Outside Denver, the AFC West is turning into the punch line of the NFL this season. The Broncos are cruising, and have a two-game lead in the division over the Chargers, who fell in another mistake-laden loss. The undermanned Raiders received a shellacking at the hands of the Ravens. The Chiefs play the Steelers on Monday night.
What we learned: This defense continues to get better, and with their pass rush, the Broncos will be hard to beat. Von Miller led the front seven, which harassed Cam Newton and the Panthers. Denver made seven sacks, 10 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles and didn't allow a third-down conversion (Carolina was 0-for-12). Miller’s pressure helped induce an interception by Newton, which CB Tony Carter returned for a touchdown. DE Robert Ayers, who has taken a back seat to rookie Derek Wolfe, stepped up with five tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed. Covering tight ends is still a problem for Denver (Greg Olsen caught 9-102-2 on 10 targets), but they bottled up the run. On offense, Peyton Manning had another exceptional game, as did WR Demaryius Thomas. Denver did struggle on third down, converting only 3-of-13 for first downs. Return man Trindon Holliday had a touchdown for the second game in a row, and is yet another key veteran pickup by John Elway.
What’s in store next: The Broncos could come pretty close to sealing the AFC West with a Week 11 win over the Chargers. In Week Five, Denver’s comeback win over San Diego sparked their current four-game win streak, and the Broncos have continued to get better. Meanwhile, the Chargers have flailed. San Diego did jump out to a 24-0 lead in that game, and the Broncos will need to protect the ball better. They could gain a big advantage with the pass rush against a Chargers O-line that has struggled.
What the heck? It’s a weird, albeit good situation to see the Broncos rack up 36 points on a day when Manning threw for only one touchdown. Denver got two return scores (punt and interception), two field goals, a safety and a rushing touchdown. That is where the third-down play comes in, though, as the Broncos could have put up even more points if they had converted, but it’s a good sign that the defense and special teams can ably complement Manning.
What we learned: The Chiefs found a new way to lose: blowing a lead. After going more than 490 minutes without leading, the Chiefs eventually went up 10-0 at Pittsburgh, even knocking Ben Roethlisberger out of the game. But they couldn’t hang on against the Byron Leftwich-led Steelers, despite a strong Matt Cassel drive at the end of regulation to force overtime. In OT, Cassel’s first pass was picked off deep in Chiefs territory, and the Steelers wasted no time kicking the game-winning field goal in a 16-13 victory.
What’s in store next: At 1-8, the only mystery this regular season is whether the Chiefs end up with the No. 1 pick in the draft. They will have a short week to prepare for the Bengals, who had lost four in a row prior to beating Eli Manning and the Giants on Sunday. A far less compelling mystery is whether Cassel, who (to be fair) was also the victim of several dropped passes Monday, or Brady Quinn, who is coming back from a concussion, will start the game at Kansas City. A Chiefs fans group has organized a “black out” for the fans to wear all black instead of their traditional red as a protest against embattled head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli, whom they want fired.
What the heck? If there was a play that summed up the Chiefs’ season, it was being assessed a 15-yard penalty for illegal demonstration, celebrating a touchdown that was called back. In addition to that silliness, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston had a choreographed “House Party” sack dance — cute, except that you’re 1-7 and probably should spend more time practicing football and not a Kid ’n Play routine. The Chiefs played well but acted like they had not been in a close game before. And that was almost true.
What we learned: A second-half turnaround is probably not in the cards for the Raiders. In fact, a second-half collapse is looking like the more likely outcome for them. They were bludgeoned by the AFC North-leading Ravens in a 55-20 loss on Sunday and are three games behind by the Broncos for the lead in the AFC West. Oakland was without two key players Sunday — RB Darren McFadden and DT Richard Seymour were both inactive — but it was no match for Baltimore in any facet of the game.
What’s in store next: The beleaguered Raiders, who have allowed an average of 48.5 points in their last two games, could be in store for another long day with the Saints’ high-powered offense set to roll into Oakland on Sunday. New Orleans has been trying to resurrect its season since losing four consecutive games to open the campaign, and it has to be as confident as ever after becoming the first team to beat the Falcons this season. The Saints have won four of their last five games, but there is some hope for the Raiders — the Saints have not had much success away from the Superdome lately. They are 1-4 in their last five road games dating back to last season’s divisional-round playoff loss to the 49ers.
What the heck? First-year head coach Dennis Allen has talked about and emphasized the importance of playing with better discipline after the Raiders set records for penalties and penalty yards last season. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if his message is really getting through. Oakland racked up 10 penalties for 105 yards Sunday (Baltimore had four for 41 yards). The Raiders also lost the turnover battle, 3-1. They allowed a TD on a fake field goal and a 105-yard kickoff return for a TD. Not much about this team seems disciplined at the moment.
What we learned: This team still cannot finish and Philip Rivers’ decision making remains extremely shaky — to put it lightly. The Chargers seemed to be in a good spot early in the fourth quarter, driving into field-goal range, and trailing 24-21. But instead of throwing the ball away, Rivers threw it to Bucs CB Leonard Johnson, who returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. Rivers threw another bad pick two possessions later, sealing the Chargers’ fate in a 34-24 loss. A special-teams gaffe (allowed a blocked punt to be returned for a score) also hurt San Diego’s chances, and head coach Norv Turner was visibly frustrated in his postgame press conference. WR Danario Alexander (5-134-1 receiving) had another nice game, and aside from the interceptions, Rivers played well, but his mistakes cannot be ignored. Turner would still like to get more out of RB Ryan Mathews (17-54 rushing, 3.2 avg.).
What’s in store next: It’s desperation time for the Chargers, who have a tough remaining schedule and have to go to Denver in Week 11. Last time they played the Broncos, it was an embarrassment of epic proportions, when they blew a 24-0 lead. Rivers will need to protect the ball, and the defense will have to find a way to pressure Peyton Manning. In a wide-open AFC, the Chargers are still in the wild-card hunt, but a loss to Denver makes a shot at the division nearly impossible.
What the heck? Rivers tried to explain his pick-six, saying he tried to get it over Johnson’s head to Eddie Royal. Alas, the throw did not match what he attempted to do. It’s amazing to see a QB like Rivers look so efficient (16-of-18 passing, 218 yards, three TDs in the first half), and then make a boneheaded throw like he did Sunday, and like he did at the end of the first half against Kansas City. Rivers is finding a way to not only be the Chargers’ best chance to win, but also a big reason for their losses.