NFL Nation: AFC West
• Coach Andy Reid has said the Chiefs would take some practice snaps away from players who recently had surgery, and tight end Travis Kelce is among them. But taking some snaps away from Kelce is one thing and sitting him for an entire practice is another. Kelce spent his time working with other injured players away from the practice field. This looks to be an ominous sign for a player the Chiefs are counting on to provide a boost in their passing game. Kelce missed all of his rookie season last year with an ailing knee. The Chiefs took a hit at tight end when Sean McGrath, their leading pass receiver at the position last year, abruptly retired. The Chiefs could have survived his loss if Kelce, starter Anthony Fasano and young Demetrius Harris stayed healthy. But if Kelce doesn't get back on the practice field soon, the Chiefs' plans for getting more catches from their tight ends this season may have to be scrapped.
• Another position where depth will be tested is offensive tackle. Donald Stephenson, the starter on the right side, left practice with an ankle injury. Eric Fisher, the starting left tackle, is another one of those players coming off surgery who sits out some drills. When Fisher sat out, the Chiefs patched together an offensive line that featured Ryan Harris, signed on the eve of camp, at left tackle and journeyman J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. The Chiefs also have Jeff Linkenbach, who has played some tackle for the Indianapolis Colts, but he has worked mostly at guard.
• The Chiefs have several candidates to be their slot receiver, so the absence of Junior Hemingway with a sore hamstring is easy to forget. But Hemingway gives the Chiefs something they otherwise lack at the position: a big body. Hemingway, at 6-1 and 225 pounds, is bigger than most nickel backs, and for that reason, he can be a tough cover out of the slot. His first NFL catch last season was a touchdown on a route he ran from the slot. The Chiefs need Hemingway back sooner rather than later.
• Another receiver, Dwayne Bowe, left practice early with what the Chiefs said were cramps. Kyle Williamsand Frankie Hammond Jr. took advantage of their absence. Williams caught several catches, while Hammond had the play of the day. He caught a pass over the middle and then weaved his way through several defenders for the touchdown.
• A two-play sequence captured the essence of developmental quarterback Tyler Bray. On the first play, Bray threw one of those what-was-he-thinking passes that went straight to linebacker Dezman Moses, who made the interception. On the next, Bray threw a beautiful deep fade that wide receiver Darryl Surgent caught in the end zone.
To reinforce his point, he bugged his eyes and stared the visitor in the eyes even more intensely before repeating himself: "It's Matt. Matt's our quarterback."
For all the talk about rookie second-round pick Derek Carr mounting a serious challenge for the starting job, Allen is firmly committed to veteran newcomer Matt Schaub.
"I'm really excited about Derek Carr," Allen said. "I think he's got a chance to be a top-level quarterback in this league. But he's young, and he's a rookie. That's a tough proposition in this league. I know we've seen some guys that have been able to have some success as rookie quarterbacks, but I've also seen some opportunities where guys have had a chance to sit in behind a veteran quarterback and watch and learn and go on to have successful careers."
There's no doubt Carr has won over the staff more quickly than your typical first-year signal-caller might. He has size and arm strength and has displayed accuracy and a command of the offense as well as the huddle.
But young quarterbacks are prone to lows as well as highs. For instance, on Friday Carr made several beautiful throws and showed an ability to correctly go through his read progressions. But he also forced a pass down the seam that was picked off and he lost the football on a botched exchange from center. Those types of mistakes often are the difference between winning and losing -- and Allen and the Raiders can't afford a third straight 4-12 season.
So rather than live with Carr's potential growing pains, the plan is to ride with Schaub, an 11-year veteran who is coming off his worst season as a starter. In 10 games last season with Houston, he threw 14 interceptions -- including a pick-six in four consecutive games -- and only 10 touchdown passes. His passer rating of 73.0 was a career low as a Texan.
"It wasn't all on Matt; there were other factors involved with it," Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "But the bottom line is he's the guy pulling the trigger and making the decision to let the ball go in that situation, so he took the heat. We looked at it as an anomaly. It would've been different if there had been a drop-off year by year, but I don't know if you can look back and find another quarterback who fell off as dramatically as he did in the history of the game. So we view it as just one year."
The Raiders' blueprint for success includes running the football, playing solid defense and winning at situational football. It's a formula that places an even greater premium on ball security, which often is an issue with young quarterbacks. The staff has no plans to rush Carr onto the field, even as Olson says "the game has not been too big for him" to this point.
There figures to be a vocal groundswell of public support for the former Fresno State star if he plays well in the preseason, similar to what happened last year when fans clamored for the younger and more athletic Terrelle Pryor over veteran newcomer Matt Flynn, the designated starter. But unlike in that situation, don't look for the youngster to unseat the veteran in Week 1.
Look in Allen's eyes. Listen to the tone of his voice. Both leave no doubt: Matt's his quarterback.
It seems like a football eon ago that then-Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels sized up the potential AFC West race and called the San Diego Chargers “kind of the measuring stick.”
That statement came before the 2010 season as the Chargers had won the previous four division titles. It’s also right about the time the winds of change began to roar in earnest in the division, when the foundation was set for what has happened since.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the division in '10. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired McDaniels after a 4-12 season marred by Spygate and hired John Elway as the Broncos’ top football executive.
Since then, the Broncos have won three consecutive division titles, one featuring the national phenomenon that was a Tim Tebow-led read-option offense, and two with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. And the Broncos' crushing February Super Bowl loss notwithstanding, they are coming off a record-setting 2013 with Manning returning and a free-agency haul that included pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos are poised to be in the league’s championship conversation again.
