We just passed through the quarter point of the NFL season last week, and we are starting to get an idea how conference races are starting to take shape.
The AFC West as a division is one that is on the rise (as long as you aren’t the Oakland Raiders). The Chargers and Broncos are playing great football to begin the year and the Chiefs are starting to rebound after they got off to a rough start, in what is sure to be a very competitive division in football this year.
Here are the story lines leading into this weekend’s Week Five games:
Standings (Last Week Result)
San Diego Chargers….3-1 (33-14 W v. JAX)
Denver Broncos………2-1 (Bye Week)
Kansas City Chiefs…….2-2 (41-14 W v. NE)
Oakland Raiders………0-4 (38-14 L v. MIA)
San Diego Chargers
Phillip Rivers having a MVP Start to Season
Rivers has been the best quarterback in the league so far to start the year and he is a big reason why San Diego is off to such a hot start.
He is the highest rated passer in the league, in throwing for 1155 yards and nine touchdowns with just one interception. He is also completing just over 70% of his passes.
The San Diego offense has been very efficient this year, and more importantly they have been able to sustain long scoring drives, keeping opposing offenses off the field. That is the exact formula you want to come up with if you are trying to knock off the Denver Broncos for AFC West supremacy.
The Chargers are also doing a great job of spreading the ball around and taking the best matchup on each play. They have four receivers with over 187 yards receiving (Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd). Three of those receivers (Allen, Royal and Gates) have at least 17 receptions.
If the offense continues to roll like this, this could be a very dangerous unit to go up against come playoff time. It is scary to think about how good this group could be if the running back position wasn’t devastated by injuries.
The Chargers are getting close to nothing from their running game, but it is understandable as both top running backs Ryan Mathews (sprained MCL) and Danny Woodhead (ankle, lost for the season) have been lost for considerable amounts of time this season.
The Chargers need Rivers to continue his hot play. With no running game, this is an offense and team that is going to go as Phillip Rivers goes.
He has already been up to the task to start the year.
Defense Playing Just as Good as the Offense
It hasn’t been all offense for the Chargers, as the defense has come to play this year as well.
The Chargers are 5th in the NFL in points allowed per game (15.8), 8th in yards allowed per game (325.8), 11th in passing yards allowed (228.5) and 9th in rushing yards allowed (97.2).
Pro Bowl Safety Eric Weedle leads the way for the secondary, racking up 18 tackles (with four assists) and an interception. Cornerback Brandon Flowers also has an interception on the year.
The pass rush is lead by Dwight Freeney (2 sacks) and Corey Liuget (1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble).
With an offense that scores like the Chargers, the talented unit they assembled on the other side of the ball will help them get to where they want to be this year. They have enough talent to keep up with some of the better offenses in the league. The secondary is an area that is really sticking out to me when I look at them, as it is such an improved squad from just a year ago.
On Tap This Week: at home against the New York Jets (1-3)
The Chargers have a very winnable game this week against a struggling New York Jets team. The Jets do a great job at stopping the run, so look for Rivers to air it out against a defense that is short at cornerback depth.
While the quarterback play in shaky, the Jets do have a dangerous rushing attack, so the Chargers will need to make sure that they stay disciplined against New York. If they can take the run away, a lot of pressure will be put on Geno Smith to move the offense, and that is something that he hasn’t been very successful at doing when he has to do it.
I see the Chargers winning this week to stay ahead of the Denver Broncos for at least a little while longer.
Sanders Emerging as Top Target
If you came into the season saying that free agent signee Emmamuel Sanders was going to lead the Broncos in receiving through the quarter way point of the season I would have told you that you were nuts.
Funny how sports play out.
With the early suspension to Wes Welker along with some ineffectiveness by Demaryius Thomas, Sanders was given an opportunity to shine with his new team and he took advantage.
Even though he hasn’t got into the end zone, Sanders leads the team with 25 receptions for 334 receiving yards. His 110 yards receving a game are third best in the NFL.
As the season goes on, these targets will start to balance themselves out for an offense that has high quality targets spread out all over the field. It is nice to see a guy like Sanders take a good opportunity and run with it though to start off the year.
Who knows, maybe this could be a continuing trend for the season?
Peyton Manning’s Continued Excellence
A lot of people in the media and around the web are critical of this offense this year because they aren’t scoring at the ridiculous record setting rate they were last season. Sure they have their small problems (like a lack of a rushing attack so far) but this is a group that is going to be just fine.
