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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play the Raiders

Kansas City makes a business trip to Las Vegas, hoping to climb back into AFC contention.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After nine weeks and only one divisional matchup, the Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) will play four AFC West opponents over their next five games. They’ll start that stretch with a road game against the Las Vegas Raiders (5-3), who are tied for first place in the division.

In this Week 10 Sunday Night Football matchup, the Chiefs are favored by 2.5 points, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

With a victory over their hated rival, the Chiefs can extend their winning streak to three games — and give them an edge over the Raiders in the division race. Meanwhile, a loss would set them back to two games behind Las Vegas — and possibly the Los Angeles Chargers — with both teams holding tiebreakers over Kansas City.

I have five things to watch in this crucial game.

1. Mismatches in pass protection

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Chiefs’ pass protection has improved over the last few weeks — and so has quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ pocket presence. Unfortunately, starting right tackle Lucas Niang was injured last Sunday — and backup Mike Remmers has yet to come back from his own injury. Both have now been ruled out for this game, which points to Andrew Wylie starting at right tackle.

Not to be dramatic, but this will lead to a colossal mismatch on that side of the line. Raiders’ defensive end Maxx Crosby is the NFL’s leader in pressures and quarterback hits — and has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses all season with his incredible length and powerful hand usage. Wylie will undoubtedly have trouble handling Crosby’s explosiveness and strength.

On the other side, Orlando Brown Jr. has lately looked better in his pass sets — but Raiders’ edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue is the type of player that has given Brown the most significant trouble. He wins with speed around the arc — and can dip and bend under Brown’s tall frame. Ngakoue currently has the league’s 12th-most pressures.

To help, the Chiefs will need plenty of chips from tight ends — which could disrupt Kansas City’s ability to get Travis Kelce into his routes quickly. The Raiders’ pass rush could have a hugely negative impact on the Chiefs’ game plan.

2. Attacking Derek Carr without the blitz

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr might be having the best season of his career. He’s one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks — largely because of his ability to find an open man while he is being blitzed.

Carr averages 9.9 yards per attempt when blitzed — the sixth-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks this season — and averages 11.2 yards depth per target; that rate is the highest in the NFL. He’s more willing to hit the deep shot that becomes available when a defense blitzes and is forced to be in coverages with fewer than two deep safeties.

The Chiefs are now blitzing at the second-highest rate in the league, so they may think about dialing that back. More and more often, their defensive front has been creating pressure on its own — and Carr has still struggled to maneuver in pressure that doesn’t come at the expense of a player in coverage.

On top of all that, the Raiders’ offensive line has been subpar this season. The Chiefs’ defensive line could be a significant factor in this game.

3. Relying on running the ball — again

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the last two weeks, I’ve wanted to see the Chiefs trust the running game more than they typically do. They’ve still sometimes shied away from it too much — but in this matchup, there’s even more reason to emphasize it.

The Las Vegas run defense is allowing 4.6 yard per carry, the league’s 28th-ranked rate. They’ve struggled to be stout all season; they’ve allowed at least 133 rushing yards in six of their eight games.

Kansas City needs to take advantage of that soft spot — which will also help the offensive tackles in their battle with an effective duo of edge rushers. That doesn’t mean constantly calling zone runs, which is the Chiefs’ default approach. Instead, they should lean more on gap runs.

A specific gap run they should try is counter left. That would not only negate Crosby’s effect on a play by putting him on the back side of the run. It also puts right guard Trey Smith in position to kick out Ngakoue — who tends to fly upfield and set himself up for a kick out. And during his phenomenal rookie year, pulling has been one of Smith’s strengths.

Running the ball — specifically with counter or power plays — puts the Kansas City offensive line in the best position to succeed.

4. Accounting for Darren Waller at all times

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

The Las Vegas tight end is as significant a mismatch as any receiving weapon is in the NFL. The Raiders will move him all over the formation and get him the ball in different ways — and the Chiefs need to be proactive about how they deal with that.

Especially with the release of wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, Waller will likely be Carr’s favorite target. That means the quarterback will be looking for him in important spots like third down or other obvious passing situations — and Kansas City has to be proactive about avoiding a matchup with safety Daniel Sorensen or linebacker Ben Niemann in coverage.

Unfortunately, the Chiefs will frequently be in their dime personnel in those scenarios, which will put those two players on the field. So the team must have a plan — such as using cornerback Charvarius Ward in a more unique role or covering Waller with double-teams.

The Chiefs must prioritize stopping Waller, especially because the rest of the Las Vegas wide receiver unit is nothing to write home about.

5. Cornerbacks building momentum

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Speaking of Ward, he and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed had fantastic performances against the Green Bay Packers — and that’s not to overshadow the improvement Rashad Fenton has shown as an outside cornerback.

They’ll have a taller task this week: the Raiders pass at one of the highest rates in the league — and won’t shy away from testing these cornerbacks at every level of the field.

The biggest threat among their wide receivers is Bryan Edwards, who has made some incredible contested catches during his second NFL season.

That said, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow has become one of Carr’s go-to targets in the short area of the field — and has proven to be a gifted route runner in terms of creating separation. Sneed will be tasked with sticking to him, eliminating Carr’s easy throws on third-and-short.