This is it!
Well, not literally. The upcoming game against the Tennessee Titans won’t determine the rest of the Chiefs’ season literally. It’s still only Week 7 (the Cleveland game feels like five years ago). With five divisional games left and the schedule getting easier, there could be a stretch run here for the Chiefs. Even if they lose this game, I would still bet on them to make the playoffs and win at least ten games.
But if we’re realistic about this football team, this is their last chance on Sunday.
If the Chiefs win, I think we may be back. We’ll be on our first two-game win streak of the season and both on the road at noon. Building positive momentum is huge for any team, especially a team that has had some shakiness this season. We remember the 2015 Chiefs having that amazing 11-game winning streak, but it came with controlling wins vs. Pittsburgh and Detroit. Maybe we have another magical run in us this year, particularly offensively.
If the Chiefs lose, it might be time to sound the alarm bells, at least for this season. The Chiefs haven’t looked impressive at any point this season outside the 2nd half vs. a bad Washington team. Yes, the first five weeks were formidable opponents. But for a team that returned so much of their core from last year and fixed their one definitive issue (offensive line), they haven’t looked good. There’s been a lack of focus, confidence, and toughness with this football team all season, and it’s been frustrating. The Chiefs have lost all three games to AFC playoff teams. If they lose this week, any hope of an AFC West victory is pretty much sealed. The best we could hope for would be a 5th-seed and three straight road games. This team has terrific talent, but it would be tough to overcome that.
So yeah, this game is critical. It’s a playoff determining game for seeding and confidence, so it should be played with a playoff-like intensity. So for me, a simple writer who cares a lot, I have to bring a playoff intensity, something I haven’t done all year (maybe I should play LB for the Chiefs!). So, you’re getting a game preview. Here are five things I’m watching for Sunday and a prediction. Enjoy!
1) The Offensive Tackles
So, the Titans aren’t a great defense. They’re ranked 28th in Defensive DVOA, which is one spot higher than last year (Progress!). The secondary has been a mess the entire year for this defense, allowing tons of busted coverages. They’ve ranked 27th in pass DVOA this year. Overall, after an offseason of massively overhauling parts of their defense, the results haven’t been better to date.
Well, at least in their secondary. The most significant change Tennessee made to their defense was their defensive line. They signed Bud Dupree and Denico Autry to large contracts last offseason. Those two individually haven’t played amazing, but the moves have helped their pass rush. They rank 14th in pressure rate this season, compared to 31st last season. So, the defensive line overhaul has produced promising results to date.
But it’s not the new guys that are helping that out. Instead, it’s the young guys that have stepped up and played well. Harold Landry and Jeffrey Simmons have played very well this year. Landry seems to finally have put together his pass rush plan altogether and looks dominant around the corner. Jeffrey Simmons is finally healthy and appears to be having a Chris Jones 2018-level breakout. Both of these guys have been a force for teams to deal with.
Now, I trust the interior offensive line to hold up very well vs. Simmons. They’ve won their matchups against Javon Hargrave, Fletcher Cox, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis. Outside of one bad game vs. the Bills, this interior has played very well. I trust Thuney, Creed, and Trey to all hold up well vs. Simmons. Where I’m watching are the offensive tackles. I mentioned it above, but Harold Landry has been one of the better defensive ends in the NFL so far this year. His speed and flexibility will present severe problems to Orlando Brown. Landry doesn’t have much of a change-up outside his speed, but Brown will have to play well in space to keep Mahomes protected. On the other side, I trust Mike Remmers more vs. speed than Lucas Niang. But Dupree can change up with power and a long arm into the pocket as well. How will Remmers hold up vs. a pass rusher that’s more refined than Chase Young? These are two tough matchups vs. our tackles. Dupree and Landry are strong in the areas we are weak in, and we need our tackles to step up in this game.
Besides the turnover problem of this team, the only way Tennessee stops us is if they can win up front. They don’t have the secondary players to do literally anything vs. our pass catchers. But if their front comes in and dominates, the Chiefs may be in trouble trying to keep up with Derrick Henry. I’m not scared about their interior defensive line vs. our three studs, but this game could be ugly if the offensive tackles struggle. Brown will have to prove much better vs. Landry’s speed than he has vs. anyone else so far. Remmers will need to put up back-to-back good performances. These two guys will determine the game for me. If they can do just enough to wash Dupree and Landry up the arc and keep Mahomes comfortable, we’re scoring 30+. If they don’t, then we may have some issues with our pass protection. They’re the keys to this game, and I’m fascinated to watch them.
2) Nick Bolton at MIKE?
It seems like Anthony Hitchens won’t play this week. It’s been reported his arm was in a sling on Thursday, which isn’t a good indicator for Sunday’s game. Regardless of your opinions on Hitchens, he’s still our MIKE who makes the calls on defense. When Hitchens has been out in the past, we’ve had struggles without him. Ben Niemann hasn’t performed well in that MIKE role.
Last week in the Washington game, the Chiefs did use Nick Bolton more at the MIKE position. They drafted him to be the successor to Hitchens in 2022. Bolton is an intelligent football player with quality instincts, so it makes sense that the Chiefs trusted Bolton immediately.
