2020 AFC West preview

2019 Super Bowl Champion Chiefs scored 46 touchdowns on their way to amassing 451 points during the regular season, the second highest total in the AFC and fifth most in the league. It’s hardly surprising that the team who won the whole thing last time out would be one of the highest scoring teams but what is slightly shocking is that Patrick Mahomes was only responsible for 28 of them, 26 with passes and 2 rushing TD’s. He did miss 2 games through injury but he threw 24 fewer touchdown passes in 2019 than in 2018 and that has to be unnerving for the rest of the division if not the rest of the league. If 2019 featured Mahomes’ sophomore slump then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility the 2020 Mahomes lead Chiefs could improve on the 12-4 record of last season. Their trickiest games come away to the Saints on the 20th of December, in Tampa Bay on the 29th of November and at Baltimore on a Monday night in week 3 but even if they stumble in those games they’ll still end the regular season at 13-3 which would surely be enough to secure home field advantage in the postseason.

The Broncos 2019 almost had two separate starts, they had the new beginning of a new Head Coach with an experienced QB in week one when Vic Fangio and his team started out in Oakland against the Raiders with Joe Flacco and a reset and restart in week 13 when they started Drew Lock at Mile High against the Chargers, won 23-20 and proceeded to win 4 of their last 5 games of the season losing only to the Chiefs in Kansas City. During those 5 games they averaged almost 22 points per game compared to under 16 points per game in the first 11 games which may not seem like an enormous difference but when you have a Defence that allows just 18.5 points per game those 2 Field Goals are the difference between winning a game and very narrowly losing. The Broncos have the 12th toughest schedule in the league next season but with their home field advantage (they call it Mile High for a reason) and the addition of stand out WR Jerry Jeudy along with 2 other WR’s and a TE in the Draft the Broncos Offence should continue on their upward curve, I expect they’ll end the season with a 9-7 record which will put them in with a shot at a Wildcard place.

The Raiders will have a shiny (very shiny) new stadium in the Las Vegas desert to call home this season and while there may be a few question marks surrounding Jon Gruden as a Head Coach he made one of the canniest moves in NFL history when he signed Mike Mayock up as his GM, last year they drafted Josh Jacobs with the 24th pick and despite injuring his shoulder in week 7 the Running Back still carried the Offence and ended the season with 1,150 rushing yards from 242 carries but only scored 7 touchdowns. Their real success came later in the Draft with Tight End Foster Moreau who was drafted in the fourth round and caught 5 touchdowns and Hunter Renfrow who caught 4 touchdown passes despite being drafted with the 149th pick. If the Raiders lower draft picks can have a similar impact this year then Bryan Edwards should be able to help out with their scoring problems, a tall, rangy receiver can always assist a Quarterback who can have accuracy issues and Tanner Muse along with Amik Robertson should at least add some depth to a Defence that gave up 11 more passing touchdowns than the Raiders scored last year, only 9 teams had a worse pass defence. Finding hidden gems may be an area where the Raiders excel but polishing those gems may be their downfall, for all Gruden’s enthusiasm and ability to motivate players the Raiders often suffer from over-enthusiasm, they conceded 1,138 penalty yards on 128 penalties. Only the Jaguars conceded more penalties on average per game with 72.8 compared to Oakland’s 71.1 and this is why I think they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year. Vegas will actually have quite a favourable schedule in terms of the strength of their opponents, it’s the second easiest in the division behind the Chargers, but they will have to face 8 high powered Offences plus the Browns, Jets and Dolphins (in week 16 when Tua will probably be starting) who may well score freely whilst still suffering through their growing pains. If they can avoid as many injury problems as they incurred last season and without an Antonio Brown sized distraction I can see them ending the season 8-8 which would be an improvement on last season, but the strong possibility of a Carr-Mariota QB controversy when neither really look like a Super Bowl calibre QB prevents them from taking a huge leap forward.

