Just Win, Sort Of: How the Raiders Took Down the Chiefs

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So, that happened. The Raiders and Chiefs somehow produced the most exciting Thursday Night Football contest of the year, with Oakland overcoming a second-half comeback from Kansas City and one of the most bizarre near-penalties you’ll ever see to come away with its first win of the season, 24-20. The Chiefs weren’t massive favorites, since they were traveling to Oakland, but the Raiders’ win as 7.5-point underdogs is tied for the fifth-largest upset of the season.

The win was a long time coming. Given that the Raiders aren’t exactly the league’s most exciting team, the field and weather conditions promised a messy, sloppy game, and the game had all the action of previous Thursday Night Football games to live up to, chances are that you might have missed this one. Fortunately, we’re here to help answer your questions about what happened and what it means going forward.

The Raiders really won?

Yes. Let’s not make this the whole bit.

How did that happen?

Well, in a few different ways. They got off to a hot start and went up 14-0 in the second qua—

How on earth did the Raiders get up two touchdowns in the second quarter?

Fair question. After all, the Raiders hadn’t held a two-touchdown lead in more than a year, dating back to November 17, 2013, when they led the Texans 14-0 for a stretch of the first half.

To be fair to the Raiders, the first 20 minutes of this game was probably their best stretch of football all season. While they managed to score 14 points, that effort level really appeared on defense, where Oakland stood up to a Kansas City offense that has been very good over the past month.

Showing little concern for the Chiefs beating their defensive backs downfield, Oakland played aggressive coverage and got a functional pass rush from the combination of Justin Tuck and Khalil Mack. And if the Raiders do have a strength on defense, it’s in their rushing defense, which ranked 14th in DVOA heading into the game. They did a very credible job against Jamaal Charles & Co. in the first half, limiting the Chiefs to 72 yards on 18 carries for an even 4.0 yards per attempt. That’s not exactly dominant, but given that the longest run was for only 11 yards, the Raiders did enough to force the Chiefs into a lot of third downs.

That’s not normally a problem for the Chiefs, but in this game it was. Heading into this contest, the Chiefs had converted 48 percent of their third-down attempts, the third-best rate in football. The Raiders, meanwhile, had allowed opposing offenses to pick up 44.8 percent of their third-down tries, the sixth-worst rate in the league. Considering those stats, you’d expect the Chiefs to string together a lot of long drives with easy completions to move the chains on third down.

That didn’t happen. The Chiefs converted just one of their nine third-down tries in the first half; the chances that a team with a true conversion rate of 48.8 percent would convert only as many as one of their nine tries is about 43-to-1. It’s basically flipping a coin nine times and having heads come up eight times. The Raiders contested a lot of Alex Smith’s passes, and the poor weather didn’t help things, but when you don’t throw anything deep1 and expect to move the chains with safe throws, a 1-for-9 half on third downs can be killer.

After punting on their first possession, the Raiders scored the initial touchdown with an eight-play, 60-yard drive that saw the team repeatedly bring on backup Matt McCants as a sixth offensive lineman, much as the Patriots did with Cameron Fleming during Sunday night’s blowout win over the Colts.

Two drives later, the Raiders took over on their own 10-yard line and delivered this season’s longest touchdown from scrimmage, a 90-yard run from third-stringer Latavius Murray. It was one of the simpler 90-yard touchdowns you’ll ever see, a basic counter play aided by two key mistakes from Chiefs defenders.

The biggest mistake comes from Chiefs inside linebacker Josh Mauga (coincidentally, no. 90), a former Jets special-teamer who has been in the lineup all season for the Chiefs. Mauga overpursues the run, a tendency the Raiders likely saw on film, given how Phil Simms made a point of mentioning during the broadcast that Oakland had focused on misdirection plays in practice. Murray helps out with a nice juke in the hole, but if Mauga is better positioned, the play goes for a 3-yard gain.

Then, single-high safety Eric Berry (no. 29) gets sucked in by the motion, drifts to his left, and never recovers. He doesn’t see the cutback coming until it’s too late, and once Murray breaks free, Berry doesn’t help matters by choosing a poor angle to the ball carrier. Murray runs right by the former fifth overall pick, and at that point, the only question was whether he would run out of gas before Berry did. Murray didn’t, and it gave him his second touchdown of the day.

