Oakland Raiders: Kansas City Chiefs
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
Whenever "the predictors" go to work, as Denver Broncos coach John Fox likes to call most anyone who tries to offer thoughts on how the NFL season will go, Fox will often point to what happened in the AFC West in 2013 to show the relative worth of preseason predictions.
"Our division was supposed to be one of the worst, people had plenty to say about that," Fox said. "But then when things finished between the white lines, three teams went to the playoffs and it was really one of the toughest divisions. Our expectation is that it will be tough and that we need to be ready to earn what we get."
Whether or not the division can duplicate its 2013 postseason trifecta remains to be seen, but the AFC West team that may have made the biggest roster splash in last month's draft was the one team in the division that didn't make the playoffs: the Oakland Raiders.
With the rest of the division picking in the bottom third of each round, the Raiders took full advantage of location, location, location, grabbing Khalil Mack at No. 5 overall, quarterback Derek Carr with the fourth pick of the second round and Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis with the seventh pick of the fourth round. Add in guard Gabe Jackson with the 17th pick of the third round and the Raiders were workmanlike in their pursuit of immediate contributors.
But did everybody complete their pre-draft missions? NFL Nation's AFC West reporters -- Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City, Eric D. Williams in San Diego and Paul Gutierrez in Oakland tackle it all in 4 Downs.
John Elway's offseason mission was for the Broncos to get "faster, more athletic, across the board." Have the Broncos succeeded?
Paul Gutierrez: File this one under the heading "The rich get richer," and amend to "The conference champs get faster, more athletic across the board." So, in a word, yes. First, the Broncos added DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib in free agency, and while they may have lost a step not only due to age, but to the enormous chips on their respective shoulders, they were steps few others had in the first place. Then the Broncos went out and drafted a cornerback who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash in Ohio State's Bradley Roby to help soothe the loss of Champ Bailey, and then a big, physical receiver in Indiana's Cody Latimer to give Peyton Manning another target in the wake of Eric Decker's departure to Gotham and the New York Jets. So, yeah, I think the Broncos accomplished Elway's goal. The real trick, then, is putting it all together in the postseason in general -- the Super Bowl in particular -- because, as I've written before, no team excels at losing on Super Sunday in more spectacular fashion this side of Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings than Elway's Broncos. And to bite a rhyme for Tarkenton's old 1980s show, That's Incredible!
Jeff Legwold: They careened into free agency, checkbook in hand, and came away with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. The first two players they selected in the draft were two of the fastest on the board at speed positions -- cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. The feeling inside the Broncos' complex this offseason is that as the injuries piled up last season, their depth chart was good enough for them to make the Super Bowl, but their team speed and athleticism suffered. As they now get into the teeth of their offseason program, it's clear that with the new additions and the return of most of those players who were injured last season, they have a far more athletic roster than they did in a 35-point loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Adam Teicher: Picking near the bottom of every early round makes it difficult for a team to get a lot done. But it looks like the Broncos accomplished what John Elway wanted them to with their first couple of picks, at least. Not that Bradley Roby is Champ Bailey or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, at least not yet. But he's faster and is otherwise the athletic superior of those other guys at this point in their careers. Cody Latimer is one of those guys the Chiefs will probably regret they didn't get. With his size and speed, Latimer has what teams are looking for in a receiver. And with the Broncos, he won't have the pressure to produce big results immediately.
Eric D. Williams: On paper, Denver looks more athletic on defense in particular with the additions of DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. But those three players, along with first-round selection Bradley Roby, still have to mesh and develop some chemistry with the rest of the defense, and that might lead to some growing pains early. More importantly, I'm not totally sold that the Broncos fixed the team's most glaring issue from the lopsided Super Bowl loss to Seattle -- protecting Peyton Manning. Getting back a healthy Ryan Clady will be critical for the Broncos, along with better overall performances from Orlando Franklin at left guard and Chris Clark at right tackle.
