NFL

Chiefs chase another Raiders rout and controversial playoff bye

By Sports Desk January 06, 2023

The NFL's one-season rule change could have complicating factors for the Kansas City Chiefs further down the line, but their task for Week 18 is simple: beat the Las Vegas Raiders and earn a bye to the divisional round.

With the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals – both rivals for the first seed in the AFC – to finish the year having played only 16 games, neither will be able to catch the Chiefs should they defeat the Raiders.

That will not necessarily mean an AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium, with a neutral venue potentially coming into play, but it does assure them of a week off and a favourable route through the postseason.

Fans in Buffalo and Cincinnati could reasonably be frustrated, and their hopes of the Chiefs being halted rest with an unlikely Raiders victory.

The Chiefs are 9-1 in their past 10 games against the Raiders, and their most recent nine meetings – including a high-scoring defeat in 2020 – have seen Kansas City score at least 28 points.

Only the Los Angeles Rams against the Green Bay Packers, between 1949 and 1953, have ever scored 28 or more points in 10 straight encounters.

Even in Las Vegas, there is little reason to believe that sequence will end this week, given the Chiefs' dominant road form this year.

They have scored 264 points across eight games away from Arrowhead, meaning the Chiefs will have scored the third-most road points in a season in NFL history if they hit their average of 33.0 again.

MVP frontrunner Patrick Mahomes loves playing the Raiders, too, having thrown more touchdowns in this matchup (26) than in any other.

In 2022, he has passed 5,000 passing yards (5,048) and 250 rushing yards (329) in a season for the second time in his career; only two other quarterbacks in NFL history have ever enjoyed one such campaign (Jameis Winston in 2019 and Justin Herbert in 2021).

Yet the Raiders improbably have their own in-form QB, with former New England Patriots backup Jarrett Stidham last week impressing in his first career start.

Stidham threw for 365 yards and three TDs against the San Francisco 49ers, joining Mike White last season as the second QB in the Super Bowl era to mark his first start with 350 passing yards and three passing TDs.

Repeating that performance against the highly motivated Chiefs is a tough ask, though.

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    Gonzalo Pineda insists Atlanta United "are on the right path" as they look to get back to winning ways in MLS.

    The Five Stripes are 12th in the Eastern Conference following a run of eight matches without victory.

    Although, they enjoyed a reprieve in the U.S. Open Cup last time out, defeating Charleston Battery on penalties to reach the quarter-finals.

    And Pineda hopes his side can build on that momentum when they welcome Los Angeles to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

    "I think we are on the right path," he said. "I think it is really encouraging for the team, for the mentality of the team, to win. 

    "There are many positives out of that. We have to hold onto that positivity, and the mentality of the players that fought and put that together on Saturday."

    "I think that, especially being at home, we need to make sure we are on the front foot right away," midfielder Dax McCarty added.

    "Obviously, our stadium is such a fortress. When you score an early goal, you get everyone excited and the other team feels that pressure, which is such a benefit."

    By contrast, LAFC are fifth in the West and on a four-match winning streak across all competitions – during which they have scored 11 goals and conceded just once.

    "The team is in a good way – winning games, scoring goals and not conceding – and we'd like to continue that," head coach Steve Cherundolo said.

    "We feel good about the moment we're in, and our players are confident. 

    "The players have shown an amazing response [to their defeat by San Jose Earthquakes at the start of the month]. We were shooting ourselves in the foot by making some mistakes in portions of the field where we don't usually do that.

    "The message was that we are really in control of our own destiny, which is a great place to be."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Atlanta United – Thiago Almada

    Atlanta will be hoping for inspiration from the likes of Almada as they look to end their winless streak.

    The Argentina international has scored in two of their last three league games on home soil.

    Los Angeles FC – Denis Bouanga

    Bouanga scored both goals in LAFC’s 2-0 win over St. Louis City last time out in MLS.

    He has now found the net 33 times since the start of last season (including play-offs), seven more than any other player during that time.

