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Five things to watch as the Chiefs play the Rams

Is it a preview of Super Bowl LIII? Whether it is or not, it’s going to be a memorable Monday Night Football game!

Arizona Cardinals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is a preview article from 2018 that we’ve brought up to the main page for just today — as ESPN plans to re-air Chiefs-Rams on Monday night.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams — each 9-1 and leading their conferences — meet in a game that many are calling a potential preview of Super Bowl LIII on Monday Night Football from Estadio Azteca in Mexico City the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. Todd Gurley, Todd Gurley and Todd Gurley.

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The Rams running back leads the NFL in touchdowns, rushing yards, rushing attempts, offensive touches and yards from scrimmage. He also leads the NFL in points scored — a statistic whose leaders are usually placekickers.

For the Rams in 2018, Gurley has accounted for 37 percent of the touches, 31 percent of the offensive yardage and 32 percent of the points. So for the Chiefs defense, stopping Gurley is paramount.

There’s just one problem: the Chiefs defense hasn’t consistently shown the ability to do that. As AP defensive analyst Craig Stout noted this week, the Chiefs did an excellent job stopping the run against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday — but the Cardinals aren’t the Rams, and David Johnson isn’t Todd Gurley. And it’s not as if Johnson had no impact against the Chiefs. He had 183 yards from scrimmage on Sunday, thanks to 85 yards on seven catches.

Let’s be realistic: there’s probably no way to completely stop Gurley. So for the Chiefs, the smartest move may be to do what they can to limit Gurley’s impact on the game. In the Rams’ only loss — to the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago — Gurley had six receptions for only 11 yards. If the Chiefs can figure out a way to keep Gurley from being a receiving threat out of the backfield, that might be enough to keep Gurley from taking over the game.

2. Dirty Dan

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Since he was on injured reserve since before the season began, it’s now time for your yearly reminder that Dan Sorensen’s nickname wasn’t bestowed on him because he’s a dirty player. Instead, his teammates call him Dirty Dan because he’s always willing to do the dirty jobs nobody else wants to do.

I know a lot of Chiefs fans have little faith in Sorensen. I understand how they feel. Sorensen isn’t a flashy player. He made his place on the team by being an excellent special teams player — which the Chiefs value more than many other teams do — and being someone who has consistently done what he’s been asked to do. With all the problems the Chiefs have had this season getting defensive players on the same page in Bob Sutton’s defense, a player like Sorensen — whether he’s flashy or not — can make a big difference.

On Sunday against the Cardinals — his first game since returning from injured reserve — Sorensen was on the field for about half of the defensive snaps. The vast majority of them were on pass plays. With that under his belt — and an extra day to get up to full speed — it will be interesting to see how Sorensen is utilized against the Rams, and whether his presence makes a substantive difference.

3. Under pressure

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Rams quarterback Jared Goff is very good — in fact, he’s among the best in the league. But like many NFL quarterbacks, he’s less effective under pressure. In Goff’s case, he’s far less effective. So while it will be very important for the Chiefs to get pressure on Goff, they’re going to have to do it without blitzing, because Goff is also very good at taking advantage of teams that blitz him.

That puts pressure on the Chiefs defensive line to get the job done. It won’t be easy, because the Rams offensive line is very good. The good news for the Chiefs, however, is that their defensive line has been steadily improving — as our Matt Lane showed us this week — and in recent weeks, Chris Jones has been playing like a man possessed.

But what’s far more interesting in this matchup is how this works out going the other way. It’s reasonable to be concerned about Rams players such as Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh as pass rushers against the Chiefs offensive line — but unless they can get home, it’s not going to matter. Patrick Mahomes’ effectiveness under pressure is hardly different than it is without pressure.

To put it another way... if both teams can mount an effective interior pass rush, the Chiefs will have the advantage.

4. The third pass catcher

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, I really didn’t see this coming... but I love me some Sammy Watkins!

