No matter how much their fans hate admitting it, long-time enemies Kansas City and Oakland have slouched into near identical images of one another in many unflattering ways.
The Raiders have won just nine games the past two seasons and the Chiefs have won only six. The Raiders endured a two-win season in 2006, the Chiefs went through the pain of a two-win year in 2008, leading to a front office housecleaning and the arrival of new coach Todd Haley.
Oakland’s Tom Cable is also a first-year head coach, though he served 12 games as interim head man during a tumultuous 2008 campaign.
Most significantly, these proud and historic franchises are no longer mentioned when conversation turns to championship contenders. Both are trying very hard to change that.
“We’re two teams trying to do the same thing, trying to learn how to win and achieve,” Cable said. “And that’s not an easy process. I don’t even think about who’s favored or who’s not. Right now we’re just trying to improve and get our opportunities, and when they come, take advantage of them.”
As they headed into today’s 101st renewal of a bitter rivalry that began with the founding of the AFL, both were also coming off close losses. The Chiefs, heavy underdogs at Baltimore, were tied with a little more than five minutes left before losing by two touchdowns. The Raiders lost to San Diego for the 12th straight time when they gave up a touchdown with 18 seconds left.
But both also saw signs of improvement. Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the overall No. 1 draft pick two years ago, hit 12 of 30 passes for 208 yards and showed a poise that’s been largely missing.
An improving Russell to complement a trio of running backs led by Darren McFadden could make for a long day for a Kansas City defense that gave up 501 yards the previous week.
“I think this young quarterback, at least from what I’ve seen this year, is much improved,” Haley said. “He’s a big, strong, athletic guy who can run and can hurt you in a bunch of ways. He has an extremely strong arm and he can be very accurate. I think he showed some of that (against San Diego). He’s a hard sack. Even if you get to him, it’s not going to be easy to get him down because he is so big and strong.”
Russell was 6 for 6 on passes to tight end Zach Miller, a weapon Chiefs fan can appreciate after more than a decade of excellence at the position from the now-traded Tony Gonzalez.
“There’s no doubt that Zach is a tremendous tight end and he’s only going to get better,” said Haley. “He’s an impressive guy to watch. Catches almost all the balls thrown to him. He’s physical. He’s a nice-looking tight end, and any time you’ve got a player of that caliber, you’ve got to defend him, keep him from being a major factor in the game, if that’s possible.”
A major goal for the Chiefs all week was improving an anemic running game that netted only 29 yards against Baltimore’s rugged defense.
“The Baltimore Ravens’ defense is and has been one of the top run defenses in the league,” Haley noted. “That being said, we need to run the ball better than we did in that game every single week. There can’t be a week where we have an off week like that. Whether it’s the running backs or the guys up front or the play-calling, we’ve got to be better.”
The Chiefs’ Larry Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler trying to regain his 1,000-yard form, has looked good at times, but the blocking has been erratic.
“Johnson is still a great runner,” said Cable. “There’s no question about that, when he gets his pads downhill at you he’s a load, and he’s got great speed. But you’ve also seen them being more spread, and throwing the ball around a little bit.”
In a 23-8 victory in Kansas City last year, the Raiders ran for 300 yards, led by Darren McFadden. The Chiefs’ defense was expected to be improved before the Ravens shattered their team record, passing for more than 300 yards and rushing for almost 200.
“McFadden coming out was one of my favorite players,” Haley said. “He’s a hard-running son of a gun who hits it hard, so you’d better be ready.”