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Chiefs’ title push starts with a tough Saints team on Sunday

The Chiefs don’t need Sunday’s game to clinch an AFC bye — but a win might do wonders in proving to themselves that they can do this again.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs travel to New Orleans this weekend to play the Saints. At 10-3, the Saints are the final playoff team the Chiefs will face in the regular season — the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers are already eliminated from contention.

If the Chiefs defeat the Saints Sunday and win against the Chargers Week 17, the trip to New Orleans will be the last time they pack their bags until Tampa — so long as they continue to win.

When the NFL schedule was released, Sunday was a date to circle in red, assuming the world would be in store for a Patrick Mahomes-Drew Brees shootout. But Brees has missed the last four games with 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung — and he still reportedly has a “ways to go,” per New Orleans coach Sean Payton.

On Wednesday, Mahomes admitted he was disappointed he might not get to match up with Brees.

Baylor v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

“I mean, 100%,” said Mahomes. “Obviously, him being from Texas and then go into the Chargers, dealing with adversity there and then go into the Saints and just been consistently at the top of the game for year in and year out, it is truly special to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and to be able to consistently produce every single year.”

Brees’ historical year included a rather strong 2018 campaign, which saw him compete with Mahomes for MVP votes. Mahomes ultimately won the award in part thanks to his 50 passing touchdowns on the season.

“Hopefully we get to go up against him or I get to go up against him,” added Mahomes, “but if not, hopefully we’ll get the face him at some other time because you want to play against those great quarterbacks that you watched growing up that were kind of guys that you looked up to and the way they played the game.”

Mahomes will instead be up against Taysom Hill, whom the Saints are likely to start for the fifth consecutive game. Hill has thrown for more than 800 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in his four fill-in starts, going 3-1.

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

“I have a ton of respect for Taysom (Hill) and the way he’s been able to play and produce,” said Mahomes. “I watched him when I was in college and then now in the NFL, I mean the way he’s able to go out there and throw the ball, be a quarterback, but also be one of the best athletes on the field is truly special.”

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s admiration of Hill dates back to before his NFL days.

“Well, he’s a BYU guy, I think that’s probably all we need to say,” said Reid, who also attended BYU. “He’s a good player—strong, a good runner, a good thrower—he represents well...Chad Lewis, who played for me, is one of the assistant athletic directors up there (at BYU) and told me, ‘The kid’s been banged up, but don’t let that fool you because he’s one of the best athletes to ever come out of this school, and he can do anything and is willing to do anything.’”

As the Chiefs get ready for Hill (and likely Brees, too, just in case) on the defensive side of the football, the greater challenge might be on the offensive side, even for a Chiefs unit that leads the league in per-game production. The Saints are second in the league on defense — trailing only the Los Angeles Rams — and much of that has to do with their ability to confuse the opposing quarterback.

Mahomes cited “the way they’re able to interchange” when describing their defense on Wednesday.

“Those linebackers, those D-lineman, DBs, safeties — Malcolm Jenkins, all those guys, can really interchange and guard different guys as well as blitz and rush the passer. So, it’s a great challenge kind of trying to figure out what their game plan is for that week, who they want to put on who, who they want pressuring the quarterback and you have to do a good job of recognizing that quickly in order to get the ball to your hands and then figure out a way to have success against a really good defense.”

When the Chiefs traded in front of the Saints to snatch Mahomes at No. 10 in the 2018 NFL Draft, New Orleans settled for cornerback Marshon Lattimore at No. 11. Lattimore won the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year award in 2017 as Mahomes backed up Alex Smith, and he has been to two Pro Bowls.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“He’s a great cornerback,” said Mahomes. “I mean, he’s not only physical, he can run and he’s very smart and he recognizes plays and so they do a lot different coverages. They play man, they play zone, they blitz, they do all the different type of stuff that you need in a great defense and they have a lot of great players over there. I mean him and others in that secondary and that D-line and those linebackers, and so it’s going to be a great test and we have to go out there and execute at a high level if we want to find the way to win a football game.”

With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the rear-view mirror, Sunday’s matchup is the final Super Bowl measuring-stick opportunity on the road to February 2 in Tampa. As mentioned above, the Chiefs don’t necessarily need the game for the No. 1 seed — but what a win would provide is late-season confirmation that they are capable of doing this again.

Reid mentioned Monday that the Chiefs are “close” to playing their best football — and the last three weeks, starting with the Saints, will provide a final tuneup to get things right prior to the postseason.

“I think it’s just about being consistent for a full four quarters,” Mahomes said. “We’ve had spans in every single game where we’ve been able to do what we want and put points on the board and execute the offense at a high level, but it seems like there’s one span or there’s one little area that we don’t execute on every single game, and so just trying to be as consistent as we possibly can.

“What better test than going up against one of the best defenses in the league in the New Orleans Saints and being able to go out there and then put up what we’re going to see when we get to the playoffs and then maybe in a Super Bowl.”

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