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AFC West Grades: A change at the bottom

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Mahomes looks human, the Broncos bounced back, and the Chargers look abysmal. How do they all stack up next to the Raiders?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs: 4-2

Grade: B+

Maybe the Chiefs aren’t so perfect after all?

The past two weeks have been illuminating for Raiders fans who have come to the realization that the Chiefs are vulnerable atop the AFC West, with Oakland only a half game out of first place. The recipe that the Colts and Texans have followed to beat Kansas City in back-to-back weeks is as followed:

Step 1: Control the clock with a strong running game

Step 2: Play tight, man-to-man coverage to hinder Andy Reid from exploiting zone concepts

Step 3: Pray that Mahomes doesn’t beat you anyway

With Josh Jacobs and the Raider offensive line firing on all cylinders, taking care of Step 1 on that list is very doable for the Silver & Black. Step 2 on the other hand, is another question.

Key Stat: 77:03

Speaking of controlling the clock with a consistent running game, 77.03 is the amount of total minutes that Indianapolis and Houston controlled the ball the past two weeks, compared to just 42:57 minutes for Kansas City.

Controlling the clock against a potent passing attack like Kansas City is paramount, not only because of their propensity to score touchdowns, but because the amount of time on the field eventually takes a toll on the defense. This was a major problem for Chip Kelly-coached teams in the NFL, and will continue to be an issue for Kansas City until they establish a running game. During their two losses, Kansas City only rushed 25 times for 89 yards.

Most Unfortunate Event: Patrick Mahomes’ Mild High Ankle Sprain

This shows how smoothly things have gone for the Chiefs thus far this season. And it is the reason that Step 3 has worked out for the Colts and Texans.

Mahomes’ mobility is key to his success, as it allows him to escape the pocket and create broken play masterpieces at a moment’s notice. With that mobility sapped by ankle issues, he still remained impressive as a pocket passer, just not otherworldly like we’ve come to expect.

Oakland Raiders: 3-2

Grade: B

The Bye week was good to the Raiders, with two-thirds of their division foes losing games. They’ve kicked off their insane schedule of six weeks without a true home game well, going 2-1 with upset wins over the Colts and Bears.

Now, they travel to Lambeau Field with an extra week to prepare for Aaron Rodgers. Funnily enough, if Davante Adams remains out against Oakland, the Raiders will be facing the lone team in the NFL with a more desolate receiving corps at the moment. The Raiders will travel to Houston afterwards, and return home to play Detroit the following week.

Former NFL GM Michael Lombardi picked the Raiders to grab the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race during his GM Shuffle podcast on Monday, saying, “I think Jon Gruden is doing a really good job of avoiding losing. I think if you ask me for one work to describe the Raiders this year it would be their ability to (avoid) losing.

If they simply go 1-2 through the next three games, they’ll be sitting pretty at 4-4, with a much easier second half game slate.

Key Stat: 38.6 percent

According to Football Outsiders’ 30,000 simulations based on DVOA and preseason projections, the Raiders have a 38.6 percent chance to make the playoffs this season.

In 1.8 percent of such simulations, the Raiders make it to the Super Bowl, and in 0.7 percent of simulations, they win it all. If that seems middling, that’s because it is. Their chances at a Super Bowl win sit at No. 16 overall, surprisingly just behind the Los Angeles Rams’ 0.8 percent.

While Raider fans were left feeling some type of way after getting a beatdown from the 49ers last year in their last regular season game as Bay Area rivals, they could enact some revenge in an awesomely fun but highly unlikely Bay Area Super Bowl matchup, which occurred in 0.5 percent of simulations.

Most Unfortunate Event: The Antonio Brown Saga

Is this one even a question. Sure, this technically didn’t happen during the season, but the ripple effects of the Antonio Brown “era” be seen throughout the entire season.

This offense was supposedly designed for Brown to be a focal point, so as the season progresses the Raiders have had to adjust on the fly. After bringing in Trevor Davis and Zay Jones via trade, they’re adjusting even further.

