KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs probably didn’t expect to be tied atop the AFC West and fighting for the playoffs a month and a half ago, when they were off to the hottest start in the NFL.
Then again, the Oakland Raiders probably didn’t either when they were off to a scuffling start.
But the two bitter rivals are in precisely that position as they prepare to face off Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
They are both 6-6 and tied with the Los Angeles Chargers for the division lead, ready for a four-game sprint to the finish line.
“It’s that time of the year you’ve got to come out, you’ve got to play well,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, whose team has lost six of its past seven.
“This league is so competitive and every week is an important week. No different than this week here. Very, very important.”
Make no mistake: These are vastly different teams than the ones that met in October, when Derek Carr threw for 417 yards and three touchdowns and the Raiders rallied for a 31-30 victory.
The loss was the second straight for the Chiefs following a 5-0 start, and seemed to deflate the entire organization.
They rebounded to beat the Broncos before their current four-game skid, which has been lowlighted by losses to the lowly Giants and Jets.
The Chiefs also will be without star cornerback Marcus Peters this time. Reid suspended him for this week’s game against his hometown team after a series of embarrassing incidents, including a temper tantrum last weekend in which he chucked an official’s flag into the stands.
“This is it. We’re in the fourth quarter of the season. Three out of the four are division games,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves. Right here, we have a team that beat us earlier this year and we have to find a way to rebound.”
The Raiders are a much different team this time, too.
Marshawn Lynch is coming off his first 100-yard performance of the season, and the star running back is starting to look like the Beast Mode of old.
On defense, linebacker NaVorro Bowman — who played his first game for Oakland against the Chiefs — has grown accustomed to the Raiders’ scheme.
Then there’s momentum, pure and simple. The Raiders have won two straight and three of four, their lone loss coming against the Patriots.
“There’s a better feel when you’re winning and doing things well. For us, it’s about the next game,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said.
“We went through it, we had our stretch. I talked about it the other day. The Chargers had theirs’ the first four games. We had ours’ four in a row after winning two. The Chiefs have had a little bit of a spell. Yet we all sit here at 6-6 with an opportunity.
“Which team takes the most advantage of that opportunity is sitting there?”
BEST BEAST: The Raiders have topped 100 yards rushing in three straight games to provide needed balance on offense. Lynch is averaging 93 yards from scrimmage the past four games with four TDs. “It’s starting to flow for us,” Raiders left tackle Donald Penn said. “The offense is opening things up for us. We’re just happy with the way things are flowing right now.”
BOWMAN’S BOOST: Bowman signed with Oakland three days before playing the Chiefs in October. Since then, he’s led the team in tackles and is second in snaps, and he has takeaways in each of the past two games. “He’s had a calming influence,” Del Rio said. “He loves to play. You feel him on game day. He’s very much in control. I think he’s been a calming influence for some of our younger players.”
UNDER PRESSURE: After ranking last in the league in sacks through the first 10 games, Oakland has eight in the past two games.
Bruce Irvin and Denico Autry have led the way with three each, and Khalil Mack has two, including a strip-sack of the Giants’ Geno Smith last week. “It’s definitely been what we’re looking for,” Del Rio said. “The guys are cutting it loose and playing a little more aggressively. Coverage has been tighter and I think they go hand in hand.”
ALEX’S REBOUND: After a hot start, Smith had cooled off during the Chiefs’ losing streak, averaging just 224 yards passing over a four-game span. But he broke out of the funk last week against the Jets, throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-31 loss.
REVIS PITCH COUNT: Reid sat recently signed Darrelle Revis for the second half against the Jets, ostensibly because he had played a lot of first-half snaps. But when asked whether the seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback would be on a pitch count again, Reid demurred. “Right now with him it’s just getting him back in the swing, day to day and communicating with him,” Reid said. “He’s a veteran player, and he’s a good communicator, so we’ll just talk with him as we go forward here.”