Tuesday, December 14 2010 @ 06:19 AM CST
Contributed by: Ore
Contributed by: Ore
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This Thing Ain’t Over by a Damn Sight...
If you’re ready to pack up shop and call it quits because of the heartbreaking loss in Jacksonville and the resulting 6-7 record, you haven’t been paying attention. If things play out as a careful review indicates they should, and the Raiders leave everything on the field their last three games, they will be right in the mix for the playoffs when it’s all said and done.
If you read my stuff you know I’m not a myopic fan who sees every win as an indication we’re taking another Super Bowl trophy. I’m clear-eyed and honest, and despite my optimistic claim today that we have a realistic shot at the playoffs, I think Oakland would get taken apart in the postseason. That said, making the playoffs is a dream result this year, and I say it could easily happen.
First off, as I realized Sunday morning over my bloody mary before the games even started, the real problem right now is San Diego, not Kansas City. Oakland’s still two games back of the Chiefs, but the Raiders get them in the season finale, a game we’ve all figured we’d have to win if we were going to make the post season anyway. Accordingly, the goal with KC is to get within a game heading into week 17, where with a win we catch them and win on any conceivable tiebreaker. As the Chiefs just demonstrated, they are dead in the water without Matt Cassel. They play in St. Louis this week. The Rams are no joke, are playing at home, and have a shot at the playoffs themselves – they’re currently favored by a point and a half even with Cassel still a possibility. Word is Cassel is likely not to suit up. Cassel is likely to be back for Kansas City’s home tilt with Tennessee the following week, but even if he’s physically 100% – and he won’t be – missing two weeks of reps and games this late in the season will throw off his game. Keep in mind, even with Cassel the Chief’s offense was moribund against the lowly Broncos two weeks ago, and their vaunted running attack was completely shut down by the Chargers, who we all know can’t (usually) stop the run. The Chief’s confidence is down, and they have the potential to have the bottom completely fall out over the last four games.
No, the real problem at this point is San Diego, and in fact early Sunday morning I realized I should probably be pulling for the Chiefs despite their two game lead (of course that was before we blew our shot to upset the Jaguars). The Chargers get San Francisco at home – yes for the third week in a row at a critical part of the season San Diego plays at home – then finish on the road at Cincinnati and Denver. They will, barring injuries, be favored in each game and, in fact, are 8.5 point favorites this week. Yet, San Diego must lose once – and maybe twice – for Oakland to take the division.
San Francisco is scrambling to make the playoffs themselves, as well as to keep their coach’s job. They looked solid this past week against an improved Seattle, and losing Frank Gore has forced them to spread the ball a little more – keeping their offense harder to predict. The Niners have a much better shot at the upset than the line indicates.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have lost ten in a row. They played surprisingly tough in Pittsburgh this week before a few big plays sprung in the Steelers’ favor. Cincinnati remains a talented team – who took their division last year and defeated Baltimore at home this year – it’s just a question of whether they will give in to the negative momentum. A key indicator will be their home game with their rival Browns this week. A win their and they could really get up for the home finale with the Chargers. As far as matchups go, Cincinnati is decent against the pass – the Charger’s strength – and can really move the ball when they aren’t turning it over. Yet, despite the cold and the Bengal’s talent, the Chargers will clearly be heavy favorites.
It’s a safe assumption that, if the Raiders (or Chiefs) are within a game come week 17, the Chargers will play all out against Denver, which looks to finally be in the freefall many of us predicted when Josh McDaniel was first hired. Barring a Rocky Mountain blizzard or a Tim Tebow “what the hell” game (one of my fondest Raider memories was the close of the 1992 season when the 6-9 Raiders said “what the hell” against the defending champ Redskins, played a bunch of guys like Vince Evans, and shockingly knocked the Skins out of the playoffs), San Diego should have a very good chance to win that final game.
One interesting point to remember – the Chiefs-Raiders game will be wrapping up when the Chargers kick off in Denver. If San Diego needs to win to avoid a tie with the Raiders – who swept them this year – they will face an inordinate amount of pressure in a game against a team with nothing to lose, in likely-inclement weather. It could get very interesting.
As for the Raiders? Barring a letdown, they should be able to take apart the Broncos in Oakland. Yes, the Broncos have nothing to lose in week 15 as much as in week 17, but it’s the second of a tough two-game road swing, against bitter rivals, after firing their coach. They likely won’t get their feet under them again until they return home (if they do at all this season). Clearly, a Denver upset ends Oakland’s postseason dreams.
Indianapolis just ended a 3-game losing skid, so people are quickly jumping back on their bandwagon. Indy, however, cannot stop the run, cannot run themselves, and are suddenly turnover-prone. They could easily lose at home to Jacksonville this week, and could just as easily lose at Oakland in week 16, two teams that appear tailor-made to take advantage of Indy’s weaknesses. I’m not writing Peyton Manning off, as the Colts could potentially take our defense – so vulnerable to big plays – apart. But I am saying that is a very winnable game for the Raiders we’ve seen of late.
Obviously the Kansas City game, and finishing undefeated in the division, is the lynchpin of this whole effort. Hopefully the Chiefs have fallen apart and descended into finger-pointing at that point (or at least have resorted to blaming the “unfair” loss of their quarterback to injury for their collapse), making them easy targets, even at home. But it’s the Raiders, so they will likely show up, and at worst the Chiefs can only be a game behind San Diego at that point, so it will likely be a war. Fortunately, Oakland has been in battles throughout the season, and that experience and their big-play ability should make the difference.
After all this analysis, I suppose I owe some predictions. Kansas City will lose their next two, and try to regroup at 8-7 for their finale against their biggest rival. San Diego will hold off tough challenges by San Francisco and the Bengals, and will be 9-6 as they fly into Denver. Oakland will defeat the Broncos and then shock the NFL by winning surprisingly easily against the Colts at home behind their running attack, keeping their season alive at 8-7. On Sunday, January 2, around 1:30 PST, Sebastian Janikowski will be lining up for a long field goal in the mud with under a minute to play, the Raiders trailing by just one point. At the same moment, Nate Kaeding will be trying to clear a patch of snow to kick a field goal, hoping to salvage some points out of yet another drive that fizzled in the near-whiteout conditions. No matter what happens next, it will have been a season worth our emotional investment – and worth remembering.
Zach Bulthuis (Raider Law)
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