Thursday night will be important for every NFL team, and there’s no question that it will be the most pivotal moment of the regular season for the Raiders.
Despite what the schedule says, though, their opponent isn’t just the 9-3 Kansas City Chiefs. It’s also the short week.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said:
“I think it’s probably more for the players, the recovery part of it, that’s a tough thing on them. For us, it’s just a matter of putting in the hours to get the game plan together, but the players have got the mental and the physical part of it that they have to deal with.”
Oakland played a long 60 minutes this past Sunday, outlasting the Bills in a 38-24 marathon where the Raiders finished much stronger than they started.
And while the coaches for either side have managed to prepare during their bye weeks and the time since, the wear on a player’s body can take a toll. But Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. thinks that a lot of that fades before a Thursday game:
“You lose the soreness probably on Wednesday. You kind of really get your mind right. You’ve already talked to yourself about what the week is going to be like. You’ve already prepared yourself about how to take care of your body during the week. You’ve already mentally gone through all the reps, you understand what’s asked of you and you’re professional. Anytime you love what you do. Anytime you’re really passionate about your work, there’s no pain.”
If that’s true, then the league will see the best litmus test for how the playoffs will need to be managed — the Raiders and Chiefs, along with the New England Patriots, are arguably the most threatening teams in football this year.
For the Raiders, a playoff berth can be clinched this week. Here’s four of the situations that need to occur:
Raiders win with a Dolphins loss or tie; Raiders win with a Broncos loss; Raiders tie with a Dolphins loss and a Ravens loss, or a Raiders tie with a Dolphins loss and Steelers loss or tie.
Nothing will happen for the Raiders’ playoff aspirations with a loss, and more than that, their chances of winning the division dwindle.
Kansas City will have swept Oakland, giving them the tie-breaker for the division, if the Raiders don’t prevail.
Such high stakes is what has made the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry so storied, and Kansas City safety Eric Berry knows it:
“I mean we recognize the history of it. It’s a very big game and a lot can be decided out of the outcome of the game. At this point it really is what it is. You can’t do anything about it but go out there and give it your best effort. That’s what I’m pretty much focused on.”
Oakland finished their 2015 season at the Chiefs, losing by a touchdown. Kansas City has won the last four times they’ve faced off with the Raiders, in fact, and lead the series 59-52 all time with a pair of tie scores to add.
Kansas City’s Thursday night record since 2012 is pretty good, too: Chiefs lost at San Diego, Week 9 of 2012; Chiefs win at Philadelphia Week 3 of 2013, Chiefs lost at Oakland Week 12 of 2014; Chiefs lost vs. Denver Week 2 of 2015.
And while common sense might suggest that Oakland’s Thursday record is less spectacular, it’s far from it in that span.
Oakland is 3-1 since 2012 in their mid-week matchups, and they won their first game of 2014 against the Chiefs in week 12 despite terrible odds.
The Raiders are an overwhelming underdog at the casinos, likely warranted given recent history while Facing Kansas City, but offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave gives a firm reason for a shift in the tides:
“I think we’re better than we were early in the year. We continue to improve, and that’s our goal, each and every week regardless of the opponent. We definitely want to see what happened back there versus this common opponent. There’s a lot to study and a lot to grow from.”
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.