AFC West: Are Oakland & Kansas City Already Dead?

The AFC West looked like it might be the most balanced of the eight divisional races when the NFL regular season. Only two weeks in and it looks like the race is already being cut in half. This was alluded to yesterday in the recap notes on Week 2 and it’s worth delving into a little more. While no one wants to overreact too quickly, is there anything the Oakland Raiders or Kansas City Chiefs have done in their opening games that suggest they can keep pace? Let’s take a look at what both teams have been plagued by and what the immediate prospects are for recovery…

OAKLAND: The Raiders are getting next to nothing in rush offense, with 67 yards combined in their losses to San Diego & Miami. Given this team’s offensive line isn’t that bad, their wideouts aren’t that good and Darren McFadden is in the backfield, this is completely unacceptable. And presumably, it’s fixable. Oakland would have to be less optimistic about what they’ve seen from their pass rush—or more accurate, the fact they haven’t seen a pass rush at all. The front four, as noted in this team’s preseason preview, is a decent group of talent individually, but none really excel at rushing the passer. They have just one sack and only four hits on the opposing quarterbacks in these opening two games.

While the lack of pass rush was a predictable, albeit serious problem, it’s even more troubling that this front four was overrun at Miami. Reggie Bush ran wild, producing 172 yards on the ground, including a pair of touchdown runs in the third quarter that turned a 10-7 Raider lead into a 21-10 deficit and set the rout in motion. Richard Seymour and Tommie Kelly are too good of run defenders on the interior of the front four to allow this to happen.

Carson Palmer has thus been placed in an untenable situation. He’s been kept off the field by opposing ground games, put into a hole, not given any real talent at wideout and has no running game support. Maybe the fact he’s managed to complete nearly 60 percent of his passes, produce almost 700 yards of offense and only throw one interception should put him in the MVP discussion when you consider all that’s collapsing around him. Yes, that is an exaggeration, but you get the point. The usual NFL tendency to put everything on the quarterback would not only be misguided, but if you’re an Oakland fan it’s downright harmful to your team.

There are positives the Raiders can look at. They were able to defend the run against San Diego, even if the Chargers don’t exactly try and muscle anyone up. Even though McFadden didn’t produce on the ground, they got him the ball 13 times in the air. And had they not run into problems with their long-snapper they might have won the game, in which case, we’re only mildly concerned about them as opposed to sounding alarm bells. But the coming games are home against Pittsburgh and on the road at Denver before a bye week. If the Steelers, who have done nothing on the ground thus far, are able to establish this part of the offense, Oakland’s officially in trouble.

KANSAS CITY: The Chiefs have been lit up through the air. The Week 1 loss to Atlanta was understandable. The game was competitive into the second half, it was a potent Falcon attack and Kansas City was playing without outside linebacker Tamba Hali, the most important element in their pass rush. But what was the problem Sunday at Buffalo? Ryan Fitzpatrick was allowed to look like Jim Kelly and C.J. Spiller was made to appear as Thurman Thomas, and the result mimicked the 1993 AFC Championship Game, when the Chiefs lost badly in Buffalo. At least the weather was warmer this time. Hali was on the field, but there was no pass rush to be found.

And the ground game, which had done fairly well against Atlanta until the Falcons opened up the lead disappeared. Jamaal Charles only got six carries and produced three yards. Matt Cassell threw for 301 yards, but it was low percentage—he went 23/42, and a lot of the yardage got piled up in the fourth quarter when a 35-3 deficit turned into a 35-17 final. The pass protection, while not bad, hasn’t been all that great—certainly not what Kansas City was counting on when they invested in offensive tackle Eric Winston in free agency. And first-round draft pick Dontari Poe is already looking like a bust on the nose of the 3-4 defensive line. The Chiefs have been banged up in the secondary—corner Brandon Flowers has been limited with an ankle injury and free safety Kendrick Lewis missed the game in Buffalo. Both expect to be at full health going forward, which will get some improvement. But neither player is a budding Pro Bowler, so we can’t get carried away. Kansas City needs to pressure the quarterback more, and the good news in all this is that Chiefs’ fans can reasonably hope for Hali to start doing just that.

The schedule is going to test the pass defense immediately. A trip to desperate New Orleans is ahead for Sunday, and then its home games against Philip Rivers and San Diego, followed by Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Then Kansas City goes to Tampa Bay against resurgent Josh Freeman and talented wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Head coach Romeo Crennel has some fast work to do if he wants to get a split of these games, the minimum necessary to stay afloat going into his own bye week after the first six games.

It should be noted that I outlined some pretty minimal requirements for Oakland and Kansas City going into their byes—the Raiders to get to 1-3 and the Chiefs to reach 2-4. Even at that, both would have a long way to go and little margin for error. But they’d at least have signs of a pulse and right now that’s something each fan base could desperately use.