Similarly to the Raiders the Chargers also have a brand new stadium to look forward to this season with the added bonus that Sofi looks like a space ship and not a robot vacuum cleaner (like Allegiant Stadium does). What will be happening inside that stadium is anyone’s guess though, they do face the easiest schedule in the division but they’ve lost some pretty important players from recent seasons. Before they even began signing draft picks in April the Chargers had to deal with 34 player’s contracts with 13 re-signing, Russell Okung traded to the Panthers for Trai Turner and 21 either cut or declaring for Free Agency (including Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon) which seems excessive during a normal year let alone a season which could involve a truncated preseason schedule. Last season the Chargers were ranked 21st in terms of scoring as they averaged 21.1 points per game, just ahead of the Browns who many believe had an awful season but the Chargers were 10th in terms of the number of yards gained on Offence so it would appear that where they got the ball on the field was a bigger issue. Only 6 teams averaged fewer yards on kick off returns and 4 fewer on punt returns so there is definitely room for improvement there. Last season’s Defence stats are more of a worry, especially when Anthony Lynn is considered a Head Coach who bases his success on a firm defensive foundation. In 2019 they conceded 21.6 points per game which is fine for a team with a high octane Offence but if you’re only scoring 21.1 per game you’re not even producing an average amount of octane. I expect it will be difficult for last year’s stuttering Chargers Offence to hit the ground running as a new Quarterback (whether it be Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert or Cam Newton they weren’t starting in L.A last season), new Running Back and Trai Turner who will be fitting in to the Offensive line (he’s traditionally a Guard but may be at Tackle if he replaces Okung) all immersing themselves into new surroundings. On the Defensive side of the ball Chris Harris Jr. should make the pass defence even better and the arrival of Linval Joseph will definitely solidify the Defensive line but even with Derwin James returning from injury I’m not sure they’ll be able to subdue teams like the Chiefs, Broncos, Saints and Buccaneers. I can see them making a winning start to the season against the Bengals but the last month of the season involves travelling to Vegas and Kansas City whilst welcoming the Falcons and Broncos to their new surroundings which should be incredibly tough, finishing 7-9 would be a successful season given the upheaval in terms of moving location and the roster turnover would.

The road from Oakland to Vegas

DSC_0198560 miles is a relatively short distance in a country that spans over 3,000 miles but the prospect of a 16 hour road trip to watch the NFL team you’ve called your own since 1995 (and for some the 21 years preceding their move to LA in 1982) is going to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. To appease embittered Oakland fans the Raiders have attempted to bring back the good old days by signing Super Bowl winning Jon Gruden to a frankly whopping $100 million deal which runs until 2028 (with the Raiders proposed move due to take place in 2020) but just like blue passports and the fallacy that anyone can make anything “great again” Mark Davis’ attempt to return to a past glory is nothing more than misguided nostalgia.

Gruden is a rarity as an active Super Bowl winning Head Coach, there are just 7 winners still coaching and his last spell in Oakland was his most successful tenure with a 59% win rate (compared to his 54% overall win rate) but he had just 4 seasons with 10 or more wins in his 11 years as a Head Coach. His playoff record is not too impressive either with only 5 wins from 9 games and that was when he was at the peak of his coaching power, Gruden hasn’t won a game in the post season since he won the Super Bowl in 2002 and he hasn’t coached a football team since 2008!

While he hasn’t been totally out of football, he’s been working for ESPN as an analyst on Monday Night Football and he actually said one of the reasons he wanted to become a Head Coach again was “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself” so he’s hardly coming in cold but as illustrated by the Raiders decision to trade draft picks for current players show that he might not be entirely au fait with the world of College football as other Head Coaches.

Those trades (Martavis Bryant for their 3rd round pick and Right Tackle Brandon Parker with the 3rd round pick they recieved from the Ravens) along with slot receiver Ryan Switzer who they traded for from the Cowboys plus the addition of Free Agent Doug Martin has retooled the Offence to give Derek Carr some help. However Gruden’s reputation for hammering his Quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg only lasted about 4 weeks in Oakland after the Raiders traded for him in May) and Derek Carr’s erratic performances (just 1 winning season and a 45% winning record) seem like a volatile combination to some outsiders and let’s not forget that while Bryant is potentially a league leading receiver he had a particularly strained relationship with Big Ben in Pittsburgh after his 13 month suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. How new Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson balances the run game with the pass game and manages to share the workload between Martin and Lynch (and possibly Richard and Washington, if they retain 4 Running Backs into the regular season) will be key, last season the Raiders threw on 60% of their Offensive snaps and they only recorded 23 touchdowns alongside 14 interceptions so it would appear that they didn’t allow Carr to use his strengths as much as they could have.

