Sometimes, the signs do point the right way. Coming into this season, the Raiders — a franchise that hadn’t finished above .500 in 13 years — were tabbed as dark-horse playoff contenders. After winning seven games in the 2015 campaign, Oakland returned every standout piece of its promising young offense, and it assembled an impressive collection of high-priced talent on the defensive side of the ball. Despite playing in a division that features two postseason fixtures in the Broncos and the Chiefs, the upstart Raiders appeared poised to make a run. The popular thought was that they could push a Kansas City squad that had stagnated and a Denver group that was far less dangerous than the team that had won the Super Bowl.
Well, halfway through the season, as the rest of the league has gone haywire, the Raiders have stuck to the script. They’re 7–2 and sit atop what has clearly become the best division in the NFL.
Despite Oakland’s hot start, any lingering doubts surrounding the team heading into Sunday night would have been understandable. Entering Week 9, the Raiders held a plus-12 point differential and had failed to secure a signature win, losing marquee matchups to both the Falcons and the Chiefs. Following a more-than-convincing 30–20 victory over the Broncos, though — a game in which it took Denver nearly 20 minutes to even record a first down — that line of thinking has started to shift.
Oakland’s win offered a telling glimpse into the small but vital changes these teams have made since last season, changes that have allowed the Raiders to rise to the top of the AFC West. Last fall, even as quarterback Derek Carr, the receiving tandem of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and an excellent offensive line formed the makings of a dangerous passing game, the Oakland run game faltered, finishing 24th in rushing DVOA. Its struggles got worse toward the end of the season, as tailback Latavius Murray failed to average more than 4 yards per carry in six of his final eight games.
To help provide some pop to a lagging ground game, the Raiders signed former Ravens mauler Kelechi Osemele to a five-year, $58.5 million deal in March, making him the highest-paid guard in football. Through Week 8, that move was paying dividends. By adding a 6-foot-5, 333-pound human chainsaw to what was already the best offensive line in the AFC, the Raiders transformed into one of the league’s most effective rushing teams, ranking ninth in DVOA. And that’s before Oakland hammered the Broncos for 218 yards on the ground.
That 218 mark is the highest total the Denver run defense has allowed since Week 5 of the 2012 campaign, when it surrendered 251 rushing yards in a loss to the Patriots. In their charge to last season’s Super Bowl, the Broncos ruined opposing running games, giving up 120 yards or more on the ground just twice. This fall, Denver opponents have hit that mark six times in nine games. With linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive tackle Malik Jackson leaving in free agency (and with defensive end Derek Wolfe going down with what was reportedly a hairline fracture in his elbow on Sunday), the interior of the Broncos defense lacks the depth it had a year ago. The result has been a run-stopping unit that doesn’t compare to what the franchise has had in recent years.
After finishing fourth in run defense DVOA a season ago, the Broncos came into this weekend ranked 14th. Following the Raiders’ romp, Denver is allowing 1.1 more yards per carry than it did last season (4.4 to 3.3). Carr and the Raiders passing game have gotten most of the recognition to this point, but Oakland’s ability to use six offensive linemen and pound Denver into submission was the difference on Sunday.
The Raiders’ ascension to the top of their division is even more noteworthy given the landscape around the rest of the league. Outside of the AFC West, most divisions have seen a similar story play out through nine weeks. A heavy favorite has emerged (Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, and New England) while the teams vying for wild-card berths are mired around 4–4. There are six teams in football with at least six wins; three are in the AFC West. The Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs, and Chargers all boast winning records against nondivision opponents, and together they’ve racked up a plus-125 point differential in games not played against one another. Save for the Steelers’ Week 4 beatdown of the Chiefs, none of the four has lost a nondivision contest by more than a touchdown.
The AFC West’s dominance isn’t the product of a few lucky bounces, either. Its four teams all came into this weekend ranked in the top 14 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA; after another 3–1 showing, those rankings should only improve. It’s almost a shame that these teams have to beat each other up while the squads in the AFC South continue their pillow fight to claim a guaranteed spot in the postseason.
