The NFL’s Thursday night product has developed something of a suspect reputation. A report from Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio last month even revealed that the league could eliminate or scale back the oft-underwhelming mid-week slate.
Well, there will be no complaints about this Thursday’s matchup. Week 14 brings with as impactful a Thursday Night Football offering as there has been in a decade of existence: The 10–2 Raiders visiting the 9–3 Chiefs, with the AFC West and, potentially, the No. 1 AFC playoff seed on the line.
“We know they’re a very good football team, they’re very well-coached and they’ve got good football players,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid of the Raiders. “It should be a heck of a game.”
• Watch Raiders–Chiefs tonight LIVE on SI.com’s live stream
One of the Raiders’ two losses this season came at the Chiefs’ hands, back in Week 6, when Kansas City outscored Oakland 13–0 after halftime en route to a 26–10 win. Oakland crossed midfield just once in the game’s final 30 minutes, on a possession that ended when Dee Ford forced a Derek Carr fumble, and the team mustered just 285 yards of offense—their second-lowest total of the season.
A change almost certain to come Thursday: more commitment to the run game. The Raiders’ 17 rushing attempts vs. Kansas City were the fewest against any opponent in 2016, an unusual approach considering the Chiefs’ defense is weakest against the run—they rank 25th in yards per attempt allowed (4.3) and have allowed at least 104 yards rushing in 75% of their games.
Oakland hit a lull with its rushing attack in Weeks 11 and 12, only to pick up the slack again last Sunday against Buffalo: 139 yards and two TDs, both by Latavius Murray.
Jack Del Rio’s team often has been at its best when pushing the tempo via QB and leading MVP candidate Derek Carr, but a little ball control Thursday wouldn’t hurt. Oakland does boast one of the NFL’s top offensive lines, and arguably its best win to date—Week 7 vs. Denver—came by dominating at the point of attack.
Del Rio also wouldn’t mind keeping his own defense off the field as much as possible. The incredible Khalil Mack has emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner, with sacks in each of the past seven games. Despite his work, the Raiders still are allowing 4.9 yards per rush attempt and 12.8 yards per completion, both league highs.
They’ll draw a Kansas City offense that suddenly, as of about the final drive of regulation at Denver two weeks ago, is clicking on all cylinders. The key this past week, in a win over Atlanta, was QB Alex Smith’s increased willingness to stretch the field with mismatch-creating tight end Travis Kelce. That duo connected eight times for 140 yards against the Falcons.
Oakland limited Kelce to three catches for 32 yards in October, but Smith completed passes to nine different receivers, including Jeremy Maclin. Maclin, who hasn’t played since Week 9 with a groin injury, is set to return on Thursday, thus adding even more big-play ability to their surging attack.
A Raiders victory would give them a two-game lead in the AFC West with three weeks left, while also keeping them pinned to the top of the AFC standings. Should the Chiefs complete the season sweep of their bitter rival, the division standings would flip-flop—Kansas City’s tiebreaker edge would push it past Oakland—and the Patriots would have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
There is a ton at stake Thursday night. Enjoy it while you can.
The Raiders have been thrilling to watch and resilient when backed into a corner, but how sustainable is this model? That’s not meant as a “they’re doomed come playoff time” query, so much as a “it’s tough to bank on late Derek Carr heroics every week in the regular season” statement.
The Chiefs were very balanced in their earlier victory over Oakland, rushing for 183 yards and passing for 224 while holding the ball for nearly 37 minutes. The Raiders have to turn them one-dimensional, one direction or the other, if they’re to steal one Thursday night.
It won’t be easy. Not if Kansas City’s offense can keep rolling the way it has the past five quarters or so.
Key player(s): Chris Jones and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DL, Chiefs. That earlier meeting, in which the Raiders failed to establish the run? The Chiefs trotted out a starting D-line of Jaye Howard, Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe. Now, Poe is the only player of that trio not sidelined on injured reserve.
Jones, a rookie, and Nunez-Roches, a 2015 sixth-rounder have been the main recipients of extra playing time in their stead. Adding to their responsibilities has been Poe’s own nagging back injury, which limited him to just 12 snaps vs. Denver in Week 11—Nunez-Roches and Jones played 70% and 69% of snaps that game, respectively, with veteran Kendall Reyes (60%) also receiving an uptick.
If the Raiders do in fact commit to the run Thursday, on what is expected to be a bitterly cold evening at Arrowhead Stadium, Jones and Nunez-Roches will have to stand tall alongside Poe.
Bold prediction: Derek Carr turns it over at least twice. The Raiders’ star has committed just eight turnovers on the season, but two of them (one fumble, one INT) came against Kansas City. While those injuries up front are a concern for the Chiefs, they are about as healthy at linebacker and DB as they have been in some time—Justin Houston’s return three games ago buoyed the former unit; Philip Gaines (knee) is on track to rejoin the latter after a Week 13 absence.
The Chiefs lead the league in forcing turnovers, with 25 on the year. They are opportunistic and aggressive, and they’ll have to capitalize on any mistakes Carr may make.