The Chiefs think they are ready for more, the Chargers were the only team in the division to beat the Broncos last season, and the Oakland Raiders, after a flurry of offseason moves, believe -- at least LaMarr Woodley believes -- they can be a playoff team.
NFL Nation reporters Jeff Legwold (Broncos), Eric D. Williams (Chargers), Adam Teicher (Chiefs) and Paul Gutierrez (Raiders) look at how the AFC West division race will shake out this season.
What will the Broncos' record be and why?
Jeff Legwold: Look at the Broncos' depth chart, and on paper -- yes, the dreaded "on paper" distinction -- they are better than they were when they finished 13-3 and played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII last season. After the crushing loss in the title game, they didn't go quietly into the offseason. They put together a solid draft class with two potential immediate contributors in cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. They were also one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, reeling in Ware, Talib, Ward and Sanders. If Ware and Talib, in particular stay healthy (Talib has never played 16 games in a season), Denver's defense will be vastly improved alongside a record-breaking offense that figures to again pile up points. The Broncos finished with five defensive starters on injured reserve last season, and many of the players who were starting on defense down the stretch will be backups this season. Their trek through the NFC West to go with road games against the Patriots, Jets and Bengals gives them a potentially brutal schedule. They could be better than they were last season and not have the record to show for it. That is why 12-4 would be a quality piece of work.
Adam Teicher: 12-4. It's a bit much to expect the Broncos to match their 13-3 record of last season. A schedule that includes two games against the Chiefs and Chargers and singles against all teams from the NFC West plus New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati almost guarantees that Denver won't get to 13 wins. But a slightly diminished regular-season record doesn't mean the Broncos won't win the AFC or play in the Super Bowl again. From this vantage point, it's an upset if any team but the Broncos represents the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.
Paul Gutierrez: Sure, no one takes a Super Bowl beating like the Denver Broncos, whose five losses on Super Sunday are by a combined score of 206-58. But in the modern world of the rich getting richer, the defending AFC champs simply got better. Adding a trio of big-name free agents in Ware, Talib and Ward will only make the defense more sound. And the addition of Sanders, who will replace the departed Eric Decker, should help the Broncos' record-setting offense continue to hum along under the direction of Manning. The Broncos are primed for another division title with a 12-4 record, with tough games at Kansas City, at San Diego (the Chargers won in Denver last season), at New England (the Patriots won in OT last season) and at Seattle (remember that 43-8 pasting the Seahawks put on the Broncos in the Super Bowl?).
What will the Chiefs' record be and why?
Legwold: There is an air about this team; the Chiefs seem comfortable with where the roster was at the end of the 2013 season going into 2014. They were not all that active in free agency, though they took some swings at a wide receiver or two, including Emmanuel Sanders. If they are the team that went 9-0 before the bye last season, then standing pat is just fine, but if they are the group that went 2-5 down the stretch, then they are not catching the Broncos. They have shuffled the offensive line and seem likely to lean on running back Jamaal Charles again on offense, but they lack pop on the outside, especially if receiver A.J. Jenkins can't lift his game. The defense is solid in the front seven, but in a division with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, cornerback Brandon Flowers' release might be the move that eventually stings the most, especially if young cornerback Marcus Cooper, a player Manning targeted repeatedly last season, is not up to the challenge. It all has the look of a step back from last season's 11-5 to 9-7 with the NFC West on everybody's schedule in the division.
Teicher: 8-8. Kansas City faltered down the stretch last season, winning two of its final eight games. The Chiefs then watched several significant regulars leave through free agency. The Chiefs have holes at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield that they failed to adequately address. That doesn't mean they won't be playoff contenders. Despite the lousy record, the Chiefs quietly finished last season as one of the NFL's better offensive teams. They might be able to score enough points to overcome a shaky defense that couldn't hold a 28-point lead in last season's playoff loss against Indianapolis.
Gutierrez: Are the Kansas City Chiefs the team that made history by becoming the first in NFL modern annals to follow up a two-victory season by winning its first nine games the following season, or are they the club that lost six of its last eight, including a heartbreaking 45-44 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts? Momentum being what it is, and with the Chiefs having a so-so draft coupled with departures of the likes of Albert, defensive end Tyson Jackson and receiver/returner Dexter McCluster, plus a tough schedule, they seem to be on the way back down. As in a 7-9 record. Tough stretches that include games at Denver, against New England, at San Francisco and at San Diego early, and against Seattle, at Oakland, against Denver, at Arizona and at Pittsburgh late will truly tell the Chiefs' tale, even as Charles continues his ascent as one of the game's best all-around backs.
@adamteicher 9-7 would be a great accomplishment. Schedule is nails, but if OL gels and backend D is in place, it's doable. O will score— Lou Montagna (@LouMontagna) July 21, 2014
What will the Chargers' record be and why?
Legwold: In his first year as Chargers coach, Mike McCoy helped get quarterback Philip Rivers back on track -- though Rivers never really conceded to being off track -- and the Chargers were able to fight through injuries, hand the Broncos their only home loss of the season, and earn a playoff spot. McCoy figures to try to keep Rivers cocooned in a low-risk approach on offense -- their leading receivers in terms of catches last season were a tight end (Antonio Gates) and a running back (Danny Woodhead) -- with a heavy dose of starting running back Ryan Mathews if he can stay healthy. Defensively, new cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should help the secondary. As they continue their makeover in the second year of the current regime, most personnel people in the league believe the Chargers are still lacking enough athleticism, especially on defense, to make a significant push in the division race. Add up four games against the NFC West to go with New England and Baltimore and it looks like a 7-9 campaign.
