It’s a full-fledged four-team race in the AFC West, with San Diego, Oakland and Kansas City all tied at the top with 4-4 records, and Denver sitting on 3-5. The race comes to the NFL Network tonight at 8:15 PM ET, when the Raiders visit the Chargers for the first installment of the Thursday night games that will run through the end of the season.
Oakland’s lost twice since losing Jason Campbell for the season and Carson Palmer has thrown six interceptions in those two games. But Palmer did make noticeable strides last week when he at least threw for over 300 yards in a loss to Denver. Now he’s just got to keep his completions targeted at the guys in silver-n-black. One thing Palmer won’t have is the comfort of looking for Darren McFadden out of the backfield, which will miss this game with a foot injury. Backup Michael Bush should be able to keep Oakland’s solid running game going, but the lack of big-play capability that McFadden brings is tough to replace in a game like this. The Raiders are further beat up across the defense, where they must hold some kind of record for the most players with ankle injuries. From Richard Seymour to Rolando McClain to Chris Johnson, the Raiders will have guys playing hurt at every level of the defense.
San Diego finally started moving the ball consistently against a weak Green Bay defense last week, but Philip Rivers still has his turnover problems, as he threw three interceptions. The return of Ryan Matthews, combined with Oakland’s beat-up front seven should allow the Chargers to establish a ground game, which would presumably ease the pressure on Rivers to force the ball into coverages. The quarterback will likely miss Malcolm Floyd as one of his targets with the hip problem that’s bedeviled Floyd all year, but with Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates in the lineup, there are still plenty of opportunities to make big plays through the air.
If all this sounds like I’m leading up to picking San Diego, than I’ve communicated well. Playing at home, if the Chargers manage to lose this game, it’s time for serious regime change. A home game against a team you’re tied with in November can’t be given away, and the Chargers do have the best schedule of the AFC West contenders down the stretch with their tough road games (Chicago, Detroit) being outside the AFC and not as damaging in tiebreaker scenarios. It’s there for San Diego to take, and at least for tonight, they will.
Kansas City and Denver also go head-to-head this week, although it’s tough to see either one of them really staying in this race. With the Broncos I do expect them to play better in the second half, as John Fox gets settled in as coach, but they still need defensive help if they’re going to be a serious contender. I can see the Broncos getting to 8-8, but you have to think one of the three leaders can at least go 5-3 and edge them out.
The odds against Kansas City being that team are very long. After this game on Sunday, the Chiefs have to play, in succession, New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago, NY Jets and Green Bay.