Clutch Encounters: OAK-KC
by Scott Kacsmar
We are now more than 75 percent of the way through the NFL's regular season, and the biggest game yet went down in Kansas City last night. There arguably may not be another game this big until the postseason. Consider that in the NFC, Dallas and Seattle are not going to play each other until possibly the NFC Championship Game. Since New England is not scheduled to play Oakland or Kansas City, this battle for first place in the AFC West was pivotal.
With the 21-13 win, the Chiefs (10-3) have moved into first place in the division and No. 2 in the AFC. The Raiders (10-3) fell from the No. 1 seed down to the No. 5 seed after a fifth-straight loss to their rivals. There was no comeback this time, but we certainly had an attempt as the Raiders trailed 21-13 for the game's final 28 minutes, unable to score on its final five possessions.
We will recap the rest of Week 14's close finishes in Clutch Encounters on Tuesday, but here is a special Friday recap of a very important game.
Oakland's 10-2 Record: More Than Meets the Eye
The Raiders (15.6%) did come into the game ranked slightly higher than the Chiefs (12.2%) in DVOA, but a short week to travel to Arrowhead on a 21-degree night was a tough task. The surprise scratch of left guard Kelechi Osemele (illness) was also a blow to Oakland, though the running game still looked very competent with 28 carries for 132 yards, including a 103-yard effort from Latavius Murray.
Despite the team's 10-2 record, Oakland only ranked sixth in DVOA and sixth in estimated wins (7.5) through Week 13. As this column has detailed since Week 1 in New Orleans, Oakland has gutted out many close wins this season, including six fourth-quarter comebacks. Some were impressive runaway wins like the 29-0 scoring run against Buffalo last week, while others were largely aided by incompetence from the opponent and/or referees, such as the win over Houston in Mexico City in Week 11.
Oakland had the worst scoring differential (plus-48) among the 76 teams to start 10-2 since 1940. The average 10-2 team outscored its opponents by 10.1 points per game, compared to 3.8 points per game by Oakland.
|Lowest Scoring Differential For 10-2 Team Since 1940|
|2||NE||2003||257||209||48||14-2||Won Super Bowl|
|5||DEN||2015||269||210||59||12-4||Won Super Bowl|
|8||NYG||1986||244||174||70||14-2||Won Super Bowl|
Three of these teams still won the Super Bowl, including Denver last season, but those were all defensive-driven efforts. When Oakland's offense isn't clicking like it wasn't again in a game against the Chiefs, the results are not going to be so kind. This game was not lost by the Oakland defense.
First Half: Who Are These Quarterbacks?
Kansas City is known for protecting the football, but turned it over three times to match a season-high. NFL teams that turn the ball over exactly three times and go scoreless in the second half have only won 9.6 percent of the time since the merger, but the Chiefs pulled it off after a monster first half put them ahead 21-3.
There were opportunities early for the Raiders. After Tyreek Hill muffed a punt to put the offense at the Kansas City 38, Oakland gained just 12 yards and settled for a 44-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. The Raiders were fortunate to get that score after a fumble by Amari Cooper was reversed on replay. The referee's language was most interesting since he said Cooper "did not complete the catch upright," which meant this was one of those dreaded "going to the ground" rulings of an incomplete pass. Senior Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino backed up the call on Twitter:
Doesn't matter if receiver goes to ground on his own or is tackled. Has to hold onto ball until he lands.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) December 9, 2016
Again, some interesting semantics here with "upright" and "lands." I think you could easily argue that Cooper was upright when he made the catch, and never lost control of the ball until after he took multiple steps and was tackled to the ground.
In that position with the defender draped over him, what exactly did Cooper have to "land" from? When Dez Bryant had his infamous "going the ground" incompletion ruling in the 2014 NFC divisional playoffs, he was airborne at the catch point and had to control the ball after his landing.
— Skip Parsotam (@SkipParsotam) December 9, 2016
Here, Cooper was just running a slant and good defense brought him down quickly. I don't see why this was characterized as a "going to the ground" play instead of a catch, tackle and fumble recovered by the Chiefs.
While the Raiders struck first, Alex Smith started the game with a bit of a statement on third-and-10. Instead of opting for his usual checkdown, Smith ripped a deep ball to Chris Conley for a 39-yard gain on a plus-24 ALEX throw. Smith had only surpassed plus-24 in ALEX on third-and-long once this season, and that pass was intercepted. But Smith has been a little more aggressive in 2016. His third-down ALEX was plus-0.5 coming into Week 14, his first positive season since 2007.
Smith has had some surprisingly strong numbers against Oakland in his career, and while Jack Del Rio's defense leaves a lot to be desired, Smith looked the part of a great quarterback in the first half. He was accurate and aggressive, and he hit Hill on a 36-yard touchdown pass. Smith even extended a play by carefully keeping his second foot at the line of scrimmage before releasing the ball late for another big gain. Once Hill took advantage of an Oakland penalty to get another crack at a punt, he returned the second attempt 78 yards for a touchdown that seemed to knock Oakland out at 21-3 in the second quarter.
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Smith had 202 passing yards in the half on just four possessions -- impressive for a guy with only seven 300-yard passing games in 138 career starts. Meanwhile, Derek Carr was sitting on 18 passing yards before the Oakland offense finally came to life with a much-needed 92-yard touchdown drive to end the half. During the drive, Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson likely injured his Achilles on a non-contact play. That was a big loss, but the Chiefs were able to work around it for the second half.
The Third Quarter: Missed Opportunities
For as great as Smith was in the first half, he was terrible in the third quarter. Smith had back-to-back turnovers that set up the Raiders at the Kansas City 18 each time. The first was an interception on a bad read, and the second was a strip-sack by Khalil Mack, who beat Eric Fisher on a play where Smith needed to get rid of the ball sooner.
Oakland's offense came into the week with the best average starting field position in 2016. Fortunately, the Kansas City defense held and only allowed three points on the two drives. On the first drive, Steve Nelson punched a touchdown away from Seth Roberts, who was wide open on the play. The Raiders settled for a 33-yard field goal. The second drive was harmed by a holding penalty on tight end Clive Walford. On third-and-goal from the 17, Carr checked down on a pass that never had any hope of gaining anything. When it looked like another field goal was coming, the Raiders almost appeared to execute a poor fake, but it was really just a botched hold that punter Marquette King had to eat for no points.
That failure to take advantage of the superb field position really did in Oakland's comeback bid. Carr continued to struggle with accuracy and getting on the same page with his receivers. The offense only got into Kansas City territory one more time in the game.
The Failed Fourth-Quarter Comeback Attempt
Still only down 21-13, Oakland's defense continued to give the offense opportunities with the ball. None were better than on a third-and-7 with 9:26 to play. Carr stepped up in the pocket and ripped a deep ball to a wide-open Cooper, but the receiver pulled up awkwardly at the last second and the pass fell incomplete.
Oakland got the ball back with 7:25 left. A pass interference penalty on Nelson that was tightly called got the Raiders into Kansas City territory again. Carr came into the week with a league-high 15 defensive pass interference penalties for 264 yards, and he added two more here. In fact, 19.1 percent of Carr's 1,120 passing DYAR this season have come on DPI flags. Carr has also increased his league lead to 7.7 expected points added through penalties, according to ESPN.
It started to look like we would have another prime-time game come down to a late two-point conversion, but the Raiders really stalled out badly after getting a third-and-1 at the Kansas City 14 with 2:06 left. Carr threw deep into the end zone for Andre Holmes, but Marcus Peters was there to knock the pass away. A false start on Austin Howard was big to set up a fourth-and-6, and that was really a spot where Carr's inability to go under center with the dislocated pinky may have been a problem. Ideally, Oakland would have just lined up and ran the ball down Kansas City's throat again to get that yard on fourth-and-1. On fourth-and-6, Kansas City rushed four, and Carr threw up a 50-50 ball for Roberts that Terrance Mitchell knocked away with 1:56 left. It was strange to see Carr going to Holmes and Roberts in crunch time, but Cooper and Michael Crabtree were held to nine catches for 50 yards on 17 targets. That's incredible work by the Chiefs, who did not get much more pressure on Carr than his low season average, but the coverage was strong.
The Chiefs only had 23 carries for 62 yards on the night, but Spencer Ware put the game away with three runs that produced one more first down to run out the clock.
Derek Carr's Historically Bad Night
Carr came into this game with a lot of mainstream buzz for this season's MVP award, with some viewing him as the front-runner at the three-quarters mark. After this performance, they may want to rethink that one. Carr finished 17-of-41 passing for 117 yards. The average of 2.85 yards per attempt is the second-lowest game in NFL history for a quarterback with at least 40 attempts. Only Jesse "The Bachelor" Palmer fared worse with 2.56 yards per attempt (110 yards on 43 attempts) against the Panthers in 2003.
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Even before this game, Carr's grip on the MVP was tenuous at best. This season lacks a runaway candidate like there usually is, but Dak Prescott and Matt Ryan have been having seasons that fall much more in line with an MVP quarterback season than what Carr has done. After Thursday night, Carr slipped to 17th in ESPN's QBR. Seven of the previous eight quarterbacks to win the MVP ranked first or second in QBR, as only Cam Newton (12th last year) was below that standard. Carr's yards per attempt have also fallen to 7.00, good for 21st in the league. Out of the 32 quarterback seasons to win the MVP since 1970, only Peyton Manning (13th in 2008) and Fran Tarkenton (17th in 1975) ranked out of the top 10 in yards per attempt.
Some might point to dropped passes for Carr's bad night, but that likely only cost him one touchdown (Roberts in the third quarter) at best, depending on how you view the Cooper miss in the fourth quarter. As for the pinky injury, it never seemed to be a problem with Carr operating exclusively out of the shotgun and pistol since returning against the Panthers two weeks ago with the injury. As for the nasty weather conditions that are generally unfavorable for a California team, well, if Alex Smith can go 11-of-16 for 202 yards in a half in that weather, then Carr could certainly have done more in the same conditions.
This was more about Kansas City's continued mastery of Carr and the Oakland offense over the last three seasons. While Carr won his first start against the Chiefs in 2014 in memorable fashion, the last five starts have all been rough losses. Carr has been held under 6.0 yards per attempt in all but one meeting with the Chiefs, and his highest game was just 6.62 yards per attempt earlier this season.
There are still three tough games remaining for Oakland: at San Diego, Indianapolis in Oakland, and at Denver. The Chargers and Colts should be able to score often against this team, and Carr has always struggled with Denver's defense. The Raiders might be hitting a rough patch at the worst time, and Carr will have to heal up quickly for Oakland to enter the playoffs on a positive note.
Carr doesn't have to get back to an MVP level for this team, because frankly, that's not where he was at any point this season. He's a good, young quarterback, but this offense still has some growing to do, and the Chiefs have continued to exploit that well in their meetings.
Conclusion: We Should Take Kansas City Very Seriously Now
Since that Week 4 pounding in Pittsburgh left the Chiefs at 2-2, this team has won seven of its last eight games with only that slip up against Tampa Bay with Smith's bad red-zone interception. When Kansas City started 9-0 in 2013 and won 11 games in a row last season, we still questioned the team because of the competition it faced, and whether or not the offense could score enough points behind Smith. Well, the non-offensive scoring is still happening. This win completed a particularly impressive three-game stretch where the Chiefs came back late against Denver's defense to win in overtime, outscored Atlanta's top-ranked offense with the help of a pick-two, and now completed a sweep of Oakland. If a team can do all of those things, then what can't the Chiefs overcome this season?
The loss of Rob Gronkowski makes the Patriots vulnerable, and while Kansas City still has to host Denver on Christmas night, the Chiefs are in good position for a first-round bye and home playoff game. This is looking like the best team Andy Reid has had in his four years in Kansas City, and we should be considering the Chiefs as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 57
Game-winning drives: 63
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 118/193 (61.1 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 28 (and one tie)
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.