Here’s a link to my Sunday Raiders column. The full text runs below:
The Chiefs are hard to figure. That simple declarative statement is relevant to the Raiders and their fans because the hard-to-figure Chiefs are playing the Raiders Sunday over by Hegenberger Road in Oakland.
The Chiefs are hard to figure because they started the season with a really bad record, 1-5. Looking at their mess, you probably thought they would mail in the rest of the season, and coach Andy Reid would get the heave-ho. And now they have won five in a row and are contending for the playoffs. They need to beat the Raiders to help keep themselves alive — and the Raiders need to beat the Chiefs for the same reason.
The Chiefs are hard to figure because they lost their running back Jamaal Charles, a great running back — he runs and catches screen passes and deep passes, does just about everything. But the second guy and the third guy filled in. We’re talking Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware. And the Chiefs keep winning. It’s the old football theory you’ve heard tell about, “The Next Man Up.” Don’t mourn a loss, even the loss of Charles. Find another back, or two. And that the Chiefs did.
The Chiefs are hard to figure because they lack a dynamite quarterback-wide receiver combo. Think Joe Montana or Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Those are the Platonic ideals of quarterback-wide receiver chemistry.
Fact: Last season, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith threw no touchdowns to a wide receiver. It’s fair to say the Chiefs are not normal. This season, Smith has thrown more TDs to tight end Travis Kelce (four) than to wideout Jeremy Maclin (3).
The Chiefs are hard to figure because Smith is not a gunslinger quarterback. Derek Carr is a gunslinger quarterback, among other things. Brett Favre was the gunslinger deluxe. Smith is a methodical passer. Gets lots of completions on play-action passes. He is conservative and that is good and that is bad.
It’s good because he rarely throws interceptions. He does not lose games for the Chiefs. But he is reluctant to throw to where a wide receiver should be. He lacks faith. He needs confirmation the receiver already is where he’s supposed to be, and then he throws, sometimes too late. With Smith you don’t ask, “Can he throw it?” You ask, “Will he throw it?” This hesitancy, this hyper-caution, is what Jim Harbaugh didn’t like and why Harbaugh dumped Smith for Colin Kaepernick. It is worth noting Smith still has a live career. Kaepernick, not so live. No one could have predicted this.
Let’s be frank. This is a hard game for the Raiders. The Raiders are a delightful surprise, but now it’s December, and the good teams leave the not-so-good teams behind. The Raiders must show they are good.
The Kansas City offense chews up the clock. Warning: Do not attempt this at home — chewing up clocks. The Chiefs embark on slow, methodical drives. Their drives can be 12 plays or 13 plays, and suddenly half a quarter is gone and your offense hasn’t even touched the ball.
The Chiefs’ screen-passing game is among the best. And there’s this. The opposing defense can think it has a Chiefs play stopped. And then Smith runs. He’s not Cam Newton or even Kaepernick as a runner, but he has run for more than 300 yards and that ranks third on the Chiefs. A defense can’t regularly blitz him because he can cover ground fast and when you least expect it.
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Then there are issues the Raiders face when they look at themselves in the mirror. They have not run well. Or as some announcers say, “They don’t run the ball on the ground well.” Question: Where but on the ground does a back run the ball? In the sky?
Last week against Tennessee, the Raiders ran for 84 yards total. Kind of skimpy. Latavius Murray had a trivial 59 yards on 22 carries. He averaged only 2.7 yards a carry — not exactly Bo Jackson.
Why is the Raiders non-running running game significant? The Raiders do not want to play against the Chiefs defense with a pass-first, one-dimensional offense. Big problem. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, a fine practitioner of his craft, will feel free to run exotic blitzes if the Raiders resort to pass-first mode. And the Chiefs secondary will play for the pass. It really would be a good idea for Murray to have the game of his life — running on the ground.
At times the Raiders defense has been porous. Charles Woodson is great but can’t compensate for the Raiders’ lack of quality cornerbacks, although in fairness to the Raiders’ non-quality corners, it’s never clear if Smith will attack them.
It comes down to this. For the Raiders to win, Kansas City has to contribute in an unexpected way like losing a fumble near its goal line or making a disastrous mistake on special teams or giving up big return yardage. The Raiders need to get something or some things that don’t factor into a regular game. A non-conventional contribution. An unseen extra catalyst.
That means this game represents a high degree of difficulty for the Raiders. But not an impossible degree of difficulty. This is the chance of their lives.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn atcohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.