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Five things to watch as the Chiefs host the Panthers

Sunday’s inter-conference matchup will be the Chiefs’ last game before their bye week.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

As the 7-1 Kansas City Chiefs enter the second half of their regular season schedule, it feels like their bye week is coming at an advantageous time. They have one more game against the 3-5 Carolina Panthers at home, followed by a week of rest as they prepare for their final seven games.

That upcoming stretch — specifically the first five games — will make or break the team’s aspirations for the AFC’s first seed. As they chase the 7-0 Pittsburgh Steelers for the top spot, they have four road games against teams with winning records:

  • They return from the bye with a road game against the Las Vegas Raiders — currently second in the AFC West with a 4-3 record that includes a win over the Chiefs.
  • In Week 12, they will travel to Florida to play the NFC’s current second seed: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • After a divisional battle at home against the 3-4 Denver Broncos, they have back-to-back road games against the upstart 4-3 Miami Dolphins and the always-dangerous 5-2 New Orleans Saints.

Blowout victories in the last two weeks have been relatively easy on bodies of the team’s starters — and the Chiefs are once again double-digit favorites for this home game. Another big win before the bye could go a long way toward making the team fully healthy and prepared for the post-bye gauntlet.

Here are five things to watch against the Panthers:

1. Patrick Mahomes’ MVP campaign

NFL: New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After being out of the discussion for most of the first half of the 2020 NFL season, the Chiefs’ quarterback has re-entered the MVP conversation with a prolific performance in Week 8 against the New York Jets, passing for 416 yards and five touchdowns. His passer rating of 144.4 was second-highest of his career.

The big day put him among the NFL’s leaders in most passing categories:

  • Second in passing yards (2,315)
  • Second in passing touchdowns (21)
  • Lowest percentage of attempts intercepted (0.4%)
  • Highest adjusted yards per attempt (9.5)
  • Second in passer rating (115.0)
  • Highest QBR (86.8)

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson certainly deserves to be the current MVP frontrunner. He’s on pace to throw 59 touchdowns — while leading the league in passer rating as he captains the NFC’s best team.

But his letdown game against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7 — in which he threw three significant interceptions — has left the door open for Mahomes. While the young Panthers defense is a league-average unit overall — and has allowed a opponent passer rating of 90.5, which ranks 11th-best in the league — Mahomes has already carved up similarly-effective pass defenses this season.

Watch for another productive day from Mahomes. Back-to-back big passing games could vault him back into the lead for this season’s MVP award.

2. Chiefs’ pass rush

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Carolina Panthers Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In recent weeks, the Chiefs’ pass rush hasn’t been as productive as their talent might suggest they should be, with just four sacks in the last three games. But that hasn’t stopped the unit’s leader from wreaking havoc.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones has 15 pressures over the last three weeks — fourth-best in the league — but only one ended in a sack. His teammates need to pick up the slack to help him.

Defensive end Frank Clarkwho did not practice on Wednesday and was limited Thursday due to knee soreness — has had only seven pressures during that span. Defensive end Alex Okafor has had six — even though he played just 15 snaps in one of those three games. Undrafted rookie defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton has collected five.

Panthers’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been sacked at a league-average rate, but doesn’t do well with pressure in his face. His 32.7 passer rating under pressure is the second-lowest mark among starting quarterbacks this season — and five of his six interceptions have come under pressure.

So look to see if the pass rush can affect Carolina’s passing offense.

3. Bounceback game for Chiefs’ run offense

NFL: New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets really didn’t want Chiefs running back Le’Veon Bell to have his revenge game against them — so much so that they sold out to stop the run, holding Bell and starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire to just 28 rushing yards on 12 carries.

The Panthers could replicate that game plan — but that would likely also replicate the 35-9 result. So it’s more likely the Chiefs will face a defensive plan similar to what they have faced for much of of the season: deep coverage that invites the Chiefs to run against light boxes.

Either way, Carolina hasn’t defended the run very well this season, allowing 4.7 yards per carry — the NFL’s ninth-highest rate. They have also allowed some of the longest offensive drives, averaging seven plays (the league’s most) and 3:10 of possession time, which ranks as fourth-highest.

If the Chiefs can rely on their rushing offense to carry them into the bye week, they will. It’s likely that in Week 9, Bell gets the most opportunities he’s had in a Chiefs uniform.

4. The return of Christian McCaffrey

Las Vegas Raiders v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In Week 2, the Panthers lost their best player — and one of the NFL’s legitimate superstars. Running back Christian McCaffrey suffered a serious ankle injury that sidelined him until this week. He is expected to play against the Chiefs.

McCaffrey will bring a heavy mismatch to this game. Chiefs’ linebackers don’t fare well in coverage against dynamic pass-catchers like McCaffrey — and the only one who would be likely to match his athleticism is rookie Willie Gay Jr. But the second-round rookie’s inexperience could be exploited.

Before his injury, McCaffey had lined up as a slot or wide receiver on 17% of the Panthers’ snaps — which could match him up with a Chiefs defensive back. The Chiefs have been league-average in defending the pass against running backs — but they also haven’t faced a threat of McCaffrey’s caliber.

Watch to see how the Chiefs defend the Panthers’ most dangerous offensive weapon.

5. Defending the Panthers’ receiving corps

Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

While the team has averaged just 23 points per game this season, the Panthers’ offense has two dynamic wide receivers at its disposal: Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore respectively rank third and seventh in receiving yards. Anderson also ranks third in yards after the catch,

When they get the ball in their hands, both will be hard for Chiefs defenders to corral. They each have scoring plays of over 74 yards this season; they can beat coverage defenders before and after they catch the ball.

This will be the Chiefs secondary’s biggest challenge since facing the Buffalo Bills’ trio of receivers. Kansas City passed that test, but this matchup will be one of the biggest factors in stopping Carolina’s offense.