The Titans, now 4–5 and just a game and a half back of the Brock Osweiler–led Texans, were outclassed, 43–35, on Sunday by a Chargers team that’s at least two full games behind every other team in the AFC West. Tuesday’s electoral ballot should include a measure that allows all four teams in the AFC West to get into the playoffs, if only to ensure that we don’t have to watch an AFC South team come wild-card weekend.
The Chargers — ravaged by injuries this year and owners of the most heartbreaking losses imaginable — are on the outside looking in, despite being among the more entertaining teams in football. They played great on offense again in Week 9 behind strong outings from Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon. The Chiefs pulled out an ugly 19–14 victory over Jacksonville with quarterback Nick Foles filling in for Alex Smith, and while it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing afternoon for coach Andy Reid’s team, Kansas City keeps piling up wins. Once again, the Chiefs will be a factor come the playoffs.
As of now, though, it feels like the Chiefs and the Broncos will be forced to fight it out for the conference’s top wild-card spot. That’s because the Raiders’ hype is justified, and it shouldn’t die down anytime soon. The only nondivision opponent with a record above .500 left on Oakland’s schedule is the Texans. Building a case for coach Jack Del Rio’s squad as a 12-win team and a legitimate AFC contender is no longer a stretch.
The rest of the league may be stumbling, but the AFC West is as potent as we thought it could be. That begins with a Raiders team that’s ready for its moment.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The AFC North and NFC North are both officially messes. It turns out that a quarterback three weeks removed from tearing his meniscus may have some trouble being effective. Ben Roethlisberger was back under center for the Steelers on Sunday, but Pittsburgh struggled to get anything going in a 21–14 loss to Baltimore.
Roethlisberger’s accuracy down the field was a significant problem for most of the game, and with the Steelers unable to make the Ravens pay with the deep ball, Baltimore was free to commit extra bodies to stopping Le’Veon Bell — who had 15 yards on his first 11 carries — and the running game. Losing center Maurkice Pouncey to a thumb injury didn’t help matters for Pittsburgh, but Baltimore showed why its defense has been among the league’s best all season.
The Steelers offense should theoretically bounce back as Roethlisberger gets healthier, but the team is now 4–4 and tied with Baltimore atop a muddled AFC North. Visions of what this offense could be don’t provide much solace while it sits at .500 and fights for its playoff life.
The dregs of the NFC North are no better at this point. Another pitiful performance by the Vikings offense in a 22–16 overtime loss to Detroit dropped Minnesota to 5–3, just a half-game ahead of the Lions for first place in the division. And on a day when the Packers could have made up ground, Green Bay fell at home, 31–26, to Indianapolis. Based on the teams (and the names) involved, these two divisions were expected to be among the most competitive in football. Nine weeks in, though, they’ve taken their place alongside the other mediocre races we’ve seen so far.
2. The Colts’ win in Green Bay was easily their best of the season, and it has them looking like the favorites in the AFC South. I’m not sure how much that designation means anymore, but Indianapolis’s ability to go on the road and put up points against the Packers is promising. Even taking Jordan Todman’s 99-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown out of the equation, Indy was able to piece together three scoring drives of at least 60 yards. If the defense — with most of its secondary now back to full health — can make a big play here and there the way it did against Green Bay, the Colts have more than enough offense to sneak into the playoffs.
3. Even in an era of diminished value for running backs, having a good one is still pretty nice. With wide receiver Ty Montgomery acting as their primary back, the Packers handed the ball off just 13 times against a Colts defense that entered the weekend allowing 4.5 yards per carry and ranked 29th in run defense DVOA. Indy didn’t have to worry about stopping the ground game, so six of its defensive backs played at least 86 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. With Rodgers attempting 43 passes, the Packers’ game plan played directly into Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s hands.
4. Melvin Gordon continues to look like a different player than he was as a rookie. With 196 yards on 32 carries, Gordon turned in the best stat line of his career in the Chargers’ win over the Titans. A few big runs padded that total, but even on days when Gordon’s per-carry numbers haven’t been staggering, he’s run with the type of power and authority that were missing from his game during the 2015 season. After Week 9, he’s carried 193 times for 768 yards with nine touchdowns; with Danny Woodhead injured and missing from the San Diego lineup, Gordon has taken on an expanded role as a runner and a receiver, and he’s proved more than up to the task.
