Oakland Raiders: San Diego Chargers
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.
That’s what's at stake when AFC West rivals San Diego and Oakland face off at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.
At 7-7, the Chargers have to win out, along with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins losing their last two games, to have any chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
And with his team losing six of its past seven games, Oakland coach Dennis Allen's job could be in jeopardy the final two weeks of the season.
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez take a closer look the matchup:
Williams: Paul, with the Raiders mired in a late-season funk, is Allen in jeopardy of losing his job?
Gutierrez: In a word, yes. Especially if the Raiders turn in two more performances like the display they had against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, turning the ball over seven times and allowing a franchise record 56 points. Look, owner Mark Davis has said he knew this was year two of the Raiders’ “deconstruction” phase, and he knows this roster is thin. But he’s also said he wants to see progress, and getting markedly worse every week is far from progress.
Yet the Raiders need continuity, something they’ve sorely missed the past decade. And Allen has not had an NFL playoff-caliber roster at his disposal. That could change with some $60 million in cap room next season. Still, will established free-agent stars want to come to Oakland to play for Allen? Then there’s this: Allen still has two years remaining on his contract, so it’s hard to imagine Davis eating those last two years and paying someone else to come in -- unless that someone else is Jon Gruden or Stanford’s David Shaw. Can’t see it, though. At least, not at the moment. What I can see is Allen having to sweat it out if guys check out -- which has not happened … yet -- and the Raiders get blown out by the Chargers and Denver Broncos. If that were to happen, all bets are off.
Philip Rivers has enjoyed a renaissance of a season at quarterback for the Chargers. He’s always been one of the league’s most dangerous quarterbacks, but has he now taken that next step to “elite” level?
Williams: Patience and focusing on the fundamentals during the offseason resulted in Rivers being more poised in the pocket and decisive in his reads this year. Rivers belongs in the conversation as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL based on his performance this season. Not only has he been one of the best signal-callers statistically, residing among the league leaders in completion percentage (69.9 percent), touchdowns (28) and passer rating (106.9), but Rivers also has done a good job of leading the offense. When the Chargers have needed a play to extend a drive or get into the end zone, Rivers usually has been the one pulling the trigger. He's 32 years old, so the Chargers believe he has a few more years of elite-level play left.
Terrelle Pryor showed flashes earlier this season, and Matt McGloin has played OK of late. Do the Raiders move forward with either of these players as the starting quarterback in 2014, or do they draft a quarterback early?
Gutierrez: It’s obvious this coaching staff is far from enamored with Pryor and that McGloin better fits the offense it wants to run, but I’m not sure even the Raiders are convinced their QB of the future is on the roster now. If there was a certifiable franchise QB in the draft, I would say the Raiders go after him. But even Teddy Bridgewater has too many red flags at the moment, no? Our guru Todd McShay has the Raiders selecting Central Florida’s Blake Bortles with the No. 3 pick in his NFL Mock Draft 1.0. I think Fresno State’s Derek Carr fits this regime’s profile better, though.
Still, with so many other holes and the lack of an Andrew Luck or two in the draft, it might behoove the Raiders to build around the QB position and get a pass-rusher or another offensive lineman and sign a veteran free-agent quarterback, someone such as Josh McCown (remember him?), Matt Cassel or (gulp) Matt Flynn. I kid ... kinda.
Keenan Allen raised a ruckus when he rocked a Raiders cap this summer after the Chargers used a third-round draft pick on him. But he’s answered his critics with his play. How has he elevated his game so much -- a front-runner for offensive rookie of the year -- that so many other teams missed on him?
Williams: First, season-ending injuries to Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd gave Allen the opportunity to show what he can do sooner than expected. Once he got on the field, Allen quickly earned the trust of Rivers by consistently making big plays. The moment has never been too big for Allen. At 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, Allen is cat-quick, which allows him to easily beat press coverage and create separation down the field. Allen also is terrific at battling for contested balls. Mix in his ultracompetitiveness and run-after-catch ability and you have an up-and-coming receiver in the NFL.
Rashad Jennings has 679 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games played, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Darren McFadden is going through another injury-plagued season and is in the final year of his deal. Have the Raiders finally found their every-down back in Jennings?
