In a nationally-televised road game that has serious playoff implications for both teams, the Kansas City Chiefs will play the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. Here are five things to watch in the game:
1. The final quarter
It would be pretty easy to dismiss the 8-6 Seahawks as a middling team, but they’ve played better than you might imagine in 2018.
The Seahawks’ six losses have been by a total of 28 points. That’s just 4.7 points per game, which is the fourth-lowest point differential in losses this season. (The Chiefs, by the way, are first with a 2.3 point differential in their losses). The Seahawks’ losses have been to the Los Angeles Rams (twice — by a total of seven points), the Los Angeles Chargers, the Chicago Bears, the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers.
With the exception of the Broncos and the 49ers, that’s a list of pretty damned good teams — and the Seahawks did hammer the 49ers 43-16 at home three weeks ago before losing 26-23 in overtime on Sunday.
See? Another example of how unpredictable division games can be.
Yes... the Seahawks could lose this game to the Chiefs. But don’t expect a blowout. The Seahawks are a tough out, and they’re likely to be in it until the final whistle. That’s why the oddsmakers only have the Chiefs as 2.5 point favorites, and FiveThirtyEight.com lists the Chiefs as only a one-point favorite.
2. Russell Wilson
A lot has been written about Seattle’s commitment to the run this season — and it’s indeed true that only the Baltimore Ravens have run the ball more than the Seahawks in 2018.
But whether the Seahawks are running the ball effectively is another question. They’re averaging 4.7 yards per attempt — which is indeed significantly above the current NFL average of 4.4, but well behind the league-leading Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos. It’s worth noting, however, that rushing the ball well hasn’t helped those three teams very much; all three have a losing record.
What the pundits are missing is that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been quietly assembling one of his best seasons. His 2018 passer rating of 111.6 eclipses his previous best of 110.1 — which led the NFL in 2015 — and he trails only Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers.
At age 30, Wilson isn’t running like he was in previous seasons — his average of 7.2 yards per carry on 118 attempts for 849 yards and six touchdowns in 2014 remains astonishing — but because his 5.6 yards per attempt still leads his team, he’s a player for whom a defense must account on every play — especially since he is also passing the ball so well this season.
All of this is the background for head coach Andy Reid’s comment in Monday’s press session:
“It’s not quite a quarterback-heavy influence in the run game — although Wilson is a good runner. He will do the option game a bit — [an] RPO-type thing, or he is involved with a read. But not to the extent that Baltimore does. Still have to be aware of him, though — because he is nifty. And he is obviously a good thrower, too. You have to be ready for that.”
If the Chiefs defense can render Wilson ineffective in this game, the Chiefs can — and should — win. But if not... it could be a long evening in Seattle.
Which brings us to...
3. Eric Berry
On Wednesday, Eric Berry was a full participant in practice for the first time in 130 days. This is a good sign that Berry suffered no ill effects from seeing 30 snaps in Thursday night’s 29-28 loss to the Chargers — a game the Chiefs might have won had Berry been on the field for two Chargers drives in the fourth quarter. It was that close.
Take your pick. Here at Arrowhead Pride, we’ve all written about what Berry showed us on Thursday.
In his weekly review of the Chiefs defense, Craig Stout concluded that seeing multiple instances of Berry yelling at the defensive backfield before the snap just to get them lined up in the right place was a stinging indictment of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
This is about the worst look that Bob Sutton and the Chiefs defensive coaching staff could be wearing after this game. A guy — who admittedly is one of the smartest players out there — comes in off the street after 13 regular-season games and has to direct traffic like a crossing guard for the players who have been in the scheme all year? How does that happen?
Fellow Nerd Squad member Matt Lane devoted his entire film review to Berry’s first-half snaps, and said that against both the run and the pass, Berry’s contributions could be critical in the postseason.
Berry showed his classic playmaking ability in the run game, stuffing a few different run plays with quick identification and aggressive, downhill play this defense has lacked all year. In coverage, it’s evident how he sees the game at an entirely different speed and level than the other safeties, as they are still retreating while he breaks on balls. If this game was even just a small hint of what is to come, Berry could really be the catalyst this defense needs going into the playoffs.
Berry made a clear difference to the Chiefs defense when he was out there. There’s just something about how #29 hits people. He not only erases forward momentum, but also the mistakes of others around him. If you’re not convinced, see the second half of the Chargers game — when he didn’t play. There’s hope for this defense yet, and it’s because of Berry.