Did the Chiefs make a mistake by not drafting a wide receiver?
Gutierrez: It would appear as such, especially with the consensus feeling out there before the draft that the Chiefs' biggest need was a receiver. Dwayne Bowe is coming off a career-low 11.8 yards per catch average, while Donnie Avery's two touchdown receptions were the fewest of his career as a starter. Both will be 30 by the end of September, and at the beginning of June, those are essentially the only wideout weapons at Alex Smith's disposal. And it's not as if the Chiefs were lighting it up in the passing game, anyway. The Chiefs had the 24th-ranked passing game in the NFL last season, and when their first pick came up at No. 23 overall, four receivers had already been taken in Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks. So, sure, the top-rated pass-catchers may have already been gone, but Kelvin Benjamin and Marqise Lee were both still on the board when the Chiefs instead chose a defensive end in Dee Ford. Unless Bowe and Avery experience career renaissances, or someone else shows up, the Chiefs will regret passing on a receiver with that first pick, especially since they were without a second-round selection.
Legwold: Having seen what Andy Reid has done in the past in the passing game with running backs like Duce Staley and LeSean McCoy, it's likely fourth-round pick De'Anthony Thomas is going to see plenty of time lined up like a wide receiver. And if Thomas plays to his pre-draft scouting report, he should have some impact. The Chiefs were not that productive at wideout last season and seem locked in on Dwayne Bowe improving in 2014, and A.J. Jenkins will give them more as well. But if they don't like what they see in the coming weeks, they may have to sign a veteran when cuts get made around the league in August and September.
Teicher: They didn't make a mistake if they didn't like any of the available receivers when they made their picks in the first and third rounds. But it's difficult to see how the passing game will continue to flourish as it did late last season without the Chiefs getting at least some help from one of their draft picks. Their wide receivers were among the least productive in the league last season and they lost Dexter McCluster, one of their leading pass-catchers. There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking going on at the position. Maybe Dwayne Bowe will bounce back with a better season or Donnie Avery can be more consistent. Perhaps A.J. Jenkins, a former first-round draft pick with the San Francisco 49ers, can improve. It's possible CFL veteran Weston Dressler or speedy fourth-round draft pick De'Anthony Thomas can provide a boost. But from this vantage point it appears the Chiefs have a collection of players at this position who don't add up to much.
Williams: Consistent production at receiver appears to be the Achilles' heel of Kansas City's offense heading into the 2014 season. Dwayne Bowe was considered a true No. 1 receiver three years ago, but hasn't caught more than five touchdown passes in a season since 2010. Donnie Avery can serve as a vertical threat if he can stay healthy. Young players like A.J. Jenkins and Junior Hemingway have the potential to develop into regular contributors, while fourth-round selection De'Anthony Thomas could replace some of the production Kansas City lost due to Dexter McCluster signing with Tennessee in free agency. But the Chiefs do not have an outside receiver who puts fear into an opposing secondary.
@adamteicher No. Rookie wide receivers rarely revolutionize an offense. Andy's O is RB and TE driven, the impact would have been minimal.- Townsend Keller (@Obtuse_Goose_61) May 21, 2014
Did the San Diego Chargers add enough talent through the draft to improve an inconsistent pass defense from last season?
Gutierrez: Well, let's see. The Chargers finished 2013 with the 29th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, last in the AFC West. Only the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles were worse overall. So San iego (see what I did there, no 'D' in the Chargers' game?) went out and used its first-round pick, No. 25 overall, on TCU's Jason Verrett, a dark horse of a cornerback if there ever was one in this draft. He was the fourth corner chosen, behind Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller and Darqueze Dennard, and should start for the Bolts immediately. A pass-rushing linebacker in Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu was taken in the second round and the Chargers went defensive tackle in the fifth round with Arkansas State's Ryan Carrethers. And that was it on the defensive side of the ball in the Chargers' draft. So on the surface, by taking only one player from the secondary, the answer would appear to be a healthy ... no. But if Attaochu and Carrethers can supply adequate pressure to affect the quarterback, at least more than last year, how does a healthy "maybe" grab you?
