For the second time in four weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) will play an opponent they could see again — in Super Bowl LV. The New Orleans Saints (10-3) have been one of the most complete teams in the NFL, and they are expected to be with their starting quarterback for the first time since Week 10 with the return of Drew Brees.
The Saints confirmed on Friday that Brees will start — which will make this game one of the most intriguing of the entire year. In fact, it’s one of the biggest matchups in NFL regular-season history.
We rarely see games as good as Chiefs vs. Saints this late in the season. pic.twitter.com/jRRlmYs7cn— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 17, 2020
The Saints will be a very tough but necessary challenge for the Chiefs. With two meddling opponents waiting in Week 16 and 17, this will be their last chance to have a dress rehearsal for the postseason.
For the NFL’s game of the week — and maybe the year — I have five things to watch:
1. Defending Drew Brees
The public thought the Chiefs might be facing the versatile Taysom Hill as the Saints’ quarterback — but on Friday, Reid told reporters that they had a feeling Brees would be making the start.
Sounds like Andy wasn't caught off-guard by the Brees news. Says he heard that Taysom Hill was in the ST meetings, inferring that Brees was good to go #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 18, 2020
With Brees as the starter, the Saints are 7-2 this season — including six straight wins since they started 1-2 this year. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns to three interceptions while completing passes at a 74% clip, which leads the league this year. He’s also third in the NFL for both passer rating and QBR.
On the flip side, he has the NFL’s lowest rate of intended air yards per attempt. He force-fed running back Alvin Kamara on short passes and check-downs — so much, that Kamara led the team in targets by nearly 40 through Week 10. In that same span, he led the entire NFL in yards after the catch by over 200 yards.
The Chiefs will need to be ready for quick passes and to tackle in open space. The linebacker group will have their toughest challenge of the year facing Kamara as a receiver — and he will definitely be Brees’ most preferred target on Sunday.
2. Overcoming a beat-up offensive line
In practice this week, both of the Chiefs’ starting offensive tackles dealt with back issues. Right tackle Mike Remmers was held out of practice all week — while left tackle Eric Fisher only practiced on Friday with full participation. Remmers is officially out for Sunday, while Fisher is questionable.
This is not the week to have an offensive line at less than full health. The Saints’ defensive front is both talented and effective at getting to the quarterback. Their defense is eighth in the NFL in both sacks and pressure percentage this season. They’ve also allowed the fifth-lowest net yards per attempt rate — which takes into account sack yards.
The defensive line is led by former All-Pro edge rusher Cameron Jordan, who is 13th in the NFL in pressures and has 6.5 sacks — but the more productive player this year has been defensive end Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson has earned 10.5 sacks — which places him in a tie for the third-most in the NFL. Hendrickson will mostly come from the offense’s left edge — while Jordan will be coming from the offense’s right.
Since Remmers can’t go, possible replacements could be rookie tackle Yasir Durant, versatile lineman Martinas Rankin or to push right guard Andrew Wylie out to tackle, as spelled out by John Dixon from earlier this week.
3. Getting through the Saints’ pass protection
The Chiefs’ pass rush finally has some level of momentum after a four-sack performance against the Miami Dolphins. They took advantage of a weak offensive line, but they won’t be so fortunate against the Saints.
The Saints boast two players that are former Pro Bowlers and another that was an All-Pro in 2019. Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and left tackle Terron Armstead are as good of an offensive tackle duo as there is in the NFL. On the interior, veteran left guard Andrus Peat’s huge physique plugs up the interior pass rush — and the other two positions are made up of high draft picks from the last two seasons: center Erik McCoy and right guard Cesar Ruiz.
Taysom Hill’s play in the last four weeks has inflated the sack statistics for the Saints’ offense. When Brees is at the helm, his ability to get the ball out quick combined with the talented pass protection makes it extremely hard to get a hit or a sack on Brees.
It will take one of the best efforts of the year from the Chiefs’ defensive line to disrupt Brees’ passing rhythm and get him off-schedule with his anticipation throws on timing routes. If they struggle as they have against other elite offensive lines this season, it will put most of the defense’s effectiveness on the shoulders of the second and third levels of the unit.
4. Aggressive play from the Chiefs’ secondary
On Friday, it became official that Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas would miss the contest with an ankle injury that held him out of practice all week. This is a huge advantage for the Chiefs’ defense because Thomas is by far the team’s best weapon at wide receiver or tight end.
After Thomas, there aren’t many pass-catchers striking fear in an opposing defense. Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been the main option in Thomas’ stretches of absence this season, complemented by speed-threats like wide receivers Tre’Quan Smith and Deonte Harris — who will not play Sunday due to a neck injury. Tight end Jared Cook has caught six touchdowns this year but isn’t a very dynamic threat with the ball in his hands.
Without Thomas, the Chiefs’ defensive secondary can take more risks when covering this group of receivers. Thomas could make you pay for overaggression — but none of the other receivers are big-time playmakers like Thomas.
Combined with Brees’ unwillingness to throw downfield, the Chiefs should be in a good position to be aggressive on short routes and trust their deep coverage defenders on the seldom deep passing plays.
5. Travis Kelce chasing NFL records
As you know, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is having one of the best seasons the NFL has ever seen from his position. He is now just 128 yards shy of the record for receiving yards by a tight end in a single-season — which is remarkable considering he has three games left to play. If he stays on his season-long pace, he’ll finish with 1,539 receiving yards — nearly 200 more than the NFL record.
Besides that, Kelce has another tight end record that he could break with a huge game against the Saints.
It won’t be easy: The Saints have allowed the seventh-fewest yards to opposing tight ends this season and the ninth-fewest receptions.