I love the way he gets open. I love the way he runs. I love the way he knocks defenders on their butts when he has the ball in his hands. I love his work ethic. And I love the way he’s become a team-first player on the third stop of his career.

It’s really kind of amazing. It wasn’t that long ago — a period of time measured in weeks — we were wondering not just whether Watkins would be worth the salary he was being paid, but whether he would even show up in the Chiefs offense.

Just on the basis of his personal production, he may never be worth the money. But I think it’s time to say that Watkins’ value isn’t just what his stat line shows — it’s how his presence on the field looks on everybody’s stat line. Watkins turns the Chiefs offense into one that no defense can adequately cover; there are simply too many offensive players for whom they must account. When Watkins is on the field, everybody gets a bigger piece of pie.

I would be tempted to say that it’s very hard to put a price on that, but as it turns out, you can put a price on it: it’s $48 million over three years. And it’s cheap at the price.

The Chiefs have allowed Watkins to take it easy since he injured his foot against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago. He was a limited practice participant on Thursday, but there is every indication he will start on Sunday.

On the other side of the matchup, pretty much the inverse is occurring. Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupptheir third receiver — has been placed on injured reserve after tearing an ACL in Week 10.

Just to clarify: Watkins is actually the Chiefs’ second wide receiver. But the Chiefs have Travis Kelce, while the Rams have no tight end that is a receiving threat. Watkins and Kupp are both third in receiving yards on their respective teams.

So the Chiefs are coming into this game with all of their primary receivers available — which makes them very difficult to defend against — while the Rams are coming in without the receiver who would make them hard to defend against. This looks like a significant advantage for the Chiefs.

5. The NFL’s big black eye

In recent years, the league has made a lot of colossal blunders. But this one is a doozy.

There is now speculation that the NFL must have known that the field at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City was in poor condition before last weekend — if one of the events that so damaged the field was the Shakira concert held there on October 11, how could they not know? — but that’s an issue to be determined later.

We should at least be grateful that no NFL players will be injured on Monday night because of the league’s poor attention to detail.

For now, the facts are these: Monday’s game will now be played in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Tens of thousands of American fans — of both teams — have been seriously inconvenienced. Mexico City will take a major economic hit, and legions of Mexican NFL fans are rightfully furious over the foul-up. And the NFL has lost a lot of international goodwill and prestige — both of which it desperately desires — for not managing this situation better.

So now we’re left with this question: which team benefits the most?

It’s now an actual — rather than merely titular — home game for the Rams, but under these particular circumstances, there could very well be a lot of Chiefs fans in the stands for the game.

The Chiefs will have to travel to Los Angeles — like any other road game — but because the Rams traveled to Colorado Springs to train at a high elevation in preparation for playing in Mexico City, they will have had to travel twice before the game, which is something even road teams don’t usually do. Any way you slice it, the Rams have lost at least an extra day of critical preparation time for this game.

In the final analysis, this comes down to the experience of the two head coaches. Rams head coach Sean McVay is 32, and has been an NFL head coach for a period you can still measure in months — the same way new parents still refer to their infant’s age in months when they’re closing in on three years old. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is 60, and has been doing this for almost two decades.

Both coaches knew this would be a marquee game on their schedules. Where McVay made his mistake was in overemphasizing its importance. McVay — the youngster — saw was a tough game against a good team on the national stage; he felt he needed to get every possible advantage to win.

But old Andy has been around the block a couple of times. He knew the game was important, but it was still a regular-season contest against a non-conference opponent. Why pull out all the stops now, with more important division and conference games still to come — not to mention the postseason? As Reid often says, there is a time and a place for everything. In his judgment, this was neither the time or the place to treat this game as something that required more than his usual preparation.

Had the game been played in Mexico, McVay might have derived some advantage from moving his team to the thinner air of Colorado for a few days. But I think it’s fair to wonder if it would have been worth it in the long run. You can’t treat every game like the Super Bowl, or else you’ll collapse from exhaustion before you get there. Reid knows that, which is why he’ll not only have the advantage against the Rams on Monday, but against most other teams — from now until February.

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