Legwold: The Chargers largely kept it in the fairway in free agency and the draft, preferring a low-key approach they believe will allow them to keep their playoff status. Grind it out will keep it close, but it won't consistently beat the Broncos. It will take explosiveness and perhaps even a turnover or two on top of that. The Chargers played the Broncos better than anyone last season, at least until the Seahawks dismantled Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. But the Broncos filled holes and actually made their depth chart better. The Chargers look like they have made moves that will help them grow, but at first blush it doesn't look like they did enough to unseat Denver, provided the Broncos keep Peyton Manning and the bulk of their starters healthy.
Teicher: It's difficult to fault the Chargers' efforts. In going 1-2 in the draft with a cornerback, TCU's Jason Verrett, and a pass-rusher, Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu, the Chargers tried to make the necessary repairs. But Verrett is small and probably best suited to playing nickelback. If that's where he plays, he's a part-timer. As for Attaochu, it's unusual for rookie pass-rushers to come in and have a huge immediate impact, particularly those who aren't selected near the top of the draft. It's not wise for the Chargers to count on a lot from him as a rookie.
Williams: San Diego's first two picks in this year's draft, cornerback Jason Verrett and edge rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, should make an impact in their rookie seasons, upgrading a defense that finished No. 29 against the pass in 2013. Verrett is still rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn labrum and likely won't be cleared to practice until August. But San Diego plans on getting him on the field quickly and can use his tenacity and speed in the back end. Attaochu gives the Chargers much-needed speed off the edge defensively. But besides those two, San Diego's defense should improve against the pass because of a healthy Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram providing a more consistent pass rush in 2014.
Will the Raiders' plan to take a play from the Packers -- having their QB of the future (Aaron Rodgers) sit behind the starter (Brett Favre) for a few seasons -- come to fruition, or will Derek Carr supplant Matt Schaub as Oakland's starter this season?
Gutierrez: Stop me if you've heard this before, but this was also Oakland's plan last year ... so to speak. The Raiders acquired Matt Flynn to be their franchise QB and had designs on drafting Matt Barkley before taking Tyler Wilson instead. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin eventually split the gig and neither Flynn nor Wilson made it to the end of the season, while Pryor was traded away in April. This time, though, the Raiders insist they have it right, with coach Dennis Allen going so far as to say that Schaub is a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. They better be right. Because if Carr takes any significant snaps this season, that means something went terribly wrong with Schaub, a two-time Pro Bowler who passed for more than 4,000 yards three times between 2009 and 2012 but is coming off a nightmarish season with the Houston Texans. And after last year's fiasco under center, the brain trust of general manager Reggie McKenzie and Allen can ill afford another such dud. Unless, of course, Carr does supplant Schaub and is the second coming. But that would be dumb luck, and that's not Oakland's plan ... at the moment.
Legwold: Coach Dennis Allen has consistently said he believes Schaub is a top-10 quarterback. But his actions this season will show whether he really believes that or not. The Raiders certainly drafted Carr with the idea he could be the quarterback of the future. But that means the Raiders will have to have organizational discipline to live with the plan. That means avoiding a knee-jerk reaction to public sentiment if Schaub makes mistakes, and keeping Carr on the bench. If the plan is for him to watch and learn, then stick to it; let him watch and learn no matter what is going on around the team. If the Raiders have some success and Schaub can rise above the mistakes, it will be far easier to keep Carr next to a clipboard rather than behind center.
Teicher: It's best for the Raiders in the short term, at least, if Schaub is their starting quarterback for all of 2014. Starting a rookie quarterback is, in most cases, a prelude to disaster. That hasn't always been the case, but generally speaking a team needs more going for it than Oakland has to succeed with a rookie QB. So the best-case scenario for the Raiders is for Schaub to play well enough to allow him to keep his job. They don't need Dennis Allen making the panic move to save his job by switching to Carr, who may or may not be ready to play. Oakland needs Schaub to succeed to the point where you're asking the same question at this time next year.