    MATCH PREDICTION: LOS ANGELES FC

    Only once in their MLS history have Atlanta endured a longer winless streak, going 12 straight games without victory between May and August 2021.

    Meanwhile, LAFC have won successive games to nil for the first time during the regular season since August 2022.

    That came after they recorded just one victory while keeping a clean sheet in their previous 21 such matches.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Atlanta United: 38.2%
    Los Angeles FC: 32.8%
    Draw: 29.0%

  • Europa League misery will not taint Alonso's Leverkusen pride Europa League misery will not taint Alonso's Leverkusen pride

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    Ademola Lookman single-handedly powered Gian Piero Gasperini's side to their first title in 61 years, producing an individual performance for the ages with a decisive hat-trick.

    European heartbreak marked Leverkusen's first loss this season, with their last defeat coming to Bochum on the last day of the 2022-23 Bundesliga campaign, as Alonso's side were finally stopped.

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    "For me the result today does not change one bit how I feel about my players or what we have been doing," the Leverkusen head coach told TNT Sports.

    "It hurts because we wanted to lift the trophy but you can't have everything. We lifted the Bundesliga and we have the chance to lift the DFB-Pokal on Saturday."

    Leverkusen are the first team to win the league title but lose the UEFA Cup/Europa League final in the same term since Benfica in 2013-14, and the first German side to do since Borussia Dortmund in 2001-02.

    "This season and achievements have surpassed all expectations," Alonso continued.

    "I was hoping and getting ready to maybe do something great but this has been so much more.

    "To achieve what we have for a club like Leverkusen is great. To be in the last week of the season having lifted the Bundesliga and then going for the Pokal too means a lot.

    "First year as a coach, it is going quite well!"

    A monumental occasion at the Aviva Stadium marked Atalanta's first-ever major European trophy as they became the 10th different Italian side to do so, second only to teams from England (13).

    Alonso was unsurprised by the excellence of Gasperini and his Atalanta side, however.

    "It is not something they have just done this year, they have been doing it for many years," the Spaniard said, acknowledging the work of 66-year-old Gasperini.

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    "The unbeaten run has come to an end but congratulations to Atalanta, they deserve it, so nothing more to say."

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    Gian Piero Gasperini and Ademola Lookman both cherished creating Atalanta history after ending Bayer Leverkusen's unbeaten run and securing Europa League glory.

    Lookman produced a performance worthy of the most important European moment in Atalanta's history, securing the club's first-ever major trophy on the continent after his dazzling hat-trick.

    The Nigeria winger is just the sixth player to manage a treble in a major UEFA final and the first since Jupp Heynckes’ for Borussia Mönchengladbach against Twente in 1975.

    Lookman will be the toast of Bergamo when Gasperini's side head home, boasting their first trophy in 61 years – after the Coppa Italia – following a 3-0 triumph to end Leverkusen's 51-game unbeaten run.

    "One of the best nights of my life," the hat-trick hero told TNT Sports in Dublin.

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    Lookman is also just the second player to score a treble for an Italian side in the final of a major European competition, after Pierino Prati for Milan against Ajax in the 1969 European Cup

    Preparing to leave the Aviva Stadium with the Europa League trophy in hand, Lookman could not wait to celebrate a seismic moment in the club's history.

    "We've got to celebrate, we made history tonight," he added.

    Gasperini, aged 66 years and 117 days on Wednesday, is the oldest coach to win his debut major European final, and the second Italian coach to win the Europa League after Maurizio Sarri in 2019.

    The veteran Atalanta mastermind echoed Lookman's sentiment, after securing just a second trophy in the Italian club's history.

    "I think we wrote history, also for the way we won it," said Gasperini, speaking to UEFA's official media channels.

    "It was just extraordinary, we defeated Liverpool, Sporting who won the championship. When we faced Liverpool they were first in the Premier League... And now the German champions.

    "Incredible. The boys were extraordinary, a memorable performance."

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