For the second straight week, the Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) will face an NFC South opponent. The Atlanta Falcons (4-10) are coming into Arrowhead Stadium riding a three-game losing streak. They’ll be without four starters: wide receiver Julio Jones, center Alex Mack, left guard James Carpenter and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
It all sounds like a perfect opportunity for the Chiefs to close out their regular season with win that clinches the AFC’s top seed, the lone bye week in the AFC playoffs and home-field advantage until Super Bowl LV.
There are more complex scenarios for the Chiefs to get in without winning in Week 16, but the easiest way to ensure their spot is to emerge victorious over a team headed for a complete rebuild this offseason.
For the last important regular-season game of the Chiefs’ season, I have five things to watch:
1. The workload for Chiefs’ running backs
After running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire went down awkwardly in last week’s game against the New Orleans Saints, it was revealed that the Chiefs do not believe it will cut his rookie season short.
For #Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the high-ankle sprain will likely take more time to heal than the hip strain. The team is hopeful for a playoff return depending on his rehab, and the divisional round is about a month away. He has time.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 21, 2020
In the meantime, running backs Le’Veon Bell, Darrel Williams and Darwin Thompson will have to pick up the slack for at least the next two weeks — if not longer.
Bell is coming off of his most productive game as a member of the Chiefs. He rushed for 62 yards and had 76 yards in total — both season-highs. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy stated that he isn’t concerned with Bell taking on a bigger load, and went on to praise Bell’s dedication to learning the offense in his Thursday press conference.
Behind Bell, Williams has been a steady presence all season. He’s seen 29 carries this year and has turned that into a clip of 4.2 yards per attempt — a higher rate than Bell. He has only carried the ball nine times in the last six games, but that’s sure to change with Edwards-Helaire out.
As for Thompson, it sounds like he’ll be back in the mix after missing last week with an illness. He hasn’t seen the field on offense since Week 8.
It will be interesting to watch how the touches are divided up among this trio. Bell has looked better as of late, but that doesn’t mean they won’t trust Williams — who has been with the team for three seasons — just as much.
2. Sacking Matt Ryan
After facing one of the strongest offensive lines in the NFL against the Saints, the Chiefs’ defensive line has a chance to get right against the beat-up pass protection for the Falcons.
I noted earlier that Atlanta will be missing two of their starting offensive line. Even with those two, Matt Ryan has been sacked the sixth-most among all quarterbacks this year.
It’s not all on his line: Ryan takes the seventh-most time out of all qualified NFL quarterbacks from the snap to the release of the ball, per PFF. The quarterbacks ahead of him are mostly mobile, elusive players that can escape the pocket and make throws on the run. Ryan does not do that. His time is a reflection of how he sits in the pocket too long and tries to wait on routes to open up even as the pocket collapses around him.
This — combined with the unhealthy offensive front — should be the perfect recipe for a big game from Chiefs’ pass rushers, but especially on the interior. Atlanta will have two backups at left guard and center, so there should be high expectations for defensive tackles Chris Jones and Tershawn Wharton to get after Ryan.
With potential help needed on the interior, that should give edge rushers Frank Clark and Alex Okafor the chance to see more one-on-one repetitions with Atlanta’s offensive tackles.
3. An explosive day for the Chiefs’ passing attack
There are not many opponents that can prevent the Chiefs’ passing attack from having a big day — and Atlanta is certainly not one of them.
This year, the Falcons have allowed the second-most passing yards and the fifth-highest rate of net yards per attempt. Just last week, they gave up 31 second-half points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — which included 320 passing yards in the half from quarterback Tom Brady.
That performance factors in a pass rush unit that has been subpar all season, even with talented names like defensive tackle Grady Jarrett or edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. Jarrett leads the team in pressures as an interior rusher, but no one else on the team averages even two a game.
Now, they’ll be facing an even more dangerous pass offense without one of their starting boundary cornerbacks: Darqueze Dennard. He was one of their better coverage defenders statistically; he was allowing a passer rating of 89.2 when targeted this season, while other defenders like rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell and second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver are allowing ratings higher than 113.
Oliver has been their primary defender in the slot this year but has allowed a passer rating of 114.5 when targeted as a slot defender. Coincidentally, the slot is where wide receiver Tyreek Hill does most of his damage; Hill has the fourth-most yards from the slot in the NFL this year — despite seeing 20 fewer targets than the three players ahead of him.
Watch for that matchup to be exploited on Sunday, and for the offensive line to have an easier time protecting quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
4. Overcoming the absence of Anthony Hitchens
On Tuesday, it was announced that Chiefs starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens was placed on the team’s reserve/COVID list. Any further information is unknown — but it’s doubtful Hitchens takes the field with the team on Sunday.
That could be a potential problem for an already up-and-down defensive unit. Hitchens has been “the glue” for the group this year and has been playing his best football since he arrived in Kansas City before the 2018 season. Now, the unit could be led by backup MIKE linebacker Ben Niemann.
Niemann has earned playing time for his knowledge of the defense; coaches trust that he’ll know where to be on any given play. The problem is when he gets to where he needs to be. Niemann has been a liability against the run and in pass coverage this season. He may be where he’s supposed to be, but it’s rare he finishes the play with an impressive effort.
Even though Niemann knows the defense, he likely won’t be as effective as Hitchens in re-arranging the defensive line and getting everyone in the right play before the snap. That element will play a factor in Sunday’s game — and it’s up to the rest of the team to overcome the potential weak spot for Atlanta to exploit.
5. Cementing Mahomes’ second MVP award
According to BetOnline.ag, Patrick Mahomes is the MVP frontrunner and favorite with -300 odds to win the award. That being said, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind in the mind of some analysts — and has an opportunity to close the gap with two meaningful games for Green Bay down the stretch.
Since the Chiefs may rest starters in Week 17, it’d be beneficial to Mahomes’ MVP hopes to have another incredible game this week before he shuts it down until the postseason.
Mahomes has thrown for 4,462 yards, 36 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and has a passer rating of 110.6. Rodgers has thrown for 3,828 yards, 40 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and has a passer rating of 118. Mahomes’ yards per attempt rate of 8.2 is higher than Rodgers’ 8.0 — but Rodgers has a turnover-worthy play on 1.46% of his snaps, while Mahomes’ rate is nearly 3%, per PFF.
If Mahomes can have another great box score game — somewhere around 400 yards and four touchdowns — it would likely cement his name on his second NFL MVP award.