GAME TIME: 3:25 p.m. CT on Sunday, Dec. 30
LOCATION: Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
HOW TO WATCH: CBS (KCTV5 local)
HOW TO LISTEN: 101.1 The Fox
It all comes down to this.
A third-straight AFC West title and the top seed in the conference are right there for the Kansas City Chiefs, with the rival Oakland Raiders standing as the only obstacle in the way.
The implications on Sunday afternoon are simple: if the Chiefs win, they’ll own the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the first time in two decades and the road to the Super Bowl will go through Arrowhead Stadium.
It’s an enormous advantage, as each of the last five top seeds in the AFC have marched all the way to the Super Bowl, and it’s one the Chiefs can seize this weekend despite two-straight losses.
Kansas City dropped a heartbreaker to the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago before losing another close game this past Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks by a touchdown. Those losses stung, but all of the Chiefs’ goals are still attainable with a win on Sunday.
“I don’t want people to forget that we’re playing for the number one seed here,” said Head Coach Andy Reid. “We’re not playing for the first pick in the draft, we’re playing for the number one seed in the playoffs. We’ve had a couple rough weeks, but we’re going to bounce back out of that and get ourselves right.”
The Chiefs have an opportunity to do just that against a familiar opponent this weekend.
Oakland is 4-11 this season, falling to the Chiefs earlier this month as part of a mid-season stretch of eight games with just one victory. It also marked the Raiders’ ninth loss to Kansas City in 11 matchups since 2013.
Morale by the bay seems to have shifted since these teams last met, however, as the Raiders have shown signs of improvement lately with victories in two of their last three games.
Oakland dealt the Pittsburgh Steelers a devastating blow in their pursuit of the postseason three weeks ago and, just last Sunday, the Raiders handily beat the Denver Broncos in the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum season-finale.
The win over Denver was the Raiders’ first divisional victory since Week 12 of the 2017 season behind strong performances from veteran tailback Doug Martin and wide receiver Jordy Nelson, with the former tallying his first 100-yard rushing game of the campaign.
Quarterback Derek Carr, meanwhile, continued to play a brand of mistake-free football that’s helped the five-year veteran go 10-consecutive weeks without an interception. Carr has 19 touchdowns to eight picks overall on the year, primarily spreading the ball around to tailback Jalen Richard (66 catches, 590 yards), tight end Jared Cook (65 catches, 868 yards), Nelson (54 catches, 661 yards) and wide receiver Seth Roberts (40 catches, 463 yards).
The unit features plenty of capable pass-catchers but has generally struggled to score points this season due in part to an inability to protect Carr. The veteran quarterback has been sacked 48 times this year – the third-most of any signal caller in the league.
It’s worth mentioning that the Chiefs’ defense has the second-most sacks in the league with 49 - led by defensive end Chris Jones (15.5) and linebacker Dee Ford (12.0) - presenting a mismatch that could be exploited on Sunday.
Conversely, the Raiders’ defense ranks last in the NFL when it comes to bringing down the opposing quarterback. Oakland has just 13 sacks on the season and didn’t muster any when these two teams matched up four weeks ago, providing quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the top statistical offense in the NFL with the prospect of ample time to move the ball.
Tight end Travis Kelce, in particular, could be in store for a big game.
The All-Pro tight end put together the top performance of his career the last time these two teams played with 12 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns, adding to what’s been a record-breaking campaign.
Kelce already owns the franchise single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end, surpassing the mark set by Tony Gonzalez in 2004, and with just 54 yards on Sunday, he can pass Rob Gronkowski for the NFL record. Kelce is also just five catches shy of passing Gonzalez for the most catches by a player during a single season in franchise lore.
“He stepped in on day one and has been attacking every single day,” Mahomes said of Kelce. “He’s a guy who’s had a lot of success in this league, but he’s never satisfied. He - like a lot of my teammates - wants to get better every single day, so it’s exciting to be with those guys who really love the game and want to get better.”
Fellow pass-catcher Tyreek Hill, meanwhile, can make some history as well. The fleet-footed Hill is just 14 yards short of passing Derrick Alexander for the most receiving yards during a single season by a player in a Chiefs’ uniform.
Mahomes has excelled at getting both players the ball this season – not to mention the other 10 targets that have caught a touchdown for Kansas City on the year – and it has the 23-year-old inching toward some history of his own.
The former first-round pick is just two touchdowns and 184 passing yards shy of 50 and 5,000 for the season. Only one other quarterback in the history of the league – future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning - has ever reached those marks during a season.
Manning was 37 when he compiled those ridiculous numbers in 2013, having already played more than a decade and endured the learning curve of executing the most difficult position in all of sports.
Mahomes is on the verge of posting similar numbers in his first season as a starting quarterback, engineering what’s already been the most productive offense in franchise history.
In fact, only six teams in the history of the NFL have finished the regular season with a scoring average of 35.0 points per game. With an average mark of 35.3 as of now, the Chiefs can become the seventh member of that list with one more strong offensive performance.
It’s also fitting that the Chiefs’ pursuit of homefield advantage throughout the postseason will take place in front of the Arrowhead faithful on Sunday afternoon, where Kansas City has won nine of its last 10 divisional matchups.
There’s a lot on the line, but if the Chiefs can defend their home turf on Sunday, the path to a championship will go through Arrowhead Stadium.
“I think everyone is excited for the opportunity to play a divisional opponent and to play it at Arrowhead,” Mahomes said. “We want to make sure we get to stay here the rest of the way out. We know that if we can come together and play like we know we can, then we can make a run at this thing.”