The Chiefs need a victory Sunday for an opportunity to capture the AFC West. A top individual force opposed to that possibility has a few goals of his own.
Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack has the Chiefs’ and Alex Smith’s full attention. In his second season, Mack has quickly ascended to a level among the league’s best.
His 15 sacks lead the NFL, by a half-sack over the Texans’ J.J. Watt, and stand one away from the Raiders’ season record. The total includes two that Mack recorded against the Chiefs in their first meeting this month.
If the Chiefs want to remain in contention for the division title and a home game in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs as a third seed, they’ll have to contend with Mack.
“He jumps out on film, for sure,” Smith said. “He’s playing at a high level.”
That level peaked three weeks ago when Mack recorded five sacks in a victory at Denver. Mack matched Howie Long’s team record for sacks in a game and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for that performance.
The outcome also helped create this weekend’s scenario. The loss was the first of two straight by the Broncos, who, at 11-4, need to beat the Chargers at home this weekend or have the Chiefs, 10-5, lose to clinch the division.
Mack said a Raiders triumph this weekend would be more meaningful than a spot in the record book. Oakland, which finished 3-13 last season, brings a 7-8 mark to Arrowhead Stadium for the 3:25 p.m. kickoff.
No matter Sunday’s outcome, the Raiders have made progress. But finishing without a losing record and denying a rival an accomplishment — while bidding farewell to retiring safety Charles Woodson, who is making Sunday’s game the last in his 18-year career — gives Mack and the Raiders more motivation than what might be expected from a nonplayoff team.
“It’s a huge difference, man,” Mack said of the difference between finishing 7-9 and 8-8. “We’re playing for the pride of the program, for the growth of the program, and it would be a great testament to how hard we’ve been working if we finish this last game out with a win.”
There’s also the matter of the teams’ previous encounter. The Chiefs’ 34-20 victory in Oakland on Dec. 6 was the sixth in their current nine-game winning streak, and the margin suggests a comfortable triumph.
It was anything but. The Raiders led 20-14 heading into the fourth quarter. The Chiefs intercepted quarterback Derek Carr three times in the fourth quarter, with two setting up short field scores, and Tyvon Branch, returning his for a touchdown.
“It was very frustrating,” Mack said. “Knowing that, toe to toe, we were right there. But we have to make those plays to help ourselves and try to steal a win.”
Mack did his part with the two sacks of Smith. Although Smith has been sacked 44 times this season, he’s also one of the game’s most productive running quarterbacks. His 437 rushing yards is a Chiefs record for a quarterback, and Mack is well aware of the danger Smith presents.
“He has great escape-ability,” Mack said. “He’s one of the most wiggly quarterbacks in the league, so you try to prepare yourself for that throughout the week. It’s no secret that he knows how to get out. The thing is you have to contain him and cover the rush.”