Wait. Who is Latavius Murray?

If you weren’t on the Latavius Murray bandwagon before, you’re probably about to hop on. Murray is basically a Julio Jones starter kit at running back, as he’s listed at 6-foot-3, weighs 223 pounds, and reportedly ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at his pro day. Jones is 6-foot-3, weighs 220 pounds, and ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the combine. Having a Julio Jones at running back would be fun, right?

The Raiders took Murray in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, only for him to miss his rookie season with an ankle injury and fall to the bottom of the depth chart this year. After handing the ball off to Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew for two months, the Raiders finally realized they probably should work on finding assets for the future and took Murray out for a test drive against the Broncos, giving him four carries for 43 yards. He got four more carries Thursday, but this time, he produced 112 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a slight improvement.

The bandwagon is probably going to fill up a little too fast. Murray did fumble on one of those two non-touchdown carries, and he’s probably not going to average 11.9 yards per attempt if he gets more than four carries in a game. He also suffered a concussion on his final carry that kept him out for the remainder of the contest.

The Raiders are still going nowhere, and they should be all about figuring out whether athletic marvels like Andre Holmes and Murray can be turned into worthwhile NFL contributors. Thursday’s big run may have given Oakland the confidence to actually turn things over to Murray. Given that the Raiders were on pace to run for a record-low 1,008 rushing yards before Thursday’s win, they don’t really have many excuses not to do so.

And if the light switch does turn on for Murray, well, there are few backs in football who have his mix of size and athleticism. Being big and fast alone isn’t enough to make you an upper-echelon NFL running back — you don’t have to be too old to remember the likes of Travis Jervey — but it sure beats being short and slow, and the Raiders won’t know what they have with Murray until they give him a shot. That should happen as soon as possible.

How did the Chiefs make their comeback?

The Raiders got sloppy. First, while they were playing the Chiefs off the field and had the crowd in a frenzy after that second Murray touchdown, they made a special-teams mistake. After a bad snap on third down led the Chiefs to punt on fourth-and-2 on Oakland’s side of the field,2 forgotten wideout Denarius Moore muffed the ensuing punt, with Frank Zombo recovering and giving the Chiefs new life. Oakland still managed to hold Jamaal Charles’s crew to a field goal, but it was three points it didn’t need to give away.

The Raiders were able to recover Murray’s fumble on the next drive, but after punting and holding the Chiefs to a three-and-out, they gave Kansas City an extra possession by denying Dustin Colquitt space to land during the follow-through on his punt, producing a running-into-the-kicker call that moved the chains. The Raiders were about to take over with 1:52 left and two timeouts. Instead, after stopping the Chiefs on third down, Oakland took over with 36 seconds left and one timeout. They ran a draw with Jones-Drew, took a holding penalty, and then killed clock until halftime. Running into the kicker might have cost them a field goal.

After a blitzing Charles Woodson sacked Smith and took the Chiefs to 1-for-10 on third down on Kansas City’s opening possession of the second half, a poor punt from Colquitt gave the Raiders a short field. In full clock-killing mode already, the Raiders took nearly five minutes to go 27 yards and set up a Sebastian Janikowski field goal to restore their 14-point lead.

From that point forward, the Chiefs began to take over. Knile Davis returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield, and the Raiders repeatedly seemed to blow assignments in coverage, leaving Smith with easy completions to Travis Kelce. The Raiders were nearly gifted an out when Charles fumbled and Mack was the first to get his hands on the football, but it somehow bounced into the thankful palms of De’Anthony Thomas. Two plays later, the Raiders blew another coverage and let Anthony Fasano release downfield for an easy 19-yard score.

Outside of a nearly intercepted 37-yard catch-and-run by Holmes, the Raiders made little progress and punted again, with the Chiefs quickly swinging back into attack mode. A short pass to Kelce went for 27 yards. After an offensive holding call, the Chiefs picked up an easy 24 yards with a slant to Dwayne Bowe during which Woodson and D.J. Hayden picked each other and linebacker Miles Burris made one of the absolute worst tackle attempts you will ever see, a flailing wave that never came close to brushing up against Bowe.

