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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 9:28 AM

Tonight brings the first Thursday Night pro football game of the 2011 season when the Oakland Raiders visit the San Diego Chargers in a game to be televised by the NFL Network. Recent developments in the AFC West have made this game VERY interesting. Oakland and San Diego are currently tied for first place...in a division that has all four teams sitting within a game of each other at the midway point of the season.

AFC WEST
Kansas City 4-4 (2-1 in the division)
San Diego 4-4 (2-1 in the division)
Oakland 4-4 (1-2 in the division)
Denver 3-5 (1-2 in the division)

The first tie-breaker once 16 games are in the books is head-to-head record. This could be a division that splits a lot of series 1-1 though, so it will be divisional record that gets the nod next. That's why we included the current divisional records in parenthesis above. Of course, if everyone splits out, they'll all end up 3-3 in the division!

Conveniently, Denver and Kansas City also play each other this weekend. So, instead of previewing just the Thursday Night game...we're going to run our key indicator numbers today for BOTH games and ALL FOUR teams in a way that should outline those matchups and the divisional race from now through the end of the season.

Let's start with strength of schedule, with the rankings posted by Jeff Sagarin over at USA Today.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Denver 11th
San Diego 21st
Oakland 22nd
Kansa City 27th

Typically teams within the same division will have very similar schedule strengths once a season is in the books. They play each other...they play one division in their own conference, and one division from the other conference. That does a great job of equalizing things within a four-team division. But, here we see that Denver's played a much tougher schedule to date. That suggests this is virtually a FOUR-WAY TIE in the division at the moment. Had the Broncos played a softer schedule, they might be at least 4-4. Had the other three teams played Denver's schedule, they might be 3-5.

Yes, as bad as Denver looked at home against Detroit two weeks ago...they still have a chance to win this division. A road upset at Kansas City on Sunday would certainly re-announce their arrival nationally in the playoff chase...even if the chase is in a weak division where 8-8 might ultimately rule the day.

Okay, let's get to our standard preview numbers. We're going to post them for all four teams...and we'll do it in matchup order so it's easy for you to compare the two teams who are playing each other. In fact, you can scroll down as you read to help isolate the teams you want to focus on. We'll also include a line summary with each category that helps explain the overall divisional picture.

DRIVE POINTS PER GAME (scored and allowed on 60 yards or more)
Oakland: 13.3 on offense, 18.6 on defense
San Diego: 16.8 on offense, 13.4 on defense
Denver: 12.8 on offense, 15.9 on defense
Kansas City: 8.6 on offense, 11.8 on defense

In order of differential: San Diego +3.4, Denver -3.1, Kansas City -3.2, Oakland -5.3

We see right away this isn't a very good division. Three teams are at -3 or worse....and this is a number that generally directly correlate with quality. Good teams are positive. Teams who are .500 caliber are near even. Bad teams have negative differentials. None of these teams are true doormats. But, it's a division that's about -8 in composite.

San Diego has the best grading. We've seen that for YEARS under Norv Turner and Philip Rivers. They tend to give this edge away with either turnovers, special teams play, or both. And, if those areas are clicking, some dumb play-calling mistake nails them in the playoffs. So, San Diego isn't as good as it's number...and San Diego's number is the only good news!

Let's note that Denver gets a hidden boost here because of strength of schedule. Last week's upset of Oakland wasn't really a fluke. And, given Oakland's horrible defensive numbers mixed with a rusty new quarterback...the Raiders may actually be as bad as they looked last Sunday. We'll find out soon tonight in San Diego whether or not that's the case.

 

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Oakland: 39% on offense, 42% on defense
San Diego: 52% on offense, 47% on defense
Denver: 33% on offense, 39% on defense
Kansas City: 40% on offense, 40% on defense

In order of differential: San Diego +5, Kansas City even, Oakland -3, Denver -6

No change here...with the Chargers again mastering the fundamentals of ball movement but failing to seal the deal in other areas of play. Let's note though that San Diego's third down defense has been poor even with the positive differential. That kills you against good teams who know how to move the chains. Last year's AFC West winner was badly outclassed in the playoffs when Kansas City was squashed at home by Baltimore. Right now, things are looking bad for whoever eventually wins this division.

 

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Oakland: -5 (11 takeaways, 16 giveaways)
San Diego: -8 (11 takeaways, 19 giveaways)
Denver: -4 (11 takeaways, 16 giveaways)
Kansas City: -1 (15 takeaways, 16 giveaways)

In order of differential: Kansas City -1, Denver -4, Oakland -5, San Diego -8

That's ugly. All four teams are on the wrong side of zero. You can see what we mean about San Diego erasing their Drive Point and Third Down edges with mistakes. Philip Rivers was always erratic. This year, he's either erratic with an additional arm injury, or he's forcing things out of frustration that shouldn't be forced.

The main thing to take from the turnover numbers is that none of these teams know how to play clean football. Kansas City looks clean by comparison...but teams who have mastered the risk/reward element of this game grade out at a lot better than negative one at the midpoint of a season.

Let's also note that every offense has posted a number of at least 16 through eight games. That's exactly 2.0 turnovers per game for three of the four...which just isn't going to get the job done no matter how many times you steal the ball from opponents.

In terms of handicapping the individual games:

OAKLAND AT SAN DIEGO: Turnovers are likely to determine who covers just because both teams have been so sloppy with the ball lately. The Raiders are down 9-2 in the turnover category since they had to find a new starting quarterback. San Diego's Achilles' Heel disappears when their opponents are also making turnovers. If turnovers are a wash...then San Diego's big edge in Drive Points and third downs should led them to a win in the range of the Vegas spread. If Carson Palmer keeps throwing picks, San Diego can score its first true blowout of the season.

Note that San Diego is 2-6 ATS this season because the market greatly overrated the team to start the season Oakland was underrated at first...but is now 1-3-1 ATS its last five games...and the push was helped by a kickoff return TD.

DENVER AT KANSAS CITY: Funny that these two teams lost to Detroit by scores of 45-10 and 48-3 this year. Scores like that aren't supposed to happen in the NFL! And, it's not like Detroit has been untouchable in the other games they've played. Kansas City was obviously flat vs. Miami last week after scoring two straight divisional wins over Oakland and San Diego. You can't expect another dead game from the Chiefs. Denver really found its confidence in the second half of the Oakland game last week. This has a chance to be one of the more compelling Sunday games even if it's not exactly a marquee showdown. It is a big game that could do a lot to shape the divisional race from this point forward. It might also be the game that determines the next few major steps in Tim Tebow's career path. A win here would be huge. A debacle like we saw two weeks ago would be a significant setback.

JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK will definitely have a play for you Thursday Night in the NFL...posted here at the website a few hours before kickoff. You'll also get something in the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech college game that could determine one half of the ACC Championship pairings given the current league standings. GREAT THURSDAY NIGHT OF FOOTBALL! Purchase the slate here at the website with your credit card. Or, call us at 1-800-323-4453 if you'd like more information about the service.

Back with you Friday to talk college football. It's REVENGE WEEKEND in our TOTAL NOVEMBER TAKEDOWN package...so make plans to log in every day for handicapping tips and big play announcements!

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