by Nate Winkler (@natewinkler)
CHFF AFC West Correspondent
The Denver Broncos visit the Oakland Raiders on Thursday Night Football to get the NFL's Week 14 started. Storyline are dwindling in the AFC West with every team except the Broncos, who clinched the division last week, having been eliminated from playoff contention.
Kansas City plays its second game since the tragic events involving Jovan Belcher when they visit the Cleveland Browns. The Chiefs and Browns have some common denominators with head coach Romeo Crennel, quarterback Brady Quinn, and running back Peyton Hillis all having donned Cleveland orange at some point in their careers.
The floundering San Diego Chargers travel to the Steel City to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that could see the return of Ben Roethlisberger. The Chargers have historically struggled in Pittsburgh but will look to stop the bleeding and avoid their fifth straight loss.
Here is an in-depth look at each game:
Denver Broncos (9-3, 4-0 div.) @ Oakland Raiders (3-9, 1-2 div.)
All-Time Series: Oakland leads 59-43-2 (33-21 @ home)
Last Meeting: @Denver - 37, Oakland - 6 (2012 Week 4)
Latest Line: Broncos -10 (48)
CHFF Power Rankings: Denver (1t), Oakland (31)
Why the Broncos will win:
Denver clinched the AFC West last week with their victory over Tampa Bay and now have won seven games in a row, their longest streak since 1998 when they started 13-0. The Broncos have averaged 31 points a game during the streak and failed to reach 30 points only once. Peyton Manning has never lost on Thursday in his professional career, going 4-0 during his tenure with the Colts.
Oakland has dropped five straight games and allowed more than 400 yards of total offense in four of those five. Head Coach Dennis Allen has been away from the team due to his father's death during this short week of preparation. As we saw last week in Kansas City, times of tribulation can galvanize a team or it can engulf them.
This game appears to be the biggest mismatch of the week when we look at our CHFF Quality Stats. The Broncos rank in the top five in 13 of the 19 quality stats we track at CHFF, including first in Real Passing Yards Per Attempt and Defensive Hog Index. Denver also ranks second in Passer Rating Differential with a +25.29, which as you all know by now is the "Mother of All Statistics". The 2011 Broncos finished 28th in the NFL with a -19.67.
Meanwhile, the Raiders are at the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking in the bottom five in 11 of our 19 metrics, including dead-last in Bendability, Defensive Negative Pass Play Percentage, and Defensive Hog Index.
In other words, the Raiders are bringing a knife to a gun fight, which is weird because the Raiders usually have both.
Why the Raiders will win:
Playing the Broncos on a short week should help the Raiders, who get Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson back in their backfield this week. The death of Dennis Allen's father and his subsequent absence from the team can't help on a short week, but the emotional charge they will get from rallying around their coach could give Oakland a lift, especially in the first half.
Since the NFL re-aligned the divisions before the start of the 2002 season, only one team has made it through the AFC West unblemished. The 2010 Oakland Raiders posted a 6-0 division record but failed to make the playoffs after finishing 8-8. Denver hasn't gone undefeated in the AFC West since 1998, and haven't swept the season series with Oakland since the 2006 season.
Another factor that works in Oakland's favor, at least against the wiseguys, is the fact that Denver is a double-digit favorite on the road for just the second time since John Elway retired. The first was two weeks ago when the Broncos traveled to Kansas City, when the Chiefs gave the Broncos all they wanted in a 17-6 victory. Oakland has been double-digit underdogs at home just four times since moving back to Oakland in 1995, going 4-0 against the spread but just 1-3 straight up.
San Diego Chargers (4-8, 3-2 div.) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5, 2-2 div)
All-Time Series: Pittsburgh leads 21-6 (15-2 home)
Last Meeting: @Pittsburgh - 38, San Diego - 28 (2009 Week 4)
Latest Line: Off
CHFF Power Rankings: San Diego (23), Pittsburgh (8)
Why the Chargers will win:
At this point San Diego is playing for pride and not much else. The marriage between head coach Norv Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers has fractured beyond repair, and it's hard to figure out who is more to blame.
The Chargers have never beat the Steelers in the Norv Turner era, going 0-2 in the regular season and losing in the playoffs in 2009, so the law of probability is on their side at least.