Gutierrez: They’ve certainly found a durable running back, even if he did miss one game with a concussion. Still, Jennings is not the most explosive of backs -- even with his 80-yard touchdown run at Houston -- but for a rebuilding team, that might be enough. The Raiders still need a “dash” of a runner to go with Jennings’ “smash,” and even then they have to re-sign Jennings, who also will be a free agent. Jennings’ yards after contact per attempt (2.24) is tied for the NFL lead, he has yet to fumble this season and his 4.6 yards per carry average is second in the AFC West among backs with at least 149 carries. He is solid and dependable, something McFadden has not been since the first six games of the 2011 season.
The late Al Davis thought the Los Angeles market belonged to the Raiders, and many still see them moving to L.A. in the near future. But the Chargers also seem to think the Southland -- the entire Southland, mind you -- is their turf. What’s the latest on the Chargers’ stadium situation in San Diego? (The Rams are my dark horse, by the way, for moving back to La-La Land.)
Williams: The Los Angeles market is subject to local TV blackouts when Qualcomm Stadium does not sell out, so that tells us to a certain extent what the NFL thinks about the L.A. market and San Diego. For now, I think Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos and the rest of the organization are in wait-and-see mode until a new mayor is elected in February. Gaining political support locally will be critical for any push for a new stadium deal, so the Chargers have to figure out who their dance partner will be first. The franchise suffered a setback earlier this year when a local commission voted to expand the city’s convention center, rejecting the Chargers’ proposal to build a stadium and expand the convention center near the city’s downtown waterfront. Rumblings have the Chargers resuscitating a proposal to build a new stadium near the current location of Qualcomm Stadium.
The San Diego Chargers (2-2), meanwhile, are lamenting how they could be 4-0 were it not for heartbreak against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans.
Now these old AFC West rivals renew acquaintances in a game that will not kick off until 11:35 p.m. ET (8:35 p.m. PT) because of a Major League Baseball playoff game between the Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers being held on the same field a night earlier.
Chargers team reporter Eric D. Williams and Raiders team reporter Paul Gutierrez break down this week’s matchup.
Paul Gutierrez: The Raiders and Chargers have a lot in common, dating back to their AFL days, both calling Los Angeles home at different times, residing in the same division. Now, their respective coaches share a coaching tree belonging to John Fox in Denver. Dennis Allen and Mike McCoy, you’ll recall, were the defensive and offensive coordinators with the Broncos in 2011. And, yeah, the NFL is a cutthroat, win-or-get-out business, but there have to be some warm feelings between the two, right? I remember McCoy telling me at the Senior Bowl in 2012 that the Raiders hired the right guy in Allen, even as McCoy was a rumored early candidate. Has McCoy opened up about his relationship with Allen yet or how they worked together in Denver?
Eric D. Williams: McCoy said his family is very close to Allen’s family. In fact, the two families took a 10-day vacation to the British Virgin Islands during the offseason, which mostly included time with the two coaches fishing. McCoy said the two didn’t talk football during the trip. “We were just trying to catch some fish and have a good time,” he said. McCoy has great respect for Allen as a coach, but he says he does not plan on talking with his fishing buddy this week. McCoy should have a pretty good understanding of Allen’s play-calling tendencies in certain situations defensively because of the time the two spent together in Denver. And the same goes for Allen on McCoy’s favorite play calls and formations. That should make for an entertaining side story Sunday.
Paul, I see Terrelle Pryor was a full participant at practice Wednesday, so it looks as though he’ll play. How did Pryor win the starting job over Matt Flynn? And how has he played through the first quarter of the season?
Gutierrez: Yeah, as the locals put it, it will be TP2 Time in Oaktown Sunday night. Allen said Pryor was completely clear of those concussion symptoms and would start against the Chargers. How did he win the job? Really, it was a perfect storm for both Pryor and Matt Flynn, who was demoted to third string, behind undrafted Penn State rookie Matt McGloin on Wednesday. Pryor simply outplayed Flynn in the preseason, much to the surprise of Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie, who parted with two draft picks to get Flynn from Seattle. A deeper look, though, shows that Pryor, with his running ability and penchant for extending plays, simply gave the Raiders a better chance for success. Especially with such a leaky offensive line -- left tackle Jared Veldheer went down with a triceps injury late in camp -- and untested wide receivers. And, really, with Flynn’s problems this past weekend against Washington, including seven sacks, it became even more apparent that Pryor was making the offensive line look good. Pryor is still raw, but what he lacks in experience, he makes up for in big-play ability. Before last weekend, he was the Raiders’ leading rusher. Speaking of quarterbacks, Philip Rivers seems to have been re-energized by a new coaching staff. How well has this old dog taken to so many new tricks?