My own take in this week’s Berryfest was a review of a historical precedent: how a team very similar to the 2018 Chiefs — the 2006 Indianapolis Colts — turned their anemic regular-season defense into a postseason monster, winning that season’s Super Bowl after hard-hitting All-Pro safety Bob Sanders (a player very much like Berry on multiple levels) returned for the playoffs.
With a playoff run before us — and regardless of what happens in the next two games, there is a playoff run before us — the only thing that matters is the here and now. If Eric Berry is what it’s going to take to make the Chiefs defense play to its potential, then the Chiefs need to do whatever it’s going to take to make that happen.
It’s entirely possible that the Chiefs have no intention to make Berry a full-time player before the postseason begins. They may intend to do just what they did against the Chargers — put him on the field for a half or so in the last two games, so that he can be a full-go once the postseason begins.
But as we saw on Thursday, that approach — while it makes sense on a strategic level — may have been a tactical mistake.
Suppose that instead, Berry had been limited to 30 snaps throughout the game. Then he wouldn’t have had to ride the bench because he was taken out after the first half — Reid’s stated concern that a player who hadn’t been on the field for so long would risk injury by sitting for a long period after playing for a half is legitimate — and might have been able to make a difference in the fourth quarter of the Chargers game.
If Berry had made such a difference, the Chiefs might have the number one seed in their pocket right now.
In Reid’s defense, he had plenty of reason to think the Chargers game was well in hand — that is, until it wasn’t. But you sure have to wonder that if he had it to do all over again, Reid might take a different approach with Berry’s snap count.
There’s little doubt that Berry’s impact could be huge against a team like Seattle — and a mobile quarterback like Russell Wilson. Let’s hope that he can make enough of an impact in limited snaps — or that his snaps are managed differently — so that his contributions can be reflected in the outcome of the game.
4. The injury report
The Seahawks have had a lot of injuries this season — and right now, they’re reeling.
Two of their best-known defensive players — safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas — are on injured reserve, along with linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Promising rookie tight end Will Dissly — who had a 100-yard game to open the season — has been on IR since Week 5.
But this week, the Seahawks apparently have a M*A*S*H unit set up at the practice facility.
Both starting safeties — Tedric Thompson and Bradley McDougald — didn’t practice on Wednesday. Neither did starting cornerback Shaquill Griffin, starting right guard D.J. Fluker, starting defensive end Frank Clark or starting wide receiver Doug Baldwin.
All told, nine different Seahawks didn’t practice because of injuries on Wednesday, and four more — including starting running back Chris Carson — were limited in practice. Carson’s limited status on Wednesday was listed as non-injury.
Some of these players, of course, may get to play — or even start — on Sunday. But that’s a long list of Seattle starters whose game status is unknown right now. It will be worth watching to see how many are actually able to play — and if they do, how effective they will be.
5. The 12th man
As the saying goes, this is settled science. The fans in Arrowhead Stadium make more noise than the fans in CenturyLink Field. We’re ready to fight anybody who says otherwise. We have the facts on our side.
But let’s not act as if it’s easy to win at CenturyLink. It’s not. The Seattle fans may no longer hold the official world record, but they can — and do — make more than enough noise to disrupt opposing offenses. The Chiefs are planning for it. On Monday, head coach Andy Reid addressed the issue.
“You go back to the Pittsburgh Steelers game and the Los Angeles Rams game — those are loud stadiums and a lot of energy there,” Reid said. “We [will] use the silent count. We are pretty good at using that. We should be OK with the noise. Everything seems to speed up just a tad when you are on the road and it is loud — for whatever reason. You have to make sure you get in and out of the huddle and give yourself an opportunity to execute. That will be a focus this week.”
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a way to duplicate the conditions of a game in a stadium like Arrowhead or CenturyLink in a practice environment. But as Patrick Mahomes reminded the press on Wednesday, he’s already been on the field in Seattle, and has an idea of what he will be up against.
“We got to play them in the preseason last year, and you could sense how crazy and loud it was going to be — even in a preseason game. You know with [it] being a playoff implication game, it’s going to be rocking pretty heavily. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Mahomes is exactly right, of course. CenturyLink in preseason will not be quite the same as a primetime game in CenturyLink in Week 16 with Seattle’s chance to make the playoffs on the line. Those fans are going to bring it on Sunday night.
Still... you just have to love how Mahomes sees it — just another challenge to be met and overcome.