If the Cheifs want to get back into the AFC West race, they need Charles to help make their offense efficient. They aren’t a dangerous passing team, and they need Charles to account for a majority of their yards and points. This is a team that is just 27th in the league in passing yards per game (207.2) but 4th in the league in rushing (145.2 yards per game).
A heavy dose of running the ball will continue the Chiefs success.
Tight End Travis Kelce Turning into Threat for Passing Game
Kelce is having a coming out party to start his second career NFL season, as he and Alex Smith have shown some great chemistry the last few weeks.
Kelce has already hauled in 18 passes for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns to start off the year. He also has a touchdown reception in his last two games and has already eclipsed 80 yards receiving twice this season.
What he lacks in blocking he makes up for in his pass catching ability. He is a very big, very athletic target for a Chiefs offense that is slightly short on pass catchers.
Even with a tough matchup this week, I expect Kelce to be a big part of the game plan against the 49ers. He is just too hard to bring down with the ball in his hands.
On Tap this Week: at San Francisco 49ers (2-2)
The Chiefs have to fly to the west coast to take on a 49ers team that has unachieved itself a little bit to start the season.
Alex Smith will be facing his former team for the first time since being traded from the 49ers and you know he would like nothing more than to hand a loss to his old squad.
It won’t be an easy task, as the 49ers defense is a stingy unit. They have greatly improved in the rush defense department as the season has gone on and will make life as difficult as possible for Charles. They will need to be creative in running screens and moving Charles around the formation to make sure he gets enough touches.
It will be a close game and the Chiefs will have to win the turnover battle if they want to come up on top in this one.
Head Coaching Changes
It isn’t often you see NFL coaches get fired just four games into the season, but that is exactly what happened in Oakland this week when they handed head coach Dennis Allen a pink slip.
Allen was entering his third year with the team, and was struggling mightily to the tune of an 8-28 record. It wasn’t completely his fault though, as General Manager Reggie McKenize has done very little in terms of helping the coach out in fielding him a roster full of talent. The Raiders seem to be very short on that so far this season.
Tony Sparano takes over as the interim head coach, but will serve nothing more than a stopgap until the Raiders can go looking in the offseason. He could make things interesting by kick starting a struggling unit and getting some wins down the stretch, but I don’t believe the team will want to go in that direction. Sparano went 29-31 in his four years coaching the Miami Dolphins from 2008 to 2011.
The Raiders look like they will be continuing to spin their wheels for at least another year.
Even though they haven’t gotten any wins yet, the Raiders can at least be happy with their first two picks of this NFL draft.
Khalil Mack, their 1st round pick at 5th overall has impressed many with his play so far this year. He is strong against the run and has created pressure on quarterbacks in rushing situations (even though he has yet to record his first sack). Mack has 24 tackles and a team leading three tackles for loss on the year.
On the other side of the ball, Derek Carr, their 2nd round pick and 36th pick overall, has shown signs of becoming a starting NFL quarterback in his limited time on the field, as he has completed 84 of his 133 passes (63.2%) for 734 yards, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
The bad news for Oakland is that Carr suffered a high ankle sprain and sprained MCL against Miami just this last week and might not be ready for the Raider’s week six game.
The bye week will be used to help Carr (along with countless other Raiders) try to get back to close to 100% health so that he can take the field, but looking at it for the longterm, there is no reason to rush him back until he is ready. It just isn’t worth the risk.
It’s still too early to say that these two are great picks, as it is just four games into their NFL careers’, but these two players are two positive cornerstone pieces that the Raiders might be able to build around for the future.
The offense really can’t get anything going through their first four games of the year. They are last in the NFL in points per game (12.8), total yards per game (270) and rushing yards per game (61.5). The team is also 27th in the league in passing.
The running attack has been dreadful. Darren McFadden has only been able to average 3.4 yards a carry on his 45 attempts. Maurice Jones-Drew was eased back into action last week as he is recovering from hand surgery and missed the previous two games before then. Even when he has been in the lineup though he has only been able to gain 12 yards on his 11 attempts.
It is believed that both backs will see an even timeshare until one of them is able to distant themselves from the other. They had almost even playing time in week one when they were both healthy last.
James Jones has been the only receiving standout so far. Last week Jones finished with 6 catches on his 6 targets for 83 yards, and has 21 receptions for 272 yards and 2 touchdowns on the year.
With interim head coach Sparano taking over this week (along with a question of who is even going to play quarterback in week six) expect a run heavy attack to continue to be the norm in Oakland for the time being. Points will be hard to come by.
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