After one quarter of the 2017 season, this was the AFC West:
Kansas City: 4-0
L.A. Chargers: 0-4
Over the past two months, this has been the AFC West:
L.A. Chargers: 6-2
Kansas City: 2-6
With one-quarter of the season remaining, the AFC West standings:
Kansas City: 6-6
L.A. Chargers: 6-6
“So we’re 0-4,” Philip Rivers said Sunday night, driving down the 405 toward his San Diego home after a Chargers win over Cleveland, “and we gotta go cross-country to play the Giants, who are also 0-4. It’s rough. Just rough. Emotionally, rough. I mean, 0-4. Are you kidding? We get a field goal blocked and lose by three in Denver. Then we miss a game-winning field goal and lose to Miami. I throw three picks and we lose to the Chiefs. Then the Eagles beat us by two. We’re four games behind Kansas City after four weeks. My wife says to me, ‘You know, these young guys on the team, they need to still see it’s okay to have fun and be excited when you’re 0-4.’ So I’m still into it, still trying to be out there having fun with my team.
“We go play the Giants. I remember I’m on bus number three. I got a bunch of guys there around me, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s forget about Kansas City. They beat New England, they beat Philly, they beat Washington … I mean, they’re killing teams. This is the best team ever created! Forget ’em. Let’s just see if we can somehow get to .500 with a chance and see if we can sneak into a wild card.’ And little by little we just started digging.”
The NFL with a quarter-season left is a strange place.
• The top seed in the NFC, Minnesota, is playing a quarterback evicted by the woebegone Rams in the offseason. Case Keenum is 8-0 over the past two months, including a 14-9 win over the Falcons on Sunday in Atlanta. “I guess that’s why we play the games,” Keenum said from Atlanta afterward.
• As of today, the four wild-card weekend hosts would be Tennessee, Kansas City, the Rams and New Orleans. But Jacksonville and the Chargers are damn close to sending out RSVP notices for the first weekend of the playoffs.
• Remember back three months, when the Patriots’ depth chart at quarterback was Tom Brady (1), Jimmy Garoppolo (2) and Jacoby Brissett (3)? At 1:02 p.m. ET Sunday, Brady took the field for the Patriots and started in Buffalo, Garoppolo took the field for the 49ers and started in Chicago, and Brissett took the field for the Colts and started in Jacksonville. Bill Belichick raised them to play well in adversity. In the three road games, past/present Patriot passers went 2-1.
• The Jaguars are not kidding around. After the 30-10 rout of the Colts, they’ve officially proven they can win with great defense and an unpredictable offense. Points allowed in the eight Jag wins: 7, 7, 9, 0, 7, 17, 7, 10.
• July, NFL Network prediction: Giants beat Patriots in Super Bowl 52, Eli Manning outdueling Tom Brady. December, ESPN: With the Giants 2-10 and Manning exiled to the bench, Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen predict coach Ben McAdoo could be fired Monday morning.
• Jared Goff has a higher passer rating and touchdown total than either the 2016 MVP (Matt Ryan) or 2015 MVP (Cam Newton).
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But my favorite story of the year is way out west. I won’t call it the AFC Worst. Too easy. Too true. The streaks, first of all, are amazing. Kansas City won its first five and lost its past four. The Chargers, after the four-game bummer, have had two three-game winning streaks. Oakland lost four straight. Denver has lost eight in a row.
So Denver’s done; John Elway knows he’s got to go quarterback-prospecting in the off-season. “Shocking,” Rivers said of Denver's demise. “We’ve been 4-12, 5-11 the last two years, so I know how things can go south, but I am shocked to see it’s played out there. But after that, I see this division capable and dangerous. Kansas City can score 40 in a given week. Oakland’s explosive, really explosive. And I look at us and sometime I think, man, those two field-goal games and the game I screwed up against Kansas City … we could be sitting here 9-3 and running away with it! But then reality slaps me. I say, ‘Quit saying what could have been! Deal with reality.’ And the reality is, it’s a great race—just kind of a weird race.”
Handicapping the weirdest division in football with a quarter of the season left:
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Games remaining: Oakland (6-6), Chargers (6-6), Miami (5-7), at Denver (3-9)
Record of foes: 20-28.
The Chiefs are mess. Crazy to think that what they have going for them more than anything else is playing the next three at Arrowhead—games they should be favored to win despite entering the last part of the season having lost six of seven. The good news for Kansas City is that the deep-strike ability Alex Smith showed so brazenly early in the season was back Sunday in the Meadowlands, where Smith threw for 366 yards. The bad news: The defense gave up 38 points and 488 yards. To the Jets. And the Chiefs lost their poise badly late in the game. Marcus Peters is a great cornerback. But he does some knucklehead things, such as picking up an official’s yellow flag and throwing it into the 20th row in the end zone. Andy Reid’s got to be worried about this team. The defense that used to be so solid is now so shaky that Josh McCown strafes it effectively. The offense is so unreliable it can lose to the Giants.
I can’t see the Chiefs recovering. I say they finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Games remaining: Washington (5-7), at Kansas City (6-6), at Jets (5-7), Oakland (6-6)
Record of foes: 22-26.
Every one of these games is tricky. And nothing comes easy for the Chargers, except when Nathan Peterman is quarterbacking the other team. But you watch the game on Thanksgiving in Dallas, and you see Rivers playing what I thought was the best game of his pro life (“I was about as in the zone as I ever have been,” he said of his play in the 28-6 rout), and you see Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram (averaging 10.2 quarterback hits, sacks and pressures per game between them, per ProFootballFocus) and you see the dangerous weapon that Keenan Allen is, and you believe. Allen has had three straight games with at least 10 catches, at least 100 yards and at least one score. Why believe more in Rivers to Allen than Alex Smith to Tyreek Hill? Because Rivers-to-Allen has come through big three weeks in a row; Smith-to-Hill has put up more than 100 receiving yards happened three times all season.
I see the Chargers going 3-1 even though there’s nothing close to a gimme in the rest of the schedule, finishing 9-7 and winning the division. Hot team wins.
Games remaining: At Kansas City (6-6), Dallas (6-6), at Philadelphia (10-2), at Chargers (6-6)
Record of foes: 28-20.
I would predict one thing about the offseason if Jack Del Rio returns as coach of the Raiders, which I expect him to do: I bet he goes to owner Mark Davis and tells him to not take a home game away again in 2018—particularly a home game where the home-field edge would be crucial. The New England game got moved from Oakland to Mexico this year, and the Raiders weren’t too competitive in a 33-8 loss, but one less home game is one less home game. “When we looked at the schedule when it came out,” Del Rio told me Sunday night, “we knew it would be a tough, demanding schedule—nine road games, seven home, starting with three of four on the road, ending with three of four on the road. But it feels good to be playing good football at the most important time of the season. What we’ve said all year is stick together, keep fighting and keep believing. Keep improving. I feel like we’re ready for a tough stretch.”
It’s been interesting to watch Del Rio’s usage of Marshawn Lynch, coming off his retirement season. Lynch’s 101-yard game against the Giants on Sunday was his first over 100 yards in 25 months, since his final Seattle season. Lynch ran angry on Sunday, and he ran fresh. His 52-yard TD run was his longest run in three years. “We were aware of not wanting to overwork him early,” Del Rio said. “Now we’re at the point where we’re going to ride him the rest of the way.”
The Raiders are total wild cards. They’re explosive enough to go 3-1 down the stretch, but I think they’re just too inconsistent defensively. I’ve got Oakland winning the first two, losing the last two, and finishing out of it at 8-8.
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