Thursday Night Football: the stage is set. The reigning SuperBowl champ New England Patriots taking on the AFC West champ Kansas City Chiefs. It was supposed to be a slam dunk for the Patriots. The number one scoring defense from last season should have handled Andy Reid’s Chiefs with ease. But the team that showed up looked like anything but the SuperBowl champs.
Everyone watched while the golden team took a beating by a team from across the league that was supposed to lose. The game was over, and the Patriots had lost.
It was a 42-27 blowout by the Chiefs, something not even Kansas City could have predicted. That must be disheartening for a juggernaut like the Patriots. Moreover, of course, after the game, the psychosis was unleashed. Rumors abounded of a new Super Bowl contender, an aging quarterback who’s lost his mojo, and a dynasty that has come to collapse. All of this after one game.
That game ended with several firsts. First career start for rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who accumulated 256 yards and a touchdown, setting a record for the most yards registered in an NFL debut. First time in 10 years that the Patriots have lost a home-opener. Also, the first time Bill Belichick’s defense has given up more than 40 points.
One thing is still clear, even after all that. The Kansas City Chiefs are still not a Super Bowl-caliber team. There are plenty of arguments at this point to support the Chiefs being a winning team. There are also several arguments against it. It takes many ingredients to bake up a championship pie: strong coaching, great players, outstanding leadership, and even a little bit of luck. So who has it and who does not? It is not a simple question but let’s break it down.
Andy Reid is a great coach with a 25-year tenure in the league in a coaching capacity of some sort. He has a better than average regular season record of 173-114-1 (.602). His playoff history, on the other hand, doesn’t reflect what a great coach should be. He is 11-12 in postseason play, with only one win while heading up the Chiefs. He was able to establish some measure of success in Philadelphia, winning the NFC Championship game once in 2004. He may be able to win games, but not the ones that matter.
“Last year they were one bad call away from beating the Steelers!” Fine, that may be the case. However, can anyone name a team that hasn’t lost because of one lousy call? There isn’t one. Every team suffers at the hands of a horrible ref almost every single season. Some of those offenses are much more egregious than others, but they happen. A good coach has to learn to overcome that. Moreover, a good coach cannot blame a career full of mediocrity on one bad call.
A team can’t be successful without talent on both sides of the ball. Here’s how that broke down:
- The Chiefs found a breakout star in rookie running back Kareem Hunt. Great. A replacement for Spencer Ware. No gain, no loss.
- Their secondary took a huge hit, both physically and emotionally, when strong safety Eric Berry went down with a torn Achilles. No one on that secondary holds the team up like Berry does, both on and off the field. He’s one of the most respectable men in the league and to watch him go down is tough for any NFL fan, but for the Chiefs, that might mean the end of their season already.
- Justin Houston was looking like the edge rusher of old. He sacked Tom Brady twice and racked up 4 other tackles with one assist. That’s the guy who’s on track to having another 22-sack season like 2014. Unfortunately, this beast can’t carry the rest of the front seven and after the loss of Berry, the defense is weakened.
Alex Smith had a good game. Probably the best of his career, no one can argue that. Throwing for 368 yards with four touchdowns and a QBR of 148.6 is a great game for any QB, and even more so for the most vanilla quarterback in NFL history. Smith has led the league in two things, and one of them was sacks. That is received, not given, not where you want to win. He has thrown for 20+ touchdowns only twice in his career. That is embarrassing for a 12-year vet. Reserve judgment on this man until he can flex out of the “game manager” role and earn his place on a who’s who list of NFL quarterbacks.
On their defense, they lost their leader. Someone else has to pick up where Eric Berry will leave off. Those are no small shoes to fill, and there’s no one on the Chiefs’ roster that can fill them.
A little bit of luck
Back to last year’s playoff game against the Steelers. The poor Chiefs and Andy Reid are snake-bit.
If not the Chiefs, then who?
We all know who. Love, hate, indifference, however you feel about the Oakland Raiders, they have the best shot in the league to take over where the Patriots will inevitably leave off. The talking heads across the world have said it over and over again, at least to some degree, and if you’re being objective, you can’t deny that this is a team with the best shot to bring home a trophy in almost 40 years.
But isn’t it too soon to count the Raiders as a contender?
We haven’t even seen them play yet! This is the standard argument of doubters and naysayers across the world. Those same people are often the ones who declared the Patriots a shoe-in before game one. It’s a distinction without a difference and Thursday’s game showed exactly why.
Why the Raiders
Why? Strong coaching, great players, outstanding leadership, and even a little bit of luck.
Jack Del Rio is in the same position as Andy Reid, just not quite to the same degree. He still has time to pull it together. He’s had a poor run of it and hasn’t done well in the playoffs. What he has done was build a Denver defense to an elite level, which has continued after his departure. Before that, Jacksonville was a force for several years. He’s increased the Raiders’ record every year since he came aboard, and he’s shown that he has the will to win. He’s not stopping, he’s taking every step forward that he can.
On top of Captain Jack, Reggie McKenzie is continuing his tear through the West by rotating the coaching staff out where needed and bringing in personnel that will get the job done. Two strong examples are Todd Downing and John Pagano. Downing is the White Mamba Whisperer, using Derek Carr as a lump of clay that he’s molded into something that any team should envy. Pagano built a defensive unit in San Diego that is making the Chargers a name to be concerned about again. From the two biggest jokes in the league to both being legitimate contenders, both of these men had a large hand in the improvements of those teams.
The list is too long, but it begins with the Defensive Player of the Year and ends with the Castrol Clutch Performer of the Year. All stops in between are a part of the machine that is being built in Silver and Black. The offense is already one of the best. The defense, despite their struggles last season, has improved and will continue to improve under the tutelage of their new shadow defensive coordinator. They are showing strong signs already of being a much better unit. They have to thrive if they want to win, and they know it. When it comes to defense, the best truly are in the AFC West.
You know who has earned his name on a who’s who list of NFL quarterbacks? Derek Carr. Carr has taken a leadership role on this team since day one. He needed a shot to prove it, so in year one, he got it. He needed confidence, which he polished in year two. He needed accuracy, and that all came in year three. His importance to this team was painfully evident when he broke his leg in 2016. The Raiders had no more fire, no drive, and they simply collapsed.
The defense follows the lead of their shining star, Khalil Mack. No one in their right mind could argue with that. He makes them better. And he’s found his bash brother in Bruce Irvin. The two of them drive themselves and each other, and they fight tooth and nail to keep their team in the fight. It didn’t always work last year, but a few new players in the game can make all the difference.
A Little Bit of Luck
It might seem like the Raiders have had a run of bad luck for a long time now, but to this, I say that I’d rather have suffered through the dark ages to come out into the sun than to go the way of the dodo and never make it back to the dance. The Raiders have been to five Super Bowls, and they’ve won three. That’s more than half of the league has even seen. The Chiefs won once, but that was in the dark ages.
They also scored one of the most notable signings in the history of the team. Marshawn Lynch came home. He’s back and looking no worse for wear like he never left.
The Raiders are lucky that their star is rising at the right time. Their division is strong enough for them to avoid the “easy route” talk; they have three of the best picks from the 2014 draft making heavy waves only three years into their careers; they’re fighting to overtake the Patriots, the reigning franchise in its twilight; and the Chiefs. Well, Oakland is lucky because the Chiefs will still lose.