Williams: Dennis Allen and Reggie McKenzie need to finish around .500 to save their jobs, so the more games Schaub plays and is effective, the better the chance of that happening. Carr has a strong arm and is an interesting prospect, but he's not ready to lead a team and win on a consistent basis in the NFL. The Raiders need Schaub to hop in a time-travel machine and perform like he did in 2009, when he led the league in passing yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
@PGutierrezESPN Week 7 Johnny vs Derek- Michael Martin (@559Raider87) May 29, 2014
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.
The Chiefs (10-3), meanwhile, ended a three-game losing streak last week by thumping Washington 45-10 and have their eyes set on a playoff berth, which they can clinch by beating the Raiders and/or getting some help elsewhere.
Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez break down the upcoming matchup at the O.co Coliseum.
Gutierrez: Hey Adam, the Raiders are looking desperately at every angle to win a football game and end a three-game losing streak. Though they hung with the Chiefs in Kansas City for more than a half earlier this season, many are wondering if the Chiefs could sit a few starters this weekend, especially since that playoff spot will have been clinched before kickoff in Oakland if the Miami Dolphins lose earlier in the day against the New England Patriots. Do you envision that possibly happening, or is Game 14 too soon for coach Andy Reid and Co. to start thinking that way?
Teicher: Reid hasn’t tipped his hand on this, but it’s difficult to picture him backing off this early, or at least until they no longer can win the AFC West championship. And no matter what happens, the Chiefs can’t be eliminated from winning the division title before Sunday’s kickoff. As it looks, the Chiefs will have plenty of time over the final two games to provide rest to some of their key players. If this is any clue, the Chiefs had a 38-10 lead late in the third quarter last week against Washington, but all of their key players, including running back Jamaal Charles and quarterback Alex Smith, were still in the lineup. So I would expect that on Sunday, the Chiefs will do what they feel they have to do to win this game.
McGloin will start against the Chiefs for the first time. Give us a little scouting report with the things he has and hasn’t done well, and what he might be capable of that could give an aggressive defense like Kansas City’s some trouble.
Gutierrez: McGloin is the anti-Pryor -- that is, he is the prototypical pocket passer who is most comfortable running a West Coast offense, even if he is a little on the short end at 6-foot in his cleats. His biggest backers compare the undrafted rookie to a poor man’s Drew Brees. Pretty heady stuff. Still, what the Raiders lose in athleticism in going from Pryor to McGloin they gain in pocket presence. McGloin learns from his mistakes quickly, and his coaches say he rarely, if ever, makes the same mistake twice. He has made a few, though: a jump ball in the end zone to the 5-9 Jacoby Ford that was picked off on Thanksgiving in Dallas, trying to force a pass deep in his own territory that was picked off by the New York Jets’ Ed Reed. Where he might be able to give the Chiefs’ aggressive defense fits is his ability to stay in the pocket until the last possible moment, take the hit and still get the ball off, as he did for a 27-yard go-ahead touchdown pass against the Tennessee Titans.
Against Pryor, the Chiefs had nine sacks. But they had only two total in their previous five games before getting Washington’s quarterbacks six times this past weekend. Was it merely a matter of flipping the switch for the Chiefs' pass rush?
Teicher: It was a combination of things, really. The main thing is that they got a big lead early and were able to get after Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins without having to truly honor Washington’s running game. They were able to make the Redskins one-dimensional that way. Another factor is that the Redskins are a mess. I think a lot of teams are capable of making their pass protection look bad. Also, I think the Chiefs were due. While their pass rush isn’t as good as it looked in the last game against the Raiders or in many of the other early season games, it is too good to go long stretches without getting a sack. Opposing quarterbacks had changed their game to get rid of the ball quickly against the Chiefs. Washington’s quarterbacks didn’t use that strategy much.