Teicher: 8-8. The Chargers might be the division's most interesting team. San Diego is the team most capable of catching the first-place Broncos, but also has the best chance of getting caught by the last-place Raiders. If Rivers plays as well as he did last season, it's not out of the question that San Diego wins the AFC West. Like Denver, San Diego might have a better team than it did last season. Signing Flowers filled a big need. But a tougher schedule will keep the Chargers out of the playoffs this time.
Gutierrez: San Diego, under a rookie head coach in the offensive-minded Mike McCoy, won four straight games to end the regular season and sneak into the playoffs at 9-7, and another 9-7 campaign seems to be in the works, even if the Chargers look to be better in 2014. Some of McCoy's moves did have many fans scratching their heads, but there is no debating he was instrumental in Rivers' NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning season. The Chargers added bruising running back Donald Brown to join lightning-quick Ryan Mathews and are excited to see what their receiving corps, highlighted by second-year wideout Keenan Allen, can do if Malcom Floyd is healthy. No, it's not the halcyon and high-flying days of Air Coryell, but with tough games at Arizona, Oakland, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco, and with New England coming to San Diego, the Chargers will take it.
@eric_d_williams 11-5 & make the playoffs if we stay healthy, 9-7 & miss the playoffs if we don't. And we'll beat Denver.— Shea Duggan (@SDsportskid86) July 22, 2014
What will the Raiders' record be and why?
Legwold: Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a potential foundation player in the Raiders defense. If things go as the Raiders hope, he should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year because he's going to get plenty of snaps. But overall this team has put its immediate fate in the hands of veterans with far less of their career in front of them than in their past, led by quarterback Matt Schaub. Raiders coach Dennis Allen keeps saying Schaub is a top-10 passer in the league, but Schaub has always seemed to lack that kind of confidence in himself. But front-seven additions LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew are certainly risk-reward moves the Raiders need to work. Tuck is 30, Woodley is 29 and Jones-Drew, who has missed 11 games combined in the past two seasons, just turned 29. The depth chart is still thin, particularly on defense, and an injury or two will have a ripple effect. The schedule's second half also includes two games against the Broncos, two against the Chiefs, and games against the 49ers and the Rams. It all looks like a potential 5-11.
Teicher: 6-10. The days of hopeless desperation are coming to an end in Oakland. The Raiders won't be the pushovers they were last season. But they are still not ready to compete with their AFC West rivals. Schaub won't be the answer at quarterback. Instead, he will be another in a long line of failures. Going to rookie quarterback Derek Carr won't solve their problems, at least not this season. By 2015, the Raiders will be a factor in the AFC West race. But despite a major free-agent spending spree, they will still drag the bottom in 2014.
Gutierrez: In the immediate aftermath of the NFL schedule being released back in April, I saw a 5-11 season for the Raiders. Now, after the draft, organized team activities and minicamps? I'll go 6-10. Doesn't sound all that impressive, I know, but it would, technically, be improvement for third-year coach Dennis Allen after consecutive 4-12 seasons. Yes, the Raiders did rebuild both lines with talent and, on the defensive side of the ball, championship pedigree. And they are going with a new quarterback in the battle-tested Schaub. Plus, the veterans Oakland brought in via free agency all have chips on their shoulders. Truly, this is the most talent Allen has had at his disposal. Still, Oakland has the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, and until it proves differently, it's hard to imagine the Raiders winning more than six games. Where might they scratch out six victories? Let's start with home games against Houston, Miami (in London), San Diego, Arizona, Kansas City and Buffalo and go from there.
@PGutierrezESPN 8-8 because they have a tough schedule and with the talent they have will improve a bit..DA gets fired & Gruden in 2015— AK (@AaronK510) July 21, 2014
The Chiefs could go a lot of different directions here. The only certainty is a healthy Smith will start. Daniel, the veteran backup, could be traded if the Chiefs determine that either Bray or their other developmental prospect, Aaron Murray, is ready to be the No. 2. That’s unlikely, so the Chiefs need to determine what to do with Murray. They didn’t draft him to release him, so he could go on the injured reserve list. The Chiefs could also keep four quarterbacks.
RUNNING BACKS (4)
There’s room for another player here if the Chiefs believe they need to keep two running backs in addition to Charles and Sherman, the fullback. They needed three in last season’s playoff game in Indianapolis. Thomas is listed as a back and might get some work as one, but he’s too small to be an every-down player if that’s what the Chiefs require. So Cyrus Gray, a useful special-teams player, or Joe McKnight could also stick.
WIDE RECEIVER (5)
Other receivers will have ample opportunity to make the team, because the Chiefs have a need. But they won’t keep another receiver without that player earning the spot.
TIGHT END (3)
Kelce’s troublesome knee could impact the roster decisions here. If his knee remains balky, the Chiefs could keep Sean McGrath.
OFFENSIVE LINE (10)
- Eric Fisher
- Donald Stephenson
- Jeff Allen
- Rishaw Johnson
- Rodney Hudson
- Jeff Linkenbach
- Zach Fulton
- Eric Kush
- Rokevious Watkins
- Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
The Chiefs will, pardon the pun, go heavy here. Andy Reid likes to stash some developmental linemen.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6)
There’s no need to keep more, not with Poe playing so many snaps and the Chiefs occasionally using only two linemen, and sometimes one.
- Justin Houston
- Tamba Hali
- Derrick Johnson
- Joe Mays
- Dee Ford
- Nico Johnson
- Frank Zombo
- Josh Martin
- Dezman Moses
- James-Michael Johnson
This assumes that Houston returns to the Chiefs in time for the start of the regular season. If not, the Chiefs will need another body.
A position of importance is an area of concern. Only Smith, a starter, and Owens, a nickelback, are proven.
Abdullah has more experience at free safety, but the Chiefs might be better served by going with the bigger Commings as their starter.