San Diego ranks in the top 10 in just one of our CHFF quality stats; they are fifth in Defensive Rushing Yards per Attempt at 3.81 RY/A, as shown here in our Defensive Hog Index. Pittsburgh has been uncharacteristically bad on the ground this year, averaging just 101 yards rushing per game on 3.8 RY/A (27th).
All signs point to Ben Roethlisberger being healthy enough to return this week, so the Chargers will look to test his health by dialing up the pressure and keeping the heat off of their 18th ranked secondary, which is allowing a Defensive Passer Rating of 88.74.
Why the Steelers will win:
Last week Pittsburgh traveled to Baltimore and beat the Ravens with Charlie Batch as their quarterback. That should tell you all you need to know about the Steelers, who embody the team concept in the era of ME.
Mike Tomlin is not the only NFL coach that preaches the "next man up" mentality, but he might be the only one who incorporates it into the culture of his team to the point that every last man buys into the theory. Arguably no team has suffered more significant injuries than the Steelers this year yet they are rounding into form as the playoffs near.
The Steelers' pass defense, even without Troy Polomalu, has been one of the stingiest in the league this season, but they will now have to deal with the loss of cornerback Ike Taylor, who is out for a few weeks at best with a broken ankle. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt at 5.12 and rank fourth in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating, Defensive Passer Rating, and Defensive Success on Third Down (33.78%).
Pittsburgh is a better team than San Diego in nearly every facet of the game, so the Chargers must find a way to create turnovers. Mike Tomlin is 12-22 (.353) as a head coach when the Steelers lose the turnover battle. If they take care of the football, the Steelers should cruise to a victory.
Kansas City Chiefs (2-10, 0-4 div.) @ Cleveland Browns (4-8, 2-3 div.)
All-Time Series: Tied 10-10-2 (Chiefs 3-7-1 @ CLE)
Last Meeting: Kansas City - 16, @Cleveland - 14 (2010 Week 2)
Latest Line: Browns -6.5 (37.5)
CHFF Power Rankings: Kansas City (32), Cleveland (22)
Why the Chiefs will win:
Kansas City was the feel-good story of the NFL last Sunday after overcoming the terrible tragedy involving Jovan Belcher to beat the Carolina Panthers for their second victory of the season.
By all accounts, playing the game was the easy part because it allowed a distraction from reality for a few hours. Although we here at CHFF don't suffer from the flawed human condition of emotions, you have to wonder if the weight of losing a teammate will catch up to the Chiefs this week as they travel to Cleveland.
Kansas City will rely once again on their running game, which is averaging 146.7 yards per game and is seventh in the NFL with 4.48 RY/A. The Chiefs go as Jamaal Charles goes, and it's unlikely that Peyton Hillis will be a major contributor against his former team, especially if Joe Thomas gets his wish and is allowed to play defensive tackle on the snaps when Hillis enters the game.
Protecting the football will once again be key for the Chiefs, who have lost the turnover battle in eight games this season and are a league-worst -21 in turnover differential. As hard as it will be for the Chiefs to get up for this game, they showed the character of their head coach Romeo Crennel last week and you can bet they will continue to fight.
Why the Browns will win:
Cleveland is suddenly surging after back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. Head coach Pat Shurmur is letting his younger players develop with positive results despite his uncertain status under new owner Jimmy Haslem.
The Browns have been nearly as bland as their uniforms this season, ranking no higher than 10th in any of our CHFF Quality Stats. Brandon Weeden has impressed at times but the Browns' 72.33 Offensive Passer Rating ranks higher than only Arizona and Kansas City, so don't expect a quarterback clinic in Cleveland on Sunday.
The strength of Cleveland is their defense, which has been the driving factor in their ability to keep games close. The Browns are 10th in the league in Defensive Hog Index and Defensive Success on Third Down and 13th in Defensive Passer Rating, allowing just an 83.10 rating against.
The Browns will have some extra motivation playing against their former head coach Romeo Crennel and former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis, who alienated his teammates when he shot his way out of town last season. If Cleveland can come up with a victory it will be their first winning streak of three games or more since they ended the 2009 season with four straight victories. Brady Quinn was the Browns' quarterback for two of those four victories, including a 41-34 win over the Chiefs in Week 15.