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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Cowboys

With the ups and downs of the NFL season, this interconference matchup could still be a Super Bowl preview.

NFL: NOV 05 Chiefs at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you looked up “measuring-stick game” in the football dictionary, you’d see a description of this game.

The Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) will be hosting the Dallas Cowboys (7-2) on Sunday afternoon in Week 11, only the second time the Cowboys have visited Arrowhead Stadium in the Andy Reid era. The Chiefs are 2.5-point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

It’s a measuring-stick game for the Chiefs because they are on a three-game win streak but still haven’