Thursday Night Football Preview: Closer Than You Think
It's no secret: through 11 weeks of this 2014 football season, the Oakland Raiders have been flat-out miserable.
Actually, let me amend that a bit. By certain measures, the Raiders have achieved arguable mediocrity this year. Despite possessing one of the worst pass defenses in the league (ranking 24th in the NFL with 53.72 Adjusted Pass Defense Net Expected Points, or NEP), their rush defense is actually rather stout in comparison, ranking 17th. Not that 17th in the league is anything to write home about, necessarily, but it may be the one bright spot on this winless team.
Because Oakland's offense is simply abject. The Raiders rank 30th in both Rushing and Passing NEP as a team, good for 31st in overall Offensive NEP (ahead of only the even-more-abject Jaguars). If you haven't been following the Raiders this year - and who has, really? - you may not have realized how bad it was. But it's that bad. And when you think about the Raiders' personnel at the skill positions, it kind of makes sense, right?
At running back, Oakland has been forced to choose between the lesser of two washed-up, beat-up has-beens in Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden. Jones-Drew has been used extremely sparingly in the eight games he's played, carrying the ball 33 times for just 70 yards and amassing a Rushing NEP of -10.71 in that time, good for 13th-worst in the league despite the low volume of carries. McFadden is even worse, as he's had the luxury of toting the rock 112 times; those carries have resulted in only 393 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a Rushing NEP of -18.33, making McFadden the second-least efficient rusher in the NFL (ahead of only Andre Ellington of the Cardinals).
It may be time for Oakland to consider bringing second-year back Latavius Murray more into the mix, if only to see what he can do during another lost year for the Raiders.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, are rock-solid at running back, and if you don't know why, you're probably not enjoying this article very much, because you don't watch football. Jamaal Charles has played some tremendous football this year by virtually every metric. He's not catching as many passes as he did last season, when an insane amount of his value came from his receiving ability, but he's made up for it by being the most efficient runner in the National Football League.
His Rushing NEP of 20.08 leads the league, and his Success Rate of 50.76% (which measures the proportion of rushes that resulted in positive NEP) is second among players with over 100 carries, behind only the ever-beastly Marshawn Lynch. He's also scored 10 times in nine games, one of which he left early due to injury, which is absurd.
And speaking of that injury, it's likely that Charles' return from his high ankle sprain was a major galvanizing force for this Chiefs team, who started the season 0-2 before rattling off 7 wins in 8 games, including resounding victories over the Patriots, Chargers, Bills, and Seahawks.
The running back situation may be clear-cut between these two division rivals, but the winner of tonight's game is surprisingly a bit more murky, according to our metrics. With the Chiefs an obvious favorite in Oakland, what could the path to victory possibly be for the Raiders?
...is not the way Oakland will win. With Derek Carr under center, the Raiders' passing game is a non-starter thus far, almost to the point that Oaklanders are wishing for the halcyon days of Terrelle Pryor or Jamarcus Russell (or maybe even, dare I say it, Marques Tuiasosopo).
I've already told you that the Raiders are 30th in Passing NEP this year, ahead of only the Vikings and Jaguars (both of whom are rolling with fellow rookie quarterbacks in Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles). And accordingly, Derek Carr has been the fourth-worst passer in the league this year by Passing NEP, with only Bortles, Chad Henne, and displaced Jets signal-caller Geno Smith trailing. It's hard to fault Carr, considering that he's playing in a system that's devoid of offensive weapons.
The result we're likely to see is similar to our strongest predictor game (91.81%), a matchup between the Patriots and Panthers way back in January 2002. A year before the two teams met again in the Super Bowl, the Panthers were heading into Week 17 with a 1-14 record, and the Patriots were playoff-bound, thanks to this guy named Tom Brady. That game featured a typical game-manager style performance from Brady, and on the other side of the ball, a devastating line from Chris Weinke: 15-of-36 for 144 yards and 3 interceptions, with two of those picks being returned for touchdowns. Between Carr's struggles and Kansas City's ninth-ranked pass defense, it could be a long night for the Raiders.
Containment and Brinkmanship
The only way forward for Oakland may be the dink-and-dunk method of scoring, considering that the Chiefs have been playing like a championship-caliber team lately. Quarterback Alex Smith is one of the premier ball wardens in the league; his 11 touchdowns and 4 interceptions this year look like a stat line from 10 years ago. If the Raiders can find a way to force mistakes, they'll have a chance to chip away at the Chiefs' armor and put some points on the board. But it'll depend on their rush defense, amazingly the strongest unit on the team, finding a way to stifle Jamaal Charles.
It might seem unlikely, but there is a precedent: another of our strongest predictor games (90.95%) is a 2003 contest between division rivals Green Bay and Detroit, in which the Lions' Jason Hanson kicked five field goals (three of them longer than 40 yards) on their way to a 22-14 victory. Beyond the fact that veteran ironman Sebastian Janikowski can absolutely produce that kind of game on a good day, the game also featured an uncharacteristically quiet performance by the Packers' marquee running back, Ahman Green, who ran the ball only 13 times for 57 yards. Considering that the Packers led the Lions heading into the fourth quarter, it's surprising that they leaned so heavily on Brett Favre (who threw 37 passes in an era when that still meant something) and eschewed Green. But if the Raiders can get the Chiefs to make the same mistake, we could be looking at Upset City.
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