The Chiefs allow some big pass plays every week because of the aggressive style they play. Denarius Moore was Oakland's deep threat the last time these teams met. Is he healthy enough to play this week and, whether he is or not, do the Raiders have any other big-play receivers who can give the Chiefs something to worry about?
Gutierrez: Moore has not played since Nov. 17, but he did practice Wednesday for the first time since injuring a shoulder in Houston. And, perhaps coincidentally, that was the last time the Raiders won a game. When healthy, he is definitely their most electric playmaker, but Oakland might have found something in a couple of undrafted guys -- Andre Holmes, who lit up the Dallas Cowboys for seven catches and 136 yards on Thanksgiving, and Rod Streater, who is 213 yards away from becoming the first Raiders receiver to turn in a 1,000-yard season since Randy Moss in 2005. They are both much larger targets than Moore, but not as fast or explosive.
Despite finishing with the league’s worst record last season at 2-14, the Chiefs still had six Pro Bowlers, so the talent was obviously there. And with the 9-0 start this season, it seems obvious the biggest change was in coaching. But at the risk of offending Smith, is it really that simplistic?
Teicher: With the exception of general manager, coaching staff and quarterback, the Chiefs aren’t much different in key spots than they were last season, when they finished 2-14. So most of the credit for their turnaround has to go to GM John Dorsey, Reid and Smith. Dorsey's best offseason moves came through free agency, when the Chiefs added productive role players like tight end Anthony Fasano, defensive end Mike DeVito and cornerback Sean Smith. Reid has done a nice job with the X's and O's, but perhaps his best move was to turn around a rotten, losing culture and get everyone within the organization to fall in behind him. Alex Smith has picked up his game of late. He’s going down the field more with the ball, and the passing game has perked up. He has been solid enough not to ruin a good thing for the Chiefs. Smith has committed just six turnovers this season. Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined to turn it over 27 times last season.
The Chiefs had one of their worst offensive games of the season against Oakland the last time. Since then, the Raiders have been allowing a lot of yards and a lot of points. Is there an easy explanation for what has happened to their defense?
Gutierrez: An easy explanation? Sure, the defense is simply worn down ... and a lack of depth behind the starting 11 has made the drop off all the more stunning. Especially in the past three games. Against the Tennessee Titans, the Raiders' defense allowed an 80-yard drive in six minutes that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal with 10 seconds remaining to give the Titans a 23-19 victory. On Thanksgiving Day, the Raiders blew a 21-7 first-half lead in Dallas, and last week against the Jets, they “peed down" their legs, per the loquacious Charles Woodson, in forcing only two punts all day, the last after the game was decided. Then there is this: Over those past three games, the Raiders have allowed those opponents to convert an NFL-worst 54.6 percent of their third downs. If Dennis Allen’s seat is warm, it’s because the defense -- his purported forte -- has been so bad of late.
Gurode is starting in place of the injured Stefen Wisniewski, who has a sprained right knee, for the second straight game.
Right guard Mike Brisiel has moved to center and Lamar Mady is now at right guard.
The Raiders were leading the Chiefs, 7-0, after a 39-yard touchdown catch and run by Denarius Moore.
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.
John from Fairbanks, Alaska: How dominant can this Chiefs linebackers group be? [Tamba] Hali and [Justin] Houston both top 10 sacks?
Bill Williamson: Could be best group of 3-4 linebackers in the NFL. Expect a huge season from those guys.
Sheldon from Washington, DC: Any chance Terrelle Pryor gets some snaps with the first-team offense tomorrow night against Chicago?
BW: I wouldn't be shocked. Why not? Get him some work with the better players. If he is going to have a chance to start at some point, might as well see what he can do
Nick W. from Indianapolis: I now it's still very early. But how do you think the [Mike] McCoy era is starting?
BW: Yes, it's early. Players like him. Camp went well. So far, so good. But wins and losses is what matters most.