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Chiefs will have to account for Christian McCaffrey against Panthers

The All-Pro running back has been out since Week 2 — but is expected to play against the Chiefs on Sunday.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers will bring their 3-5 record to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, trying to bounce back from three straight losses against the 7-1 Kansas City Chiefs.

It might be easy to dismiss the Panthers on the basis of their record — but it’s one they’ve accumulated mostly without All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the NFL with 2,392 yards (and 19 touchdowns) from scrimmage in 2019.

McCaffrey hasn’t played since sustaining an ankle injury during the fourth quarter of the team’s Week 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he is back at practice this week — and is expected to be on the field against the Chiefs.

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“He’s a guy that can do it all,” marveled Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Wednesday. “He can catch the ball just as well as he runs the ball — and he runs the ball well, so he’s someone that can really be a mismatch for defenses. He can run the ball between the tackles, he can have the speed to win on the outside, and he can run routes just like a receiver.”

This respect for the fourth-year running back extends all the way to the top of the organization. Andy Reid said that if the team hadn’t been focused on acquiring their quarterback in 2017, they might have considered going after McCaffrey, who was selected two spots before Mahomes.

“Sure, he would’ve fit in the offense well,” Reid told reporters on Wednesday. “I think probably every coach would say that in this league. He was a heck of a college player and he’s sure doing a nice job in the NFL, so we’ll have to make sure we know what’s going on with him.”

During McCaffrey’s absence, the Panthers largely relied on running back Mike Davis to fill his spot as both a rusher and receiver, but it hasn’t been the same — particularly in the passing game. While Davis held up his end as a rusher — averaging 4.2 yards per carry while McCaffrey was out — he averaged just 5.6 yards per reception. In contrast, McCaffrey was averaging 9.6 yards per catch.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

But yardage isn’t everything. Before McCaffrey was injured, the Panthers had scored four touchdowns on five red-zone opportunities. Since then, they’ve scored just 10 on 21 chances.

Still, the Panthers did see that Davis — now on his fourth team during a six-year NFL career — could offer some production. That naturally led to speculation Carolina could use the two in tandem.

“We all know Christian’s ability to line up and play receiver,” said Panthers head coach Matt Rhule on Wednesday, via the Associated Press. “So I think the door is open to be creative with all those guys.”

The Chiefs are also considering that possibility.

“Their other running back is doing very well too filling in for him,” noted Reid, “so they have — along with the receiver that also plays running back [Curtis Samuel] — three guys there that are really talented players.”

But it’s also pretty obvious that the Panthers would like nothing better than to get McCaffrey back to his full workload. Last season, he was on the field for 93% of the team’s offensive snaps.

“Christian brings elite production,” said Rhule. “On days when you’re not great on third down, he’s a tremendous third-down matchup. Explosive runs. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s one of the best in the National Football League. Like any great player, you feel better about your chances when he’s there than what he’s not.”

In order to reach the bye with an 8-1 record, the Chiefs will have to find a way to keep McCaffrey down.