Williams: McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt breathed new life into Rivers’ career with the installation of an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Rivers is making decisive reads, playing with anticipation and getting the ball out quickly. And the results have been pretty impressive. Rivers has thrown for 1,199 yards, 11 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. His 118.8 passer rating is second in the NFL to Peyton Manning (138.0). And he has won the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award twice in the past three weeks. Also, part of Rivers’ success is the makeshift offensive line is doing a better job of protecting him, with the Chargers giving up only six sacks through four games.
You mentioned the 8:35 PT kickoff time. What has the reaction been from the players and Raider Nation about the kickoff time being moved? And is a sellout expected for this matchup of AFC West rivals?
Gutierrez: I like to refer to every Raiders home game as Halloween on Hegenberger, what with so many fans dressing up and giving it an otherworldly feel. Playing under the lights, so late at night? Let’s just say it will be a festive atmosphere. Especially because it’s the Chargers coming to town. Nothing like a good rivalry game -- with the parking lot gates opening at 3 p.m. PT -- to get the fans good and worked up, right? As far as the fans are concerned, now that they know when the game is being played, they’re mostly fine with it. Of course, I’m sure there are those who will have to miss the game because they figured it was in the afternoon and they could catch a flight home that night. So, for some, it’s an inconvenience. And I’m sure there will be many bleary-eyed workers on the job come Monday morning. The players are taking it with a grain of salt. Tell them when they play, and they’ll show up. Of course, being the only game at the time, all eyes will be on this game, so to speak, so they’re treating it like a prime-time game under the lights. I expect a sellout, though it’s all semantics, except for when facts get in the way.
With Dwight Freeney done for the year, who steps up for the Chargers as that edge rusher and is that player adept at facing the zone-read option, which Pryor will no doubt be called upon to run?
Williams: Freeney’s replacement will be Larry English, San Diego’s first-round draft selection in 2009, who has so far failed to live up to his high draft status. At 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds, English has the physical tools, but hasn’t put it together to generate the type of production the Chargers are looking for from an elite pass-rusher. Expect Tourek Williams and Thomas Keiser to also see time to help fill the void left by Freeney’s absence. Even with Freeney out, San Diego still managed to create consistent pressure on Tony Romo last week, finishing with three sacks.
With Darren McFadden missing practice with a hamstring issue, what are the chances he’ll play Sunday? And why has he had so much trouble staying healthy throughout his NFL career?
Gutierrez: If anyone had the answer to McFadden’s health issues, and was able to keep him healthy, they’d be a very rich person. It’s mind-boggling, really, and Raiders fans are not only able to set their watch to McFadden getting injured in a season, but truly, turning on him. At least, the ones who fill out my Twitter timeline (and yes, I know Twitter is not the best barometer for the entire fan base, but you understand). He never has played more than 13 games in a season and had missed 14 of the Raiders’ previous 33 games entering this season. With the Raiders not wanting it to become a lingering issue, I could see them shutting down the artist formerly known as Run DMC for the next two games, plus the bye week, to get him ready for Oct. 27 against Pittsburgh. He’s in a contract year, too, so this could not have come at a worse time for him on a personal level, but also for the team. Then again, the query entering every season of late has been this: Because it’s not a matter of if, but when McFadden goes down to injury, how are the Raiders prepared to replace him? Paging Rashad Jennings, who despite a bruising game Sunday, rode his bicycle to and from the facility Monday, about 20 minutes each way.
Guard Mike Brisiel: He is not a great fit for the power-blocking scheme and he has missed time with injuries. But this is not a deep group. Oakland may not feel comfortable getting rid of him.
Tight end Richard Gordon: It would be a surprise, because he is a fine blocker. But Oakland is pretty wide open at tight end. If the Raiders feel like their other young tight ends offer more potential than Gordon, he could be sent packing.
Receiver Robert Meachem: If Meachem wasn’t guaranteed $5 million, there would be no doubt he would be cut. After a poor first season in San Diego last year the new brass isn’t seeing much from Meacham this year. The Chargers are not deep at receiver. But a lack of confidence in him could make his release possible.
Tackle Max Starks: He is battling the young Mike Harris for the swing tackle spot. Starks was signed to be the left tackle, but it seems like that is King Dunlap's job. I could easily see the Chargers go with Harris’ potential over Starks if the team doesn’t think Starks can start.
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.