Cairo Santos has an impressive leg, but it’s difficult seeing the Chiefs going with a rookie kicker instead of the veteran Succop.
The Chiefs need to sign Smith, who is headed into the final season of his contract, to a long-term extension and build around him if they are to sustain last season's success into the foreseeable future.
Smith is a good fit for the West Coast offensive system of Chiefs coach Andy Reid. He is an accurate passer who should complete a high percentage of his attempts. Smith does a good job of protecting the ball, and his low interception rate allows the Chiefs to be threats to score each time they gain possession of the ball. Smith's running ability allows him to frequently escape the pass rush and make a positive gain on what otherwise could be a busted play.
The Chiefs are already invested in Smith, having sent a pair of second-round draft picks to the 49ers for him. The Chiefs also have a veteran backup in Chase Daniel and developmental prospects in Tyler Bray and Aaron Murray, but neither is an obvious candidate to replace Smith in the long term.
The Chiefs would need to start over in regard to finding a starting quarterback if they failed to re-sign Smith. Since that path has left them reeling for much of the past decade, they need to get his signature on a new contract and move on to other issues.
1. Branden Albert, Chiefs offensive tackle: Kansas City won’t franchise him this year. Albert will get a nice contract elsewhere.
2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos cornerback: He’s not yet 30 and still a top-tier athlete.
3. Eric Decker, Broncos wide receiver: Productive in scoring zone, will be one of the biggest wide receivers on open market, but rarely faced opponents’ top cornerback in Broncos offense.
4. Lamarr Houston, Raiders defensive end: Better suited to the left side because he’s not the prototypical speed-rusher.
6. Jared Veldheer, Raiders offensive tackle: Didn’t have a very good season in 2013 but would attract some attention as a free agent.
7. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs guard: Was a free-agent find for Kansas City last season. Can play right tackle if needed.
8. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs guard: A better pass-protector than run-blocker. He will be only 26 in July.
9. Shaun Phillips, Broncos linebacker: He’ll be 33 in May but showed last season that he can still be an effective situational pass-rusher.
10. Zane Beadles, Broncos guard: For a movement-based front, he’s a smart, durable option who played in every game while with Denver.
12. Robert Ayers, Broncos defensive end: Had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s a late bloomer.
13. Tyson Jackson, Chiefs defensive end: Like Ayers, he had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s figuring it out as well.
14. Tracy Porter, Raiders cornerback: He’s versatile enough to cover the slot receiver, and he had one of his better seasons in 2013.
15. Kendrick Lewis, Chiefs safety: He’s only 25 but was a better player earlier in his career. He hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury in 2012.
Players and coaches to a man have talked about how important it is for the Chiefs to beat the Chargers, but Andy Reid has talked about resting key players and trying to keep them fresh for next week's opening-round playoff match, a game that really is important.
If Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and other star players are out of the lineup early in the game, that sends a stronger message about Kansas City's desire to win this game than anything they say.
Meanwhile, the Chargers may or may not be vying for a playoff berth by the time the game kicks off. If both Baltimore and Miami lose in early games Sunday, San Diego would get the final wild-card spot by beating the Chiefs. If either Baltimore or Miami win, the Chargers are eliminated and as far as the playoffs go will have the same motivation as the Chiefs, which is to say none.
The Chargers seem more motivated than Kansas City does regardless. The 8-7 Chargers have talked about the importance of finishing with a winning record and building momentum for next season. While those incentives aren't nearly as strong as playing for the playoffs, they are more than the Chiefs have going for them.
So the playing field definitely isn't a level one in this regard. Maybe the Chiefs will surprise with their effort but more likely they will be watching the clock and waiting for it to expire like a kid on an average school day.
The Chargers are an improved team since they came to Arrowhead Stadium and beat the Chiefs late last month. They had been allowing a lot of points and gave up 38 that day but since have progressed considerably on defense.
Outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson are finally healthy and playing well. The Chargers made a lineup change in the secondary, benching cornerback Derek Cox, and suddenly they're creating turnovers and getting opponents off the field on the third downs. San Diego is allowing just 16 points per game in the four games since they played against the Chiefs.
Offensively, the Chargers may be without running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Eddie Royal because of injuries. But it's hard to shake the memory of how easy things were for Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen against the Chiefs the last time. And they were playing reserves at the end of the game against the Chiefs. It was seldom used wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu who caught the winning touchdown pass.
The Chiefs could rise up and play well, but it's not wise to expect that given the circumstances. They have bigger prizes to play for than Sunday's game and the result should reflect that.
Prediction: Chargers 31, Chiefs 17.
He was the only Raiders player selected for the NFL's reimagined all-star game, which will be played Jan. 26 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Reece, who was a receiver in college, has played in all 15 games for Oakland this season and has started 14 games -- 13 at fullback and one at tailback when Rashad Jennings, Darren McFadden and Jeremy Stewart were all injured. Reece responded with a career-high 123 yards rushing against the New York Jets that day, including a career-long 63-yard run for a touchdown.
On the season, the 6-foot-1, 255-pound Reece has rushed for 218 yards on 46 carries, averaging 4.7 yards per attempt, and he has also caught 31 passes for 320 yards. His 10.3 yards-per-reception average is third-best among NFL running backs.
"First off, it's an honor to be recognized amongst the elite players in the NFL," Reece said in a statement. "I just want to say thank you to my family and my teammates for allowing me to be myself and play at a high level, and also say thank you, last but not least, to the Raider Nation for showing their continuous support throughout the season and my career."
Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
Welker has not practiced with the team since, though he has begun light physical activity in recent days.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe (illness) and cornerback Kayvon Webster (right thumb), who like Welker have not practiced this week, were also ruled out of Sunday's game.