And then, after another holding penalty on Eric Fisher, the Chiefs tied the game with a 30-yard catch-and-run by Charles. It appears that the Raiders were trying to lure Smith into a checkdown by feigning a blitz by Woodson, who would then drop back into man coverage if Charles shot out of the backfield. Woodson is a future Hall of Famer, but that’s a lot to ask of a 38-year-old on sloppy turf. Charles then made Brandian Ross’s life flash before his eyes before torching the journeyman in the open field, finishing up by letting Sio Moore overrun his last-ditch tackle attempt. The Chiefs had scored 14 points in five minutes to tie the game at 17.

A Raiders three-and-out and a big punt return from Frankie Hammond was enough to give the Chiefs the lead. A 23-yard pass to Albert Wilson got the Chiefs into the red zone, and while the Raiders held and forced Smith to throw the ball away on third down, a short Cairo Santos field goal gave Kansas City a 20-17 lead with 9:07 left. It felt like the Chiefs had bailed themselves out and that the Raiders had let the game slip away. A million beat writers opened up a million Word documents and began a million stories about how the Chiefs just knew how to win.

How did the Raiders come up with a game-winning drive?

With a little bit of everything on a lot of third-down conversions. They started the drive by introducing the perennially underrated Marcel Reece at halfback, who carried the ball eight times for 34 yards on this drive alone, picking up the opening two first downs. Derek Carr was then sacked by Justin Houston, and while the Raiders got most of the yardage back on second down, they made a mistake on third-and-1 by neglecting to block Houston on a play-action rollout, running Carr’s bootleg right at him. That didn’t work.

The Raiders could have considered punting on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 43-yard line with 5:03 left and all three timeouts, but it was refreshing to see them try to win the game on this drive, and they converted with a Carr sneak. After Carr nearly threw an interception on a terrible throw toward an open Holmes, he hit tight end Mychal Rivera for a third-down conversion. Three plays later, Carr got off a truly ugly pass to Holmes but was bailed out by a pass interference call on Ron Parker, who was locked up with Holmes in a hand fight that could have been called either way. Two Reece runs set up a third-and-1 that Carr converted with another sneak, bloodying himself in the process.

Carr finished up the 18-play drive with a nice play, looking Parker off into the flat to open up space for James Jones, who was left wide open for the game’s deciding touchdown.

Why were there Raiders celebrating five yards behind Smith before the final play of the game?

Oh, this?

That’s not a great look. The Chiefs took over with 1:35 left and drove the ball to midfield, including a fourth-and-3 on which the Raiders somehow committed three penalties in a matter of seconds. With the Raiders pass rush coming close to Smith, a blitz finally wrapped Smith up on third-and-6 with 49 seconds left, at which point Mack and Moore3 decided to engage in a rather elaborate and awesome handshake routine, unaware that behind them the Chiefs were rushing to the line of scrimmage for the game-deciding fourth down. Tuck noticed that his teammates were living the high life and called timeout just before the Chiefs were left with either the freest free play of all time or the most unabated path to their quarterback of all time.

I doubt that Oakland’s two talented young linebackers were really so concerned about showing off that they didn’t care about getting back onside, although I’m afraid somebody will suggest that in the days to come. More likely, they either thought the play was the game-deciding fourth-down snap or thought the Chiefs had called timeout after the sack, neither of which was true. It was nice of Mack not to destroy Smith from behind or steal the snap, though.

Was this proof that Derek Carr’s the future at quarterback for Oakland?

Despite what Jim Nantz was telling you at the end of this game, absolutely not. It’s tempting to see a young quarterback’s first win and suggest it came as a result of some improvement in his play, but this was simply not the case. Carr was 18-of-35 for just 174 yards, and while the game was played in poor weather, he made a number of egregiously bad throws.