This is a whole different animal this week. The Washington offense was very static last week with the injuries they had. Tennessee will use more motion and try to manipulate angles and fronts for Derrick Henry. That’s a lot for a rookie to navigate, and it will be interesting to see how well he processes all that. I’m also just watching to see how Bolton does. Bolton has played a lot of WILL LB this year, which isn’t a good fit for him at all. Bolton is poor in space and in coverage. But at the MIKE, I’m more optimistic. The coverage stuff will still be poor, but he’ll be more secure between the tackles, where he was best in college. Let him use his physicality, explosiveness, and ability to slip blocks at the MIKE. Bolton will be handed the MIKE linebacker spot next year – right or wrong – and this week will be a great litmus test to see how well he holds up there. It’s unfair to have his first game at MIKE be against Derrick Henry, but I’m (cautiously) optimistic he figures some stuff out.
3) This Should Be An Incredible Kelce Game
I can already tell you the Titans’ game plan defensively on Sunday. They’re going to sit in two-high safeties, and they’re probably going to play even deeper than most teams do to help their cornerbacks. With Caleb Farley and Kristian Fulton out, nobody on the Titans can even attempt to run with Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. To protect themselves vertically, they’re going to be soft and conservative in coverage. My guess is they do everything they can to take them away.
This leads me to believe this will be an incredible Travis Kelce game. Kevin Byard would be a great matchup to limit Kelce, but they need him deep against Tyreek. After that, this team doesn’t have a lot of great underneath options. Elijah Molden and Chris Jackson play in the slot, and they’re too small and not fluid enough to run with Kelce. Certainly, no LB the Titans have can run with Kelce. There’s no legitimate option to cover Kelce outside Byard, and there is zero chance he’s not one of the deep safeties. So, expect an incredible Kelce game (if healthy). I expect Mahomes and Reid to force-feed him the ball down the field, and Kelce will produce like always. Start him in fantasy this week!
4) Can Our Cornerbacks Hold Up?
Obviously, Derrick Henry scares me. Our run defense sucks. We can’t tackle him. He’s the best running back I’ve ever seen, outside of maybe Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles. Alright, enough run defense talk.
Where this game lies for me defensively is our cornerbacks vs. A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Both have dealt with a litany of injuries and illness this year, but they’re still excellent receivers. Both Brown and Julio are some of the most dominantly physical athletes at receiver in the league. They have a lethal size/speed combo and run hard after the catch. The tandem hasn’t been amazing so far, but they’re still terrifying.
So, how do our smaller cornerbacks hold up against them? Charvarius Ward is back this week, which is a help with his size. But we’re still going to have at least one of Rashad Fenton, Mike Hughes, or Deandre Baker on the field a lot. Those guys are smaller cornerbacks. Are they able to deal with the physicality of Brown and Jones? Can they run with those guys? I expect our offense to put up a ton of points vs. this poor defense. That may mean they can’t rely on Henry as heavily as they want. But those two guys can keep them in the game. Can we do just enough to limit them? You can’t stop two All-Pro receivers, but can we limit them just enough to get some stops? This is a big test for our young cornerbacks, and I’m intrigued to see who steps up for the challenge,
5) Good Mahomes or Bad Mahomes?
“PATRICK MAHOMES HASN’T BEEN BAD, YOU SHOULD STOP WRITING.”
Okay, you’re right. Mahomes hasn’t been bad. But there have been moments of poor Mahomes this year. His pocket presence has been inconsistent (I want to write about this at some point). Mahomes talked about stepping up into the pocket more, but he’s been more prone to sprint forward and throw upright. He seems uncomfortable with his offensive line, but I’m not blaming the OL. Pat hasn’t done them any favors yet. Not to mention, Pat hasn’t been great with turnovers this year.
But there were real signs of progress in the 2nd half vs. Washington. He was much more willing to step into the pocket, and he was firing the ball into holes that he wasn’t earlier in the year. Mahomes was much more accurate and poised. It truly was one of the best halves he played, even if it wasn’t as flashy as some of his best moments. He looked like he internalized some of his issues a week ago and fixed them when it mattered. He looked awesome again.
Does that continue? This secondary is awful, but the pass rush for the Titans is good. Vrabel defenses have been opportunistic with turnovers, and they’re going to be scoring points on our defense. So, does Mahomes press? Is he willing to trust his feet and decision-making like last week, or does he fall back to some poor habits? I have faith he’s turned the corner some, but this week will be a great test to see if he’s beyond some of his September issues.
I think this game will be close. Tennessee is a weird football team. They remind me a lot of the mid-2010 Chiefs with Alex Smith. Their stats are never great, they don’t beat a lot of great teams, and every year people expect regression. But they’re a well-coached team that always plays hard and is always in the picture. Their offense is really freaking good. I like to dunk on Ryan Tannehill because I believe the analytics community significantly overrates him, but he makes enough throws to make this offense very efficient. Brown, Henry, and Julio are incredible playmakers. This offense is going to put up points.
The problem for Tennessee is that we’re just a better offense. I really believe we sorted some stuff out at halftime last week. The Chiefs finally got secondary playmakers involved, and they changed their run scheme to more Power-led concepts. They were much more efficient, and the offense seemed ready to embrace what defenses gave. Yes, Washington is a MESS defensively. Still, the confidence and execution I saw were different from any other moment this season.
Our defense is going to struggle. I’m not sold they’ve figured it out. But all they need is a couple of stops. Chris Jones is back, and less Daniel Sorensen is going to help. I feel like Frank Clark’s starting to play better, and Jarran Reed has put together multiple solid weeks. I liked the linebacker play last week. Yeah, I still think our defense sucks, but maybe we don’t suck as much as we did earlier in the year. Tennessee has three exceptional playmakers, so it’ll be hard to stop, but all we need is a few stops.
I don’t think Tennessee stops us much, and I expect a couple of clutch stops by this defense. Give me Chiefs 38-31.
We’re back, baby!