Webster, who had surgery to repair a fracture last Friday, is expected to practice at least on a limited basis next week with a cast on his right hand. He is also expected to play with the cast against the Raiders and into the postseason.
“Everything's good," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Webster following Friday's practice. "... He missed this week because he is recovering from an actual surgery, don't want to risk any infection ... but I think next week there is more of an opportunity in a cast he could be able to play."
The Broncos are optimistic on Wolfe, who has not practiced since suffering seizure-like symptoms Nov. 29. He will return for the postseason as well. Like Welker, Wolfe has done work with the team's strength and conditioning staff in recent days.
Everyone else listed on the Broncos injury report this week, including cornerback Champ Bailey (left foot), was designated as probable and is expected to play Sunday against the Texans.
Bailey has said he's "ready to go."
They can have no justification for what happened early in the third quarter Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Kansas City Chiefs and their unbeaten season were teetering on the brink against the Buffalo Bills.
With Buffalo at the Kansas City 2, the Chiefs blew a coverage and left Buffalo’s best and most accomplished receiver, Stevie Johnson, uncovered in the end zone. The ball did not go to Johnson but in another direction and eventually the hands of Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith.
One hundred yards later, Smith scored a touchdown himself and rather than falling behind by 14 points for their first double-digit deficit of the season, the Chiefs tied the score. They went on to win 23-13 to go 9-0 and remain as the NFL’s only unbeaten team.
“We make mistakes while we’re in there," said linebacker Tamba Hali, who in the fourth quarter scored Kansas City’s second defensive touchdown of the day. “We blow coverages. There’s a lot that happens but we just focus on the positive. Sometimes things are going their way and we just keep playing and [then] things happen to go our way. Our guys are just strong-minded men."
Football purists might not like Hali’s answer but it better captures what’s happening with the Chiefs than any other reasoning. The Chiefs won’t be able to get away with leaving receivers open in the end zone in their next game against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the following week against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers or in the subsequent game, a rematch against the Broncos.
The fact remains that Sunday they were playing against the Bills and undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel. He is Buffalo’s fourth-string quarterback, playing only because of injuries to the three quarterbacks ahead of him.
On the game’s most important play, Tuel didn’t go to Johnson but tried to force the ball into coverage instead. The whole stadium was shocked by his decision, Smith included.
“So surprised," Smith said. “It was like Christmas. You know, you go downstairs as a little kid and there’s a big box right there? That’s how I felt.
“Those are the plays that you always wish happens to you when you’re watching on TV. It was my day."
It was the Chiefs’ day, really. But all the days this season have belonged to the Chiefs and particularly in the fourth quarter. They again won the final period, which began with the score tied at 13.
The Chiefs scored both of their touchdowns on defense and managed just three field goals with their offense. But that’s not a crazy thing for them. They have five defensive and two special teams touchdowns this season and coach Andy Reid didn’t have to go back too far in his memory to recall winning a game in a similarly bizarre fashion.
“We’ve had a couple this year," Reid said. “We’re not making excuses for it."
Nobody is asking them to, but if the Chiefs think they can compete against the Broncos playing as they did against the Bills, they’re only fooling themselves. They were outgained in total yards Sunday 470-210 by a 3-6 opponent playing its fourth-string quarterback.
Yet if the Chiefs have proved one thing, it’s that it’s risky to underestimate them. They are on an amazing roll that goes beyond X's and O's.
Take the two touchdowns scored by Hali this season. Both have come from short range. He intercepted a pass in the season opener in Jacksonville and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown.
Hali on Sunday scooped up a fumble and returned it 11 yards for the touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead for good.
The Chiefs were fortunate it was Smith called to go 100 yards and not Hali, who is one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers and a relentless player who gives a maximum effort on every play. He’s just not built to go long distances, something he jokingly acknowledged.
“With blocking, I can run 100 yards if you’re not going to chase me," he said.
Smith is much better equipped to go the long haul. In truth, though, his touchdown return was so well-blocked that indeed even Hali could have scored.
“Do you know," Smith said, “how long 100 yards is in the cold?"
For the Chiefs, no distance has been too long, no hurdle too big. After going deep into the fourth quarter the past three weeks before outlasting under-.500 teams from Houston, Cleveland and now Buffalo, the Chiefs don’t appear they will pass any smell test.
Conventional wisdom will undoubtedly hold that they’ll have trouble against the high-scoring Broncos in two weeks, after their bye. But little to happen this season to the Chiefs has followed conventional wisdom.
That Nov. 17 game in Denver will probably fall into that category as well.
Their actions on the field send a much different message. The Chiefs suddenly look weary, like a team carrying a burden.
They survived again on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, winning 23-17. But they continued their unsettling habit of letting losing teams hang around and get to the fourth quarter with a chance at victory.
The Browns fell behind 13-0 at Arrowhead Stadium only to charge back behind their new starting quarterback, Jason Campbell. Campbell was playing only because the Browns’ first choice at quarterback, Brian Hoyer, is out for the season with a knee injury and the first backup, Brandon Weeden, was so bad he was benched.
The Chiefs still had to sweat a stressful fourth quarter. Where last week, there was much joy over their ability to hold off the Houston Texans, this time the emotion was pure relief.
“These grind-it-out games, they’re tough," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You work hard during training camp so you’re mentally strong enough to be able to handle things like this, and that’s what we did. We’ll continue to work hard, and I’m sure there will be other games like this where you have to grind them out."
That’s not a good look for a team having just completed the easy portion of its schedule. The Chiefs on Sunday concluded a three-game homestand against opponents who won’t be going to the playoffs. There’s something to be said for emerging with their winning streak intact, messy as things might have looked.