I think the important part of Gruden’s deal is the 10 years of the contract and as much as his appointment is to placate the fans who feel betrayed by the ownership who have decided to move Mark Davis is also trying to make the transition to a new State as smooth as possible. However if the start of Gruden’s tenure is a rocky one the Black Hole faithful may lose interest and the $100 million price of the deal may become more of an albatross around the Raiders neck than a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans

Spinal injuries and broken fibula’s are never good but JJ Watt’s herniated disk and Derek Carr’s broken leg will surely be the hot topics surrounding this game.  Watt injured his back (which he had surgery on in the offseason) way back in September whereas Carr’s injury was a crushing blow in the build up to the playoffs when it happened in week 16, to compound Raiders fans anguish they lost their second string Quarterback Matt McGloin before half time in week 17.  The Raiders reliance on a third string Quarterback will almost certainly the deciding factor in the game and while the Raiders Offensive line could allow them to adopt a run heavy Offence and with 3 productive Running Backs (provided Jalen Richard is healthy) and a Fullback who is more than capable of carrying effectively it wouldn’t be a problem for them.  Pragmatism isn’t really their style though and Head Coach Jack Del Rio would probably prefer to chance his (and Connor Cook’s) arm to provide a repeat of the Raiders 27-20 victory of the Texans in Mexico City back in November.  Derek Carr was responsible for 3 of their Touchdowns in that game though as he launched a comeback and the Raiders outscored their opponents 17 -10 in the second half.  They had real trouble running against the Texans Defence too and as a team only recorded 30 rushing yards on 20 carries, the longest being a 6 yard Latavius Murray in the last minute of the game.

The Texans Offence hasn’t been particularly outstanding this year either and has had its own Quarterback issues, although not as a result of injuries.  Their issues have been a result of their personnel decision to offer Brock Osweiler a $72 million contract in free agency and the expectancy that a contract of the magnitude brings with it.  Osweiler has struggled and has thrown 16 interceptions in 15 starts alongside 15 touchdowns with a completion rate of 59%, only Ryan Fitzpatrick has a worse passer rating in the NFL this season.  Osweiler was replaced by Tom Savage in week 15 and he started in week 16 but left the game with a concussion and his participation in the post season is far from certain (he also didn’t look to be much of an improvement from Osweiler, none of his73 attempts have resulted in Touchdowns).  Osweiler has been the focal point of Texans fans ire but a more generous view would be that the Texans have built an Offensive line that’s more adept at run blocking and their 1,850 yards on the ground (the 8th most in the NFL) and the 32 sacks they’ve allowed (5 on Savage in 73 drop back’s <hence the concussion>) would attest to that.  Despite their success at running the ball (they’ve averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 116.2 yards per game) 56% of the Texans Offensive snaps have been pass attempts this season and 16 players have caught passes for the Texans this season, so there could be some questions about the Offensive play calling (even if Osweiler is getting the big bucks they’re clearly more comfortable running).  10 different players have rushed for the Texans and while Osweiler might not feel comfortable as a runner (and he’s certainly not quick enough to be considered a running Quarterback) he has rushed for 2 Touchdowns and averages 4.37 yards per carry so he does provide a threat when he pulls the ball down.

While the Texans will be missing their Defensive superstar the Raiders will have Khalil Mack and he will terrorise the Texans Offensive line.  Mack has 73 total tackles, 11 sacks and forced 5 fumbles this season to add to one of the most outrageous interceptions anyone had ever seen against Cam Newton.  It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Raiders could win this game with their Defence alone.  Khalil Mack is not the only playmaker in their ranks, Bruce Irvin has won the Super Bowl with the Seahawks and this season he has notched up 7 sacks and 6 forced fumbles of his own, as a team the Raiders have made 25 sacks so they could tee off on the Texans Quarterback (whoever it is) unless the Texans trust their Running Backs a bit more.  The Raiders have also made 16, the second highest number in the NFL during the regular season with 9 year veteran Reggie Nelson grabbing 5 of them, with Brock’s propensity for throwing one a game he’ll certainly be spying the Quarterback.  The Texans have managed just 17 defensive turnovers all season which ranks them 26th in the league so they’ll be more reliant on their inconsistent Offence to decide this game for them.

It would be a huge upset of the Raiders were to win this game on the road and while it’s not completely impossible the way they played in week 17 the loss of Derek Carr has not only effected how they play but also how confident they are on the field, he’s a vital cog in their machine and the absence of his leadership and personality have left them flat.  The loss of their 2nd string Quarterback at the weekend left them looking shell shocked and almost dejected, if Jack Del Rio can rejuvenate them in the coming days then they should have enough firepower to beat an unconvincing Texans who have their own problems but you’d have to agree with the bookmakers who are currently favouring the Texans to win a close game.