sunday, 12/21
Monday, 12/22