Patrick Mahomes won his first game as a starter in the Week 17 game against the Denver Broncos last season. The game was meaningless, but both teams will be putting their best foot forward as they meet again for Monday Night Football. How will this change things as the Chiefs try to extend their record to 4-0?
Here are five things to keep an eye on during the game:
1. Can the Chiefs immediately take the crowd out of the game?
We like to talk about how intimidating it is for opposing teams to play in Arrowhead Stadium, but We-Don’t-Have-A-Sponsor-Name-Anymore Field at Mile High is pretty intimidating, too.
Last week, the Chiefs offense didn’t come out swinging in head coach Andy Reid’s pre-planned play script. Instead, they dinked and dunked down the field to their first touchdown with an 11-play drive that took almost five minutes off the game clock.
That’s not going to happen on Monday night. Expect the Chiefs to come out swinging, hoping to shock the Broncos — and their fans — with a couple of quick scores.
But if it happens that way, it might not last. If the Chiefs get out in front by a couple of scores, then expect them to go full West Coast offense with lots of short passes, hoping to maintain the scoring pressure while taking more time off the clock. It’s entirely possible that when Reid planned the opening drive against the San Francisco 49ers at home, he wanted to be certain that Mahomes would be ready to dink and dunk against the Broncos in Denver.
Your first clue that the Chiefs intend to go full Air Reid in their opening drives will come with the coin toss. Should the Chiefs win the toss and elect to receive the opening kickoff — which used to be the automatic response of every NFL team that won the toss, but now happens only rarely — then this is likely what’s about to occur.
Why is this so important? Because...
2. Can the Chiefs defense avoid getting gassed in Denver’s thin air?
Against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, the Chiefs defense was on the field for 77 snaps, while the offense was on the field for 55. That’s 22 snaps more for the defense. In Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the count was 75-54, meaning the defense was on the field for 21 more snaps. But against the 49ers this past Sunday — when on at least one offensive drive, the Chiefs didn’t swing for the fences right out of the gate — the count was 64-68. That is, the offense was on the field for four more snaps than the defense.
And not for nothing, the 49ers victory was the most lopsided win for the Chiefs thus far.
Having the defense on the field for significantly more snaps than the offense is a bigger deal than you might imagine. On average, an NFL drive lasts for 5.8 plays. Few last more than 11 or 12 plays. So having your defense on the field for 20 (or more) plays than the offense is roughly equivalent to the defense having to play two more long drives than the offense. That matters.
And it matters even more in a place like Denver, which is 5,000 feet above sea level. The air is quite thin, which greatly reduces how much a human — even a well-conditioned athlete — can do before becoming exhausted. As the above photo shows, even Broncos players sometimes have to take oxygen on the sidelines — and they are already acclimatized to it. It’s even harder for visiting teams to deal with the problem.
So expect the Chiefs offense to try to play in a manner that will help the defense get more time on the sideline — and also for the defense to play a bit more aggressively, which will also help achieve the goal.
3. Can the Chiefs limit the number of defensive penalties?
The Chiefs lead the NFL in defensive penalties with 33. Since I normally advise people to avoid counting stats like the plague — and because I’ve already argued that the Chiefs defense has been on the field for an inordinate amount of plays — I’d better express that figure as a percentage. So here you go: the Chiefs defense is being flagged on just under 16 percent of its plays, which is third-worst in the league.
Fully 13 percent of these penalties have resulted in a first down for the opposing offense. That’s eighth-worst in the league.
Whatever else is true about Bob Sutton’s defense, cleaning this up will substantially improve its effectiveness. As our Nerd Squad defensive guru Craig Stout noted this week on Twitter, one of these defensive penalties erased a sack on a third-and-five play on Sunday. That drive eventually resulted in a 49ers touchdown, instead of the punt the sack would have forced. Another sack — even worse, one that led to a fumble and a Chiefs return touchdown — was erased by a defensive penalty against Pittsburgh. That drive also eventually ended in a Pittsburgh touchdown.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t other problems on the Chiefs defense. But cleaning up penalties is a relatively easy way to make it work a lot better. To put it another way, if the Chiefs can start cleaning up the mess in Aisle 3 this week in Denver, the whole store will look a lot cleaner.
4. Can Justin Houston take over a game?
This week on Arrowhead Pride, the Nerd Squad’s Matt Lane wrote that at this point in his career, we should stop expecting Houston to dominate games.
I’m sorry to say that Matt is probably exactly right.
But that doesn’t mean Houston can’t sometimes take over a game — or my feeling that it’s going to happen against the Broncos on Monday night.
It’s true that the Broncos might have a better offensive line than any the Chiefs have faced in the first three weeks. Unfortunately for the Broncos, that bar wasn’t set very high; the Chargers, Steelers and 49ers don’t exactly have well-regarded pass protection.
Still, it doesn’t seem like an ideal time to predict that Houston will have a great game.
But here’s why I think he will: by a large margin, Houston has more sacks (and tackles) against the Broncos than any other team. It’s a divisional game, which has clearly been a point of focus during Reid’s tenure as head coach (the Chiefs are 22-9 against the AFC West since Reid arrived and have won 17 of the last 18 division games). Houston will have had an extra day of rest — which, for a player of Houston’s age, is no small thing. And if Dee Ford is unable to go on Monday night, Houston will feel the pressure to step up and make plays.
Make it so, No. 50.
5. Which record will Patrick Mahomes break next?
I know I listed this as one of the things to watch in last week’s game, and he didn’t break the record I had researched.
He broke a different record instead.
But let’s be honest: this one should be number five on this list every week. It’s just a matter of predicting which record it will be. Sooner or later, it’s bound to be right.
So let’s go with this:
If Mahomes throws four touchdown passes on Monday night, he’ll tie Peyton Manning and Eric Hipple (and yeah, I’d never heard of Eric Hipple, either) for the most touchdown passes ever thrown in a player’s Monday Night Football debut. And he’ll also set the NFL record for the most touchdown passes in the first four games of a season — a record also held by Peyton Manning.