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Five things to watch as the Chiefs host the Cardinals

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The Chiefs march toward 9-1 at Arrowhead, and here are five things to watch.

The Kansas City Chiefs host the Arizona Cardinals at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. For the Chiefs, the goal is to raise the record to 9-1. For the Cardinals, the goal is to salvage a disastrous season. Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. The coin toss

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Tim Umphrey/Getty Images

As I wrote on Wednesday, the Chiefs have won the opening coin toss in nine consecutive games. I know that’s a silly thing to focus on, but it really could be one of the few outcomes that’s in serious doubt on Sunday.

With a nod to the commenters on Wednesday’s article, the probability that the Chiefs will win the toss on Sunday is indeed 50 percent; what’s happened previously has no bearing on which way a single coin toss will land. And yes... as the away team, the Chiefs have called the toss in just five of the nine games in the streak. But that has no bearing on how unusual it is for the Chiefs to have won the toss so many times in a row; whether someone calls the toss doesn’t affect the likelihood they’ll win it.

But why bother with all that? if it were possible, the Cardinals might want to consider conceding the toss. It could conceivably be their best chance to hold a lead at any point in the game — because we can be pretty sure that if the decision is his to make, Andy Reid will want to defer and receive the ball to begin the second half.

Even then, the probabilities won’t favor the Cardinals. Not only are they last in the league in scoring percentage — just 17.2 percent of their possessions result in a score — they’re also the only team in the league that is more likely to have a turnover than a score in a given drive; 18.3 percent of their offensive drives have ended in a turnover.

2. An offensive opportunity for the Cardinals

Kansas City Chiefs v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

On the season, the Chiefs have given up 6.2 yards a play, which is 22nd in the league. But their biggest problem is run defense, where they are giving up a league-worst 5.2 yards per attempt. So while the Cardinals may see this as an opportunity to find some offensive success, there’s not much evidence the Cardinals can do that — they have averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, which is also worst in the league.

Even so, as our defensive analyst Craig Stout pointed out in his analysis of last Sunday’s game against the Browns, in his first game at the helm, Cleveland offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens moved towards a style of offense that the Browns hadn’t shown much to that point: one featuring quick passes and heavier run formations that forced the Chiefs into their base defensive alignment more often than they’d prefer.

Kitchens may have been debuting a new approach, or it may have been that he simply chose to do it specifically against the Chiefs; the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers all moved the ball well with similar game plans. And while the Chiefs managed to hold back the Browns in the second half, during the second quarter, the Chiefs defense was on its heels.

Is it possible that Cardinals offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich — who assumed the position after Mike McCoy was fired following a humiliating 45-10 loss to the Broncos three weeks ago — used the Cardinals’ bye week to hatch a similar scheme for use against the Chiefs? In his Wednesday press conference, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid made a point to say that he has great respect for Leftwich, and believes he will someday be an NFL head coach. Bob Sutton had better be careful not to sleep on him.

3. A prolific Chiefs offense

Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

While we spend a lot of time worrying about the Chiefs defense, nobody is worrying about the Chiefs offense. No matter how defensive coordinators try to defend against it, the juggernaut continues to roll along, generating 7.1 yards per play and 36.3 points per game — both best in the NFL.

Even when the Chiefs have the lead and Andy Reid shifts into a lower gear, the threat of a big play is always there; the Chiefs are just as dangerous when they call a short crossing route, screen pass or end-around as they are when Mahomes chucks it deep.

The Cardinals’ lack of success this season has a lot more to do with their offense than their defense. The Cardinals defense is respectable — and as Andy Reid noted on Wednesday, very fast. But the Cardinals will need to take care not to over-pursue against the Chiefs’ offensive misdirection plays, as Patrick Mahomes explained during his press appearance on Wednesday.

“You have to stay within your system. Stay within your scheme. You can’t try to do too much. [The Cardinals have] guys — like you said — that are veteran guys and good with the system and defense they run. They are going to stay disciplined to their rules. You can’t rely on someone messing up or trying to get mesmerized by what’s going on in the backfield. You have to rely on your rules, stay within your system and not try to make it a huge play.”

