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Raiders’ flaws exposed in loss to Broncos, allowing Chiefs to grab playoff bye

Kansas City—one of the NFL's most underrated teams this season—might have the best chance at beating the Patriots in the upcoming playoffs.

When Raiders QB Derek Carr broke his fibula a week ago on Christmas Eve, Oakland’s Super Bowl hopes all but died. After the Raiders’ 24–6 loss to the Broncos in their regular-season finale, their chances of winning even one playoff game also seem dead. 

The loss dropped 12–4 Oakland, who went scoreless for the first 42 minutes of the Week 17 game, from the AFC’s No. 2 seed and first-round bye to the top wild-card spot, handing the team a date in Houston with Tom Savage and/or Brock Osweiler. The Raiders’ loss also opened the door for the Chiefs to snag the other AFC playoff bye. Kansas City, which has been criminally underrated all season, represents the stiffest competition to New England—not Pittsburgh—on the way to Super Bowl LI.

Denver Broncos 24, Oakland Raiders 6: Complete box score

But first, let’s look at the Oakland Raiders and what will ultimately be a wasted 12-win season. It has been 14 years since Oakland enjoyed a winning season, and though the future looks bright for the Raiders, it’s quite possible they’ll be the underdogs next week against the AFC South champions.

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A serviceable backup, Matt McGloin—who left Sunday’s game late in the first half with a shoulder/neck injury—couldn’t manage to score against Denver’s defense and third-stringer Connor Cook (he of pre-draft poor leadership fame) didn’t get the Raiders on the board until late in the third quarter. In fact, Oakland had just one play in Denver territory before that third-quarter touchdown drive.

It’d be unfair, though, to look just at Oakland’s offense as its sole problem. Even with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack (whose production slipped in the winter), the Raiders gave up 24 points to a Denver offense that scored just 23 in the previous three games combined versus Tennessee, New England and Kansas City.

Perhaps upon closer inspection, Carr’s devastating injury has forced Oakland’s flaws into clearer view. There’s no way to know whether he could have put up 25 points against a Denver defense playing one final game for Gary Kubiak. But even if Carr was still under center for the upcoming wild-card game against Houston, the Raiders would be given a much better chance to win that game, instead of being all but written off the way they are now.

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Meanwhile, the team that handed Oakland two of its four losses this season beat the Chargers 37–27, winning the toughest division in football for the first time since 2010. Kansas City has now won at least nine games in each of the past four seasons—the fourth-best active streak in the league.

Pittsburgh has the best offensive triumvirate in the NFL with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, but the Chiefs are a far more complete team. If any team is going to go to Foxborough and derail Tom Brady’s revenge tour, it’s this Kansas City squad that can score on offense, defense and special teams.

Marcus Peters got his 14th interception of his two-year career Sunday against Philip Rivers, and Eric Berry can take a turnover and turn it into six at any moment. The Chiefs’ five defensive touchdowns are tied for the most in the league this year. And no team has been able to account for rookie Tyreek Hill in both offense and special teams. The league’s quickest player took a punt 95 yards for a touchdown for his 12th score of the year.

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Yes, Alex Smith is far from a perfect QB—San Diego picked him off and returned it 90 yards for a score, his fourth straight game with at least one interception—and criticism of Smith has been valid in his career. However he’s made a concerted effort this season to not be so conservative as a passer, which has benefited his team greatly.

Oakland’s season has been finished since Christmas night, and now rather than hosting a game in two weeks, the Raiders may be eliminated on the road on wild-card weekend.

But Oakland’s failures should not overshadow the Chiefs’ bona fides. Kansas City may be all that’s standing in the way of Tom Brady’s seventh trip to the Super Bowl.