Gruden was adamant that during the Bye week, he was in Jones’ ear teaching him the playbook to get him up to speed on the offense. They’ll need him to shake off the “bust” label and consistently show his promising flashes if they truly intend to compete with the Chiefs for divisional supremacy.

Denver Broncos: 2-4

Grade: C

Don’t look now, but the Broncos are surprisingly competent. After losing their first four games by an average of 5.75 points, Denver’s defense has come alive and the wins have followed.

After knocking off the Chargers 20-13, they blanked Tennessee and may have ended Marcus Mariota’s out of the Titan’s future plans for good. It has started with stuffing the run, as the Broncos allowed only 74 yards on the ground in the past two games combined, allowing only 2.0 yards per carry on 37 carries.

Those numbers have come mostly against carries from Derrick Henry and Melvin Gordon. Not exactly elite talents, but studs nonetheless. It’s much too early to declare the Broncos as “back” by any means, but we’ll have a better understanding of their chances in the AFC West when they square up with Kansas City on Thursday Night Football.

Key Stat: 26/78

While the defense has been great, the Joe Flacco-led offense still hasn’t done much. The Broncos’ offense ranks No. 25 thus far in third down conversions, successfully finding first downs only 33.3 percent of the time on 78 opportunities.

Making matters even worse, the offense may be without Emmanuel Sanders for at least a week. He failed to finish the Titans game and was limited in practice on Monday. Average Joe has already been… well… average (at best) this year. If Sanders is unavailable, he’ll look more like subpar Joe.

Most Unfortunate Event: Bradley Chubb’s ACL Tear

The fact that the defense has ratcheted things up a notch post Chubb’s ACL tear shows just how dominant this defense could’ve been with a healthy squad. Chubb was expected to come into his own as one of the NFL’s premier pass rushing threats this season, but instead he’ll be relegated to the rehab table all year.

In his place, rookie undrafted free agent Malik Reed has been admirable. But he won’t come close to replicating Chubb’s impact across from Von Miller.

Los Angeles Chargers: 2-4

Grade: D+

Who are the Los Angeles Chargers? A team with no fanbase? A team that just lost to Devlin Hodges? A team that should just trade Phillip Rivers to the Bears and tank already?

Well, they’re definitely two of those things. And they might be all three. In our installment of quarter-season grades, it was suggested that the Chargers could get rolling against lesser opponents during this part of the season. But at this point, with road games against Tennessee and Chicago on deck, it’s not looking good for Anthony Lynn and Co.

Key Stat: 8

Prior to the season, people profiled the Chargers as a darkhorse Super Bowl contender. Yet, after six weeks, they sit with the eighth best odds to secure a top 5 draft pick at 18.2 percent, per Football Outsiders.

With so many quarterbacks available in this year’s draft, it might be time for the Chargers to look to the future at that position. Sure, Rivers deserves more in his final years with the organization, but he isn’t winning a Super Bowl with the Chargers. Not this year’s injury-plagued version of the team, anyway.

This team has almost no fan base and no discernable hope for the future, making it the perfect opportunity to tank and sell prospective fans on hope before they move into a new stadium.

Most Unfortunate Event: Melvin Gordon Holdout and Derwin James Injury

Which has been more impactful to the Chargers struggles, Gordon’s holdout, or James’ foot fracture? It’s hard to tell, and that’s why they’re tied here.

Last year’s DROY going down for 3-4 months has changed the complexion of the Chargers defense, as they are unable to lean on him in Nickel and Dime sets that made them so potent last season. He would line up at safety, outside corner, nickel, linebacker and even as an edge rusher in certain situations for the Chargers. Having a chess piece like that taken away before the season is like starting a chess game without your queen.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s holdout was distracting and damaging to the team. They’ve had to work him back into the offense over the past few weeks, and the results have been abysmal as he tries to get in shape. He’s carried the ball 20 times for 49 yards through his first two games as he tries to find his footing. That’s devastatingly bad. If he can’t round into form quickly, his prolonged absence might be thought of as one of the worst holdouts in NFL history.