KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There’s no sense sidestepping it. Sunday’s showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs is the biggest game of the Raiders' regular season.
It isn’t do-or-die. It isn’t an actual must-win. But, man, they’ve got to have it.
Want stakes? An upset win here in Kansas City would vault the Raiders into a tie atop the AFC West -- the Chiefs play New England next week -- while remaining a frontrunner for the AFC’s final wild-card spot. A loss would put the Raiders two games back in the division with four to play and on shaky ground in the wild-card race.
Veteran leaders tried to minimize the big-game feel surrounding the 119th clash between Raiders and Chiefs, especially when talking to rookies so vital to this season’s success.
“At the end of the day, every game is big in this league,” slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said earlier this week. “Any given Sunday, any team can win. Outside forces can make some game bigger than what it is. You have to find the right mentality. If you make it bigger than what it is, you can psyche yourself out. You don’t want that to be the case.”
One plus from a Raiders perspective: Most of the young players playing major roles came from juggernaut college programs that play huge games before massive, often hostile crowds.
The Raiders need a complete team effort to beat the Chiefs, from the coaching staff down to bottom levels of the depth chart. Here five players in particular who must show up big to beat a rival when it matters most.
QB Derek Carr
Carr typically doesn’t land in this weekly series because franchise quarterbacks are always vital to an outcome. This one is different.
Even if the Raiders' run game functions well, there will be times that Carr will have to put the team on his back. It’s hard to imagine a Raiders blowout. The Chiefs are too good for that. A real shot at victory should come in a close contest, maybe with a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
Carr needs to play smart and efficient football from start to finish and buck trends you’ve been hearing about all week: That he can’t win at Arrowhead Stadium and he doesn’t function well in the cold. It’s going to be chilly on Sunday afternoon, but 20-30 mph gusting winds could play a bigger role in the passing game. Even if that puts a premium on the ground game, Carr will have to beat the elements and make important throws that move the chains and score points. And, even in subpar conditions, he’ll have to be successful pushing the ball downfield.
Carr must be steady, smart and occasionally dynamic in what will be one of his season’s defining moments.
DE Clelin Ferrell
Fellow rookie edge rusher Maxx Crosby has been bringing quarterback pressure and getting home most every week during this season’s second half. This Raiders' pass rush is truly impactful, however, with pressure off of both edges. We’ve seen games where Crosby and Ferrell are collapsing the pocket. There are other times where Ferrell feels invisible in the pass rush.
The Clemson product is a steady run defender and that’s important, but this is a game against an opponent where game-changing plays are required. Ferrell has only had sacks in two games but needs to make it a third. He is also adept knocking passes down at the line of scrimmage, and that could be helpful as well.
This is going to be a game spent largely in the nickel package so Benson Mayowa will play a role on Ferrell’s side as well -- he, too, has to produce -- but the No. 4 overall pick will play a ton. Pairing him with dynamic new interior rusher Dion Jordan could help both players, as Ferrell plays well off of rushing interior linemen. They could make each other better in those instances and make life difficult on one side of a ho-hum Chiefs offensive line. Ferrell has shown up big in college games. It’s time to do so for this high-stakes game in the pros.
RB Josh Jacobs
The Alabama product is just 43 rushing yards away from 1,000. The Raiders would love it if he crosses the threshold in Sunday’s first half. That would mean the run game is going strong, and the Raiders would find an early rhythm never established in last week’s showdown with the Jets' No. 1-ranked run defense. The Chiefs are 30th in that area, giving up 143.1 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. The Raiders' rushing totals have dripped a smidge, but it’s not an overall cause for concern.
Jacobs has proven impactful in almost every game this season, earning hard yards inside while finding space required to gain ground in chunks. The No. 24 overall draft pick should see the ball a ton on Sunday. In fact, the more Jacobs sees the ball, the better the Raiders are doing.
He’s key to a strong start and a positive game script that will allow Gruden to remain committed to the run game. Tennessee and Indianapolis beat the Chiefs earlier this season by running a ton -- the Colts ran 45 times! -- even when they were down. Jacobs is more than capable of following that blueprint and felling this formidable foe with a heavy workload.
CB Lamarcus Joyner
The veteran slot cornerback had a hard time watching last week’s loss to the Jets. It was obviously frustrating to be sidelined a second time with a hamstring strain during a loss, but his misery was intensified by the Jets attacking areas of the field he would normally defend. Nevin Lawson had a tough day at the office, and it was clear then just how much they missed their defensive co-captain.
Joyner’s back and healthy now, just in time to face a formidable Chiefs attack that uses breakneck speed to go deep and work the middle of the field. The Raiders gave up a series of explosive plays to Kansas City in Week 2 that made it one-sided, and Joyner played a significant part in that. He’ll have to do better than he did then and be a rock inside using veteran savvy to mitigate Kansas City’s obvious speed advantage.
The Raiders secondary must work well together to slow the Chiefs, playing top-down coverage while making them earn every inch. Joyner will be vital in that effort and offers an instant upgrade after two games away.
WR Zay Jones
The third-year pro plays a ton these days, clearly comfortable with his responsibilities in the Raiders offense since being traded to the Silver and Black from Buffalo. That doesn’t mean he’s targeted much. Jones has just 11 catches for 88 yards on 14 targets in five games as a Raider, a paltry sum that’s a product of trying to build chemistry with Carr during the season while other targets have been working with him since the spring.
His opportunities should increase Sunday, when he’s expected to play more in the slot with Hunter Renfrow out injured. Jones has been playing outside as a Raider but has tons of experience inside in college. He wasn’t terribly efficient with targets in Buffalo but must be if called upon for third-down conversions as Renfrow was regularly.
Jones has all the talent required to be a productive NFL receiver but hasn’t shown it much. This is the time to do so and take coverage away from tight end Darren Waller in the middle of the field.