"The best you can be right now is 8-0, and that’s where we’re at," linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Everybody is going to give us their best. We know that. If we can take that punch and keep rolling, that’s what we did today."
Next week, the Chiefs go back on the road for the first time in almost a month to face the Buffalo Bills. What follows certainly qualifies as a gauntlet: two games each against the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers, road games against the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders and a home game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Every last one of those opponents figures to be coming after the Chiefs, much as the Texans and Browns did the past two weeks.
“We know next week we’re going to get Buffalo’s best shot, playing up in Buffalo," Charles said. “We know they’re going to give us all they can give us."
Charles went on to say he welcomed the challenge, but his words didn’t have the proper conviction to be convincing. Their games have become a grind and, to their credit, the Chiefs have often been grittier than their opponent. They had five sacks two weeks ago in the fourth quarter against Oakland, and four in the final quarter against the Texans.
That kind of effort requires a lot of energy, and they didn’t show they had it late in the game Sunday. Maybe they’ve given too much and the tank, at least temporarily, is empty.
Again, that’s not the party line.
“Not that anybody sneaks up on anybody in this league, but when you’re the only undefeated team, I think teams have recognized how we’re playing and no question they’re coming prepared," Smith said. “We love it. You want the stages to get bigger. That’s why you put in all the work in the offseason. That’s why you do training camp. You want these opportunities. You want that honor."
That much, of course, is true. The Chiefs have lost 12 or more games in four of the past six seasons, so to get to 8-0 is beyond any of the survivors’ dreams.
That doesn’t explain how the second half looked like it meant more to the Browns, who are now 3-5. They were the ones who turned up the heat in the second half, sacking Smith five times.
“We’re not trying to be beauty queens," wide receiver Dexter McCluster said. “It’s never too close for comfort when it’s a win."
That doesn't change the fact that the Chiefs are living on the edge. Maybe they can continue happily on that way. More likely, going on the road to Buffalo, historically a graveyard for the Chiefs, or to Denver in its subsequent game on Nov. 17 will be enough to push them over the edge.
One way or the other, the Chiefs seem intent on finding out.
Since then, the Raiders have won six straight games in Kansas City. The 5-0 Chiefs and 2-3 Raiders have exceeded expectations, which could make for an interesting game Sunday when the teams meet in Kansas City.
Here, ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez take a look at the matchup:
Teicher: It only seems like forever since the Chiefs have beaten the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. What chance do you think Oakland has of making it seven in a row?
Gutierrez: Indeed, the Raiders are riding a six-game winning streak in Kansas City, their longest such streak in this rivalry that stretches back to the dawn of the AFL in 1960. The last time the Chiefs beat Oakland at Arrowhead was on Nov. 19, 2006, when Aaron Brooks, who rocked No. 2, was under center for the Raiders and Larry Johnson was busy rushing for 154 yards and two TDs. That 17-13 loss, ahem, helped the Raiders solidify that No. 1 overall draft pick the following spring, a pick that became JaMarcus Russell, who also wore No. 2. But I digress. Things have changed in Oakland as far as optimism regarding QBs wearing No. 2, and that's where Terrelle Pryor comes in. He was not allowed to wear the number coming out of college but switched back to his old Ohio State digit this year. Al Davis' final draft pick has brought an excitement to a fan base thirsting for it. Pryor can extend plays and if the defense can bottle up Alex Smith, I would not be surprised if Oakland made it seven in a row in Middle America.
Speaking of Smith, from the outside looking in it appears as though he should be the toast of the town in leading the Chiefs to that 5-0 record. But have there been rumblings about his being a one-dimensional game manager? Did fans not read the scouting report, or is it all much ado about nothing?
Teicher: Fans are difficult to please. The Chiefs, to their credit, have tried to play to Smith's strengths by using in large part a shorter passing game. Smith, to his credit, has mostly done what has been asked of him. The Chiefs have opened up their passing game in the past couple of weeks by going downfield more. Smith has thrown only three interceptions and really just one could be pinned on him, so he's not putting the Chiefs in bad situations. The Chiefs trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time this season in last week's game against Tennessee and Smith responded by taking the Chiefs on what proved to be the winning touchdown drive, so he delivered in the clutch in his first try. One area where Smith needs to improve is completion percentage. With so many short throws, he needs to be way better than 58 percent. That's an area of growth for their offense.
Pryor is off to a nice start for the Raiders but has any opponent tried to pressure him like the Chiefs no doubt will? If not, how do you think he responds?
Gutierrez: The Colts tried to pressure him in the opener, and he responded with 112 yards rushing -- a record for a Raiders quarterback. Granted, much of that came on zone-read option plays, though he was able to take off for long runs on busted coverages when Indy overloaded the pursuit. Truly, his mobility and ability to extend plays has made a makeshift offensive line look pretty solid. Lately, though, teams have been putting a spy on him and his rushing totals have gone down. And really, while the Raiders want him to use his athleticism to make things happen, they don't want him running for his life, either. I'm curious to see how he responds if the Chiefs make it a priority to stop him from rolling out to his right, which is where and how he made a lot of his plays Sunday night, when most of the rest of the country was sleeping. Pryor's play has been surprising, especially to general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen. The raw talent was there, but how quickly it's come together has been impressive to watch.
Same thing in Kansas City, I suppose. After all, the last-place Chiefs did have six Pro Bowlers a year ago. How has Andy Reid been able to get the Chiefs to buy into his system and philosophy so quickly?