Imagine that. A passer that is lighting up the league with his arm, but talking like a mere game-manager. Who’d a thunk it?

4. Plug-and-play offensive line

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

And all of this offensive success is continuing to occur with a hobbled offensive line. Only Eric Fisher, Cam Erving and Mitchell Schwartz — the latter now closing in on 7,000 consecutive snaps in his NFL career — remain from the Week 1 starters.

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is on injured reserve with a broken fibula. Jordan Devey — who came in to take LDT’s place — then suffered a season-ending pectoral muscle injury. Center Mitch Morse continues to recover from a concussion. Erving has been sick this week and missed practice time.

It’s likely Erving will play on Sunday, but otherwise, the Chiefs will have to continue to depend on rookie Andrew Wylie at right guard and third-string center Austin Rieter. It wasn’t that long ago (read: last season) when having a pair of backups starting on the offensive line could have — and did — adversely affect the success of the Chiefs offense. But Mahomes’ ability to escape pressure and complete a throw — not to mention his ability to improvise when things fall completely apart — have substantially reduced the pressure on the offensive line.

Still, the Cardinals have some big, nasty players on the defensive line. One of the key battles to watch on Sunday will be the one between Chandler Jones and Fisher, who will be protecting Mahomes’ blind side.

5. Len Dawson’s record

Patrick Mahomes has 29 passing touchdowns this season. With two more on Sunday, he’ll surpass Dawson’s franchise record of 30, which was set in 1964 — back when the AFL and NFL played 14-game seasons.

Lenny the Cool is nothing less than a Kansas City legend, and at this moment, it’s only fair to give him his due. It’s likely that without his broadcasting career, his star might not be burning so brightly among the current generation of Chiefs fans. Those who aren’t old enough to remember his playing days still grew up with Dawson on their televisions — first on KMBC-TV, and later as one of the original anchors of HBO’s Inside the NFL program — and eventually on Chiefs radio broadcasts, on which he appeared for more than 30 years.

Dawson’s KMBC-TV career is especially noteworthy. Originally becoming sports director in 1966 — when he still had nine years remaining in his NFL career — Dawson would sometimes film interviews with other Chiefs players during practice, and race down to the studio in the evening to anchor the sports segment in the 10:00 p.m. newscast.

Such a thing is unimaginable today — but in those days, most players couldn’t live on the money they were being paid to play. Dawson simply had a side job that was a better fit for his pro football career; most of his teammates worked jobs in the offseason.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying he was an integral part of the Chiefs dynasty of the 1960s. He was a field general of the old school, playing in the days when quarterbacks called plays independently— except when there was enough time for the head coach to substitute a player into the game who could carry instructions to the quarterback.

Hank Stram’s famous “65 Toss Power Trap” play call in Super Bowl IV — immortalized on film in one of the first instances of a “mic’d up” coach or player — wasn’t sent to Dawson over a radio-equipped helmet. Chiefs receiver Gloster Richardson carried it into Dawson, who was flabbergasted by the call from the head coach. “Are you sure?” he asked Richardson. “We haven’t practiced that play in weeks!”

But the play worked, and running back Mike Garrett went into the end zone untouched.

Dawson would be named MVP of Super Bowl IV, capping an incredible season in which he missed five games due to a knee injury he suffered in Week 2 against the Boston Patriots. He was first thought to be lost for the year — today, doctors would have insisted that Dawson not return until the following season — but after Mike Livingston went 4-1 in his absence, he returned.

The week of the Super Bowl, reports of Dawson’s association with a shady gambling figure surfaced — reports that eventually proved false — but he played a magnificent game in a dream championship matchup. The Chiefs had finished the AFL season with the first-ranked defense and the second-ranked offense; the Minnesota Vikings had finished the NFL season ranked first in both categories. There hasn’t been a Super Bowl matchup quite like it ever since.

Dawson returned to Kansas City a conquering hero, and in the decades since, he’s been one of the city’s most prominent citizens. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him many times. He’s a gentle, generous man, and I promise you that no one is happier than he is to see Patrick Mahomes break his longstanding record.