5. Awful play calls are spoiling teams’ decisions to go for it on fourth down. This trend started a few weeks ago, when Atlanta coach Dan Quinn opted to send his offense back onto the field for a pivotal fourth-and-1 from the Falcons’ 45-yard line in a 33–30 overtime loss to the Chargers. The move wasn’t the wrong choice, but bringing in a heavy set and slamming running back Devonta Freeman into the line of scrimmage for a loss probably was.
That type of result was a fixture in Sunday’s games, most notably in the Eagles’ 28–23 loss to the Giants. On the opening play of the second quarter, Philadelphia faced a fourth-and-2 from the New York 23-yard line. Quarterback Carson Wentz faked a handoff before getting dropped 4 yards deep in the backfield. Watching it was like seeing a car wreck in slow motion; I don’t want to get carried away, but it’s a serious contender for the worst call any coach has made all season.
Later that same quarter, Philly went for it again, on fourth-and-short from the Giants’ 6-yard line. This time, it elected to hand the ball to 5-foot-6 noted power back Darren Sproles. Shockingly, he was dumped for no gain and New York took over on downs. Just when it seems like more coaches are understanding the benefits of bold fourth-down choices, mindless play designs are going to start deterring them again. I’m telling you, this season was sent here to destroy us.
6. The Dolphins’ Cameron Wake still has some juice, and that warms my heart. Over the past five seasons, few players have been more enjoyable to watch than Wake. He’s a perfect pass rusher, with the type of burst and bend that are almost too picturesque to be possible — the sort of player who right tackles look for underneath their beds before turning off the light.
The 34-year-old has been on a snap count of sorts for most of this season after injuries torpedoed his 2015 campaign. If Sunday is any indication, though, it might be time to let Wake loose. He looked like his old self in a 27–23 win over the Jets, picking up two strip sacks and an additional three hurries, per Pro Football Focus, while ruining tackle Breno Giacomini’s afternoon. With the victory, Miami is somehow 4–4 and bunched up with every non–AFC West team in the conference’s wild-card race.
7. The glories of garbage time once again saved his stat line, but Blake Bortles had another awful Sunday. The interception he threw to the Chiefs’ Ramik Wilson early in the second quarter was an all-time head-scratcher, and the one he tried to throw to Ron Parker in the end zone later might’ve been even worse. Chad Henne isn’t inspiring any excitement as the Jaguars backup, but at this point Jacksonville is in need of change that goes beyond firing its offensive coordinator.
8. It came against the Browns, but the Cowboys’ 35-point explosion in Sunday’s win is another nail in Tony Romo’s coffin. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the Dallas offense were flawless in a 25-point rout, and it seems like both of the rookies are only getting better with each passing week. Elliott’s first touchdown run against Cleveland involved him launching his body about 7 yards in the air while tracing the ball inside the pylon; Prescott, meanwhile, did what he wanted while going 21-of-27 for 247 yards with three touchdowns. The Cowboys offense is a swarm of locusts right now, and it’s hard to imagine them risking that civilization-destroying power to start Romo.
9. Even the league’s best units have a weak link, and for the Eagles it’s cornerback Leodis McKelvin. Philadelphia came into Week 9 ranked no. 1 in defensive DVOA, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be exploited. Odell Beckham Jr. roasted McKelvin on a first-half slant that he took 26 yards for a touchdown, and the Giants attacked McKelvin again on a 30-yard Roger Lewis score about three minutes later. The Giants have looked inept on offense this year, but they still have professional coaches. If there’s a player on the field who can be taken advantage of, most NFL teams are going to find him.
10. In throwing his towel at a referee, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce channeled all of us.
Kelce’s decision to throw his own flag at a ref following a bullshit call made me wish that I could throw a figurative — or literal, what the hell — flag on football, as a concept, right now. Also, I’d support a movement to make this practice a part of everyday life. I think we’d all be better off if people could flag other humans for generally being assholes.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson scaling a small building to make this 27-yard catch in the fourth quarter.