Teicher: That's been one of the more underrated things he's done. He walked in with instant credibility as the most accomplished head coach almost all of the current players have been under, at least while they were with the Chiefs. That helps. But unlike with several of their other recent head coaches, there's been no whining or complaining about how bare the cupboard was or what a lousy situation he inherited. He just rolled up his sleeves and got to work like a pro does, and I think a lot of players saw that as a refreshing change. Players recognized they had a lot of talent here that was just waiting for some competent direction. They were receptive when they received it.
Looking at Oakland defensively, I can't figure out how the Raiders don't allow more points. I know they do a very good job against the run, but the Raiders haven't forced a high number of turnovers and opposing quarterbacks are completing a high percentage of throws with a high passer rating. How do you explain the way Oakland is playing defensively, and who are some of the defenders playing well?
Gutierrez: It's the epitome of the bend-but-don't-break philosophy ... and being patient. True, entering Week 5, the Raiders had yet to have an interception. But then they picked off Philip Rivers three times. Four of his completions of at least 16 yards came in the fourth quarter, when the Raiders led by 10 and were in a prevent defense. Just don't call it that to the Raiders. Dennis Allen prefers "situational" defense. Hence, a lot of Rivers' completions and yardage came in what the layman would call "garbage time." Individually, Charles Woodson has been more than the Raiders could have hoped for when they signed him -- he's been their best overall player. Against the Chargers, he had an interception and a fumble scoop and 25-yard run for a TD. Lamarr Houston has made the transition nicely from left defensive end to the right side. He leads Oakland with three of its 13 sacks. Nick Roach has been solid at middle linebacker, a far cry from the bust that was Rolando McClain. Even rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden flashed Sunday night, picking off Rivers in the end zone after a rough go of it against Keenan Allen. Observers were wondering when Hayden -- the No. 12 overall draft pick the Raiders loved so much they would have taken him third had they not been able to trade down -- was going to make an impact play.
Small sample size, obviously, but does the Chiefs' top pick, the No. 1 overall, Eric Fisher have the look of an impact, i.e., cornerstone offensive tackle, even as he missed last week's game with that concussion and is playing on the right side rather than the left? I know the Raiders were enthralled with him after coaching him at the Senior Bowl.
Teicher: He's off to a rough start. Fisher has been so bad at times that the Chiefs should have at least considered replacing him. He was playing his best game of the season two weeks ago against the Giants when he left the lineup because of a concussion. The Chiefs are still confident Fisher will become the player they envisioned when they drafted him. It's just taking some time. Opponents have been able to get Fisher off balance and use leverage against him, so his technique needs to be refined. He also needs more strength than a full offseason in the Chiefs' weight room would provide.
A party of one. He is the only player remaining who was in a Broncos uniform for a remember-when game against Michael Vick. At the time, Vick’s jersey sales were off the chart and he was the next level of athleticism with a power arm. Vick represented what the future of the position just might be.
“At that time, no question, there wasn’t anybody really like him," Bailey said. “That’s how we looked at it that week. We put on the tape and you watched him and he just did things other guys weren’t doing, with speed nobody else had, really. That game, I still look at that even now like that’s still probably one of his best games of his career. We had no answer for what he brought that day."
On that day, Vick was 18-of-24 passing for 252 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-28 Falcons win that saw any memory of Jake Plummer's franchise-record 499 yards passing disappear in Vick's jetwash. Vick did not throw an interception and the Broncos sacked him just once. Vick also ran for 115 yards on 12 carries, including a 44-yard, double-take worthy effort on a third-and-3 play during the Falcons’ first possession of the day.
That was all before Vick’s arrest, his incarceration, his life’s rebound and his career resurrection in Philadelphia. Vick returns to Denver Sunday, his first trip back as a starting quarterback since the ’04 affair and he returns as a slightly different player, almost a decade older and once again on the cutting edge of whatever becomes of Chip Kelly’s offense in the NFL. Asked this week if he could recall the ’04 trip to Denver, Vick said; “I think Jake Plummer was the quarterback, Mike Shanahan was the coach ... and it’s not an easy place to play."
Reminded he had rushed for more than 100 yards in the game, Vick said with a laugh; “Well, I was a lot younger back then."
“He was a bigger threat running the ball back then, I believe," Bailey said. “But he’s still a threat, a great threat running the ball. But he was just on point that day. He didn’t show all that on tape in previous games. That was one of his best games of his career. I know it because he probably ran for 100 and threw for two-something ... I look back and I think that was a big moment for him, because I don't think I had seen him put a whole game together like that, running, throwing, in the pocket, on the move, until that day."
And there have certainly been times in Vick’s career when his NFL peers perhaps appreciated his athletic gifts more than the public at large. In Vick’s time in Atlanta, players often responded to any question that included “most dynamic" or “most athletic" or “toughest to defend" in it with Vick’s name.
“I think that’s true," said Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, an eighth-year veteran. “Guys I knew would always be talking about how (Vick) played, what he did. And then I would talk to friends who weren't in the league or something like that and they would say they didn't see it, or whatever, but I think guys in this league have known what (Vick) can do."
And also in Kelly’s read-option attack Vick, who is suddenly the oldest player on the Eagles’ roster. Another sort of remake for the only quarterback in league history to have thrown for at least 20,000 yards and rushed for at least 5,000 yards in a career. He has a 400-yard passing game already this season -- 428 yards in the loss to the Chargers earlier this month -- and he’s also been sacked six times, by the Chiefs last week, as the Eagles try to settle in to a new way of doing things in a 1-2 start.
“But I just look at it now, he’s still doing those things, he’s still breaking off those big runs, escaping, all those things," Vickerson said. “It all looks the same to me."