He made one of the worst throws you’ll see a quarterback make this week, a dead-to-rights pick-six dropped by Mauga on the opening possession of the second half. He was lucky to get away with a 37-yard completion to Holmes down the sideline when Parker, who saw his chance at an interception, mistimed his jump. Carr even nearly threw away the game on Oakland’s final drive when he saw an open Holmes and delivered a lacking throw that was nowhere near the receiver, with Husain Abdullah doing the dropping duties this time around. We forget about this stuff because Carr won, but the throws aren’t any better simply because the Chiefs failed to make him pay for his mistakes.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting this game is proof that Carr isn’t the solution for the Raiders. He has looked very impressive during stretches of his rookie season, notably in his 282-yard, four-touchdown near-upset of the Chargers in Week 6. It’s still unclear whether Carr will be the man for Oakland in the years to come, and it can only help his confidence that he was part of a winning team for the first time as a pro. But using this game as proof that he’s taken a leap forward or that he’s going to be Oakland’s franchise quarterback is either lazy storytelling or wanton ignorance. He came closer to throwing this game away than he did to single-handedly winning it for his team.

Can you believe this happened to the Chiefs?

It’s not crazy, but it’s definitely surprising. Some people will say they were sure the Chiefs were going to lose because the Raiders were having a ceremony for Ray Guy or because it was a trap game or a prime-time game or because of some weird Royals-A’s reverse karma, and I place equal faith in each of those explanations. In reality, the Chiefs had been one of the best teams in football since returning from their bye, going 5-0 while winning by an average of 10.4 points per game. Their schedule hadn’t been tough, but if they could beat the Jets and Bills, was there any reason to think they couldn’t handle the Raiders?

And yet, there’s that one truly ugly blemish on their record before Thursday, their 26-10 shellacking at home at the hands of the lowly Titans in Week 1, a loss that (combined with season-ending injuries to Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito) led me to write off their season after one game. I was right to think that getting blown out by the Titans wouldn’t look so great later in the year, but the Chiefs were far more resilient than I expected.

Even when Charles went down with a high ankle sprain earlier this season, the Chiefs turned things over to Davis, adapted, and got Charles back in time for one of the most impressive victories of the year, a 41-14 blowout of the Patriots that people seem to discount because the Patriots have been great ever since, going 6-0 against a difficult schedule while winning by more than 19 points per contest. If anything, that should make Kansas City’s win look even better, not like some sort of fluke.

As high as blowing out the Patriots must have made the Chiefs feel, losing to the Raiders in an Oakland mudpit must have felt equally as low. One game can tell you only so much about a team, but this isn’t one Kansas City will want to have on its résumé. It also plays arguably the second-best team in the AFC (Denver) and the best team in the NFC (Arizona) over the next two weeks before a rematch with Oakland, so this would have been a nice feather to have in its cap before two weeks of tough matchups.

How does this change the AFC playoff picture?

The Raiders are ready to go on a resurg— no? OK. Well, it really slows Kansas City’s roll. Heading into Thursday’s game at 7-3 and as one of the few teams with a tiebreaker over the Patriots, the Chiefs were close to leaping into the top spot in the AFC. Beating the Raiders could have launched them into the highest tax bracket and ensured that next week’s AFC West battle with the Broncos had serious ramifications for the division title.

Instead, they’re now two games back of the Patriots in the loss column and lie stuck in the wilderness of the AFC wild-card race. Even worse, their critical loss came to a divisional foe, dropping the Chiefs to 1-2 inside the West and lowering their conference record to 5-3. Those records, especially the 1-2 divisional mark, are not exactly where you want to be if you’re worried that tiebreakers are going to come into play. If the Broncos beat the Chiefs next Sunday, they’ll be guaranteed to win all of the tiebreakers between the two.

This makes Denver’s life a lot easier. If the Broncos win this week, they can afford to lose to the Chiefs at Arrowhead next week, because they’ll still be atop the AFC West on a tiebreaker. Even more so, it will make the Patriots sleep a little easier. Kansas City was one of the few combatants (along with Miami) that could challenge New England’s hold on the no. 1 seed, if only by virtue of the Chiefs’ victory over the Patriots in Week 4. Now, they’ll need to make up two games and hope that New England opens up the window just a crack for Kansas City to burst through.

In any case, we finally got a fun Thursday-night game. Chiefs-Raiders wasn’t the most glamorous contest, and it didn’t exactly feature a ton of superstars-in-waiting, but it was competitive and meaningful to both teams. That alone — well, along with the dancing Raiders on fourth down — was enough to make it worth the live viewing last night.

Filed Under: NFL, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Derek Carr, Alex Smith, Latavius Murray

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell