The NFC playoff picture is pretty neat. With seven spots available, the six clear good teams in the conference all look like January teams: Green Bay, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and the NFC West conglomerate of Seattle, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Toss in a random NFC East winner, and you have yourself a playoff picture.
The AFC playoff picture is muddier. With Miami’s surge and Baltimore’s fall, the Colts’ win over the division rival Titans, the Browns’ driving running game, and the Bills’ unfortunate loss to the Cardinals, there are now seven three-loss teams in the middle of the pack. The Chiefs and the Steelers sit pretty atop their respective divisions, but other than that, things are wide open in the AFC.
In fact, things aren’t as pretty for the Chiefs as they look at first glance. Yes, they’re a one-loss team—but that loss was to the Raiders in Week 5, 40-32. And the Raiders are the last of those 3-loss teams in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt—and on Sunday night, they get the Chiefs again.
Currently positioned as the top 6-3 team in the wild-card race because of their conference record—4-2 against AFC opponents—the Raiders are in the driver’s seat largely due to that win over Kansas City. A loss would not only cost them their outside chance at winning the AFC West, but would also deal a blow to the tiebreakers that may come into play to decide seeding, or berth outright, come playoff time.
But the Raiders didn’t win by accident last time they played the Chiefs. The Raiders are one of only two teams to score more than 20 points against Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, and they did it with a career performance from Derek Carr, who utilized the weapons that general manager Mike Mayock acquired for the purpose of surviving a boat race against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense. Vertical receivers Henry Ruggs III and Nelson Agholor both had deep touchdowns against the Chiefs’ blitz-heavy looks, and in the second half, the Chiefs played with deeper safeties and lighter boxes. That allowed Josh Jacobs and the Raiders’ dominant run-blocking offensive line to shorten the game and minimize Mahomes’ opportunities for a comeback.
The career day for Carr was marked by deep passes—attempts that have escaped him throughout the course of his career. Head coach Jon Gruden’s desire for more deep passing from Carr has been well-documented over the last few years, but with Agholor, Ruggs, and tight end Darren Waller all entrenched as his primary pass-catchers, Carr has the weapons to really open up the offense. Against the Chiefs, he did: six of his 31 passing attempts went deep, good for about 20% of his looks for that day.
But that sudden explosion was gone in a blaze of glory. Carr has only attempted 22 deep passes in the other eight games he’s played this season—9% of all his attempts. Some of that has to do with the availability of Ruggs, who has been one of the league’s premier deep threats in 2020. Only one receiver in the league has seen a higher percentage of his passing targets come deep downfield, and against the Chiefs, two of his three targets were vertical routes going for 118 yards and a score.
Carr is more likely to push the ball downfield when Ruggs is available, and on top of Ruggs’ availability, he has third-round rookie wide receiver Bryan Edwards available for this game as well—another weapon he didn’t have in Week 5. What he won’t have, however, is his offensive line at full capacity: right tackle Trent Brown is on the COVID list and won’t play against the Chiefs, and left tackle Kolton Miller missed last week’s game against the Broncos but did workout on Monday so his status is still up in the air.
Deep passes take time in the pocket, and time in the pocket against Frank Clark, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Taco Charlton can be a scant commodity. Considering that Spagnuolo and the Chiefs won’t get caught with their pants around their ankles again with the sudden deep passing efforts of the characteristically cautious Carr, the Chiefs could well attack those back-up tackles with the hopes of discouraging Carr and the Raiders from letting deep patterns develop.
The Raiders’ passing game has been the driving force behind their success this year, deep or otherwise. They’re third in EPA/dropback, behind only the Packers and the Chiefs they face this week. It seems odd to say that a battle of passers will decide a game between Patrick Mahomes and, you know, Derek Carr—but it will. And if the Chiefs’ defense doesn’t have an answer to the Raiders’ newfound offensive speed and selective but dangerous deep passing, it will be up to Mahomes to win a shootout against the Raiders in a game that could decide the AFC West.