Vick has been battered at times in his three previous seasons as the Eagles' starter. He missed three games each in the 2010 and 2011 seasons with rib injuries and missed six games last season after suffering a concussion against the Cowboys last Nov. 11. And questions have swirled about whether Vick is the long-term answer at quarterback as for Kelly's offense, or as a long-term an answer as a 33-year-old quarterback who is his team’s second-leading rusher can be. But as far as the Broncos are concerned those are decisions for another day by other people.
They see only Vick now, for the most part, as he was back in 2004.
“Michael Vick has been a talented football player as long as he’s been in the league," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “He’s been a guy that can beat you with his feet and beat you with his arm … I kind of feel like that’s always been the case and in particular when he’s healthy and part of a good team."
Cornerback Tony Carter (right ankle) practiced fully Friday and was listed as probable. As for Bailey (left foot), he practiced on a limited basis for the second consecutive week. And as the Broncos did last week, they formally listed Bailey as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Eagles.
Asked if he could make a decision on Bailey’s status after Friday’s practice or would have to see Bailey work on the field in the hours before Sunday’s game, Broncos coach John Fox said: “We’ll make it official an hour and half before kickoff on gameday." Bailey characterized his status as "close, very close.''
Linebacker Paris Lenon (thigh) was the only player held out of practice Friday and was formally listed as doubtful. Lenon is not expected to play against the Eagles. Tight end Joel Dreessen (knee), who like Bailey has yet to play in a game this season, was limited Friday and listed as questionable.
Safety David Bruton (neck), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (left ankle), long snapper Aaron Brewer (rib), running back C.J. Anderson (knee), cornerback Omar Bolden (left shoulder), wide receiver Wes Welker (left ankle), wide receiver Eric Decker (right shoulder), tackle Orlando Franklin (shoulder), guard Chris Kuper (ankle) all practiced fully and were all listed as probable.
“That’s what those offenses want to do," said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “They want you to mess up. They want you not to get lined up, not to get your calls, not to be where you’re supposed to be, then they hit you with a big play."
So, as the Broncos and Eagles -- two of the fastest offenses in the league -- gather Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, here are some things to consider:
- Get moving: The Broncos can’t waste time on defense. That whole "stroll to the line of the scrimmage" thing isn’t going to work. Neither will being slow with the calls or sluggish in their alignments. When the play finishes the Broncos defenders simply have to get over the ball and be ready to go. The Chiefs were able to limit the Eagles last week, at least in part, by consistently getting themselves over the ball and ready to go, even as the umpire is placing the ball. Because if you snooze, you lose. And lose big.
- Mind the gap: Like most of the pick-up-the-pace attacks, Eagles coach Chip Kelly is looking to spread out the defense’s resources and then run though the gaps. The Eagles currently lead the league in rushing, at 209 yards per game. With their offensive alingments, Kelly often creates situations where the defense only has six players in the box and then quarterback Michael Vick or running back LeSean McCoy only have to make one defender miss before they are at the second level with big plays on their minds. One of the more effective formations the Eagles have run is a “double stack" look where Kelly takes four receivers and lines two out wide on each side of the formation with one receiver right behind the other on each side. That pulls four defensive backs outside the numbers and six defenders in the tackle box. It makes tackling a premium and a single missed tackle can turn into a 50-yard run. Vick had a 61-yard run out of the formation against the Chiefs. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio knows the deal: “It’s all about leveraging and tackling ... always has been, always will be."[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Paul SpinelliMichael Vick has been exposed to a lot of punishment already this season, including six sacks against the Chiefs.
- Air mail: The Eagles, in Kelly’s first season, have taken a page out of the Seahawks’ playbook. They opened the checkbook in free agency to get bigger at cornerback, signing the 6-foot, 200-pound Bradley Fletcher (Rams) and the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Cary Williams (Ravens) in the offseason. Essentially the Eagles were hoping Fletcher, who started more than four games in just one of his four seasons in St. Louis, could make the transition to front-line starter. But they’ve been spotty at times -- their three opponents have found enough room to attempt 49, 47 and 35 passes over the first three weeks of the season -- and all three opposing quarterbacks have completed at least 61 percent of their passes. Philip Rivers connected on 77 percent in a Week 2 Chargers win. Defensive coaches in the league say they believe Peyton Manning is as dialed in as he’s ever been. And Manning will get a secondary that is starting a backup safety. Earl Wolff is expected to start for the injured Patrick Chung and the other safety, Nate Allen, has struggled mightily at times this season. In the three-wide look, the Eagles will have a difficult choice over who they will put in the slot on Wes Welker. The Eagles have struggled to tackle well much of the time, so the catch-and-run opportunities have been there for opposing receivers.
- Could be a special day: In the Eagles’ loss to the Chiefs, the game was just a few minutes old and the Eagles had already surrendered a 57-yard kickoff return and fumbled a punt. Philadelphia, like any roster in the transition that comes with a new coaching staff, has shown some bobbles in special teams. The Broncos’ Trindon Holliday will have some opportunities to make a play in this one. Also, from the Eagles’ perspective, Kelly will try some things on special teams to shake things up. He attempted a fake extra point out of a swinging gate look with the kicker and holder lined up. The attempt failed, but the Broncos will need to be aware.
- Get heat on: Vick has been sacked 11 times this season -- he was tied for second-most in the league after three games -- including six by the Chiefs last week. It means, given the Eagles’ read-option look on offense, the 33-year-old has taken his share of punishment already. The Broncos will have to be disciplined in their rush lanes as they move up the field. And they’ll have to live by the basic rule of rushing a mobile passer -- don’t get deeper into the backfield than the quarterback so you don’t leave an escape route. The Eagles may move to more two-tight-end looks at times to give a little help up front. But the Broncos should be able to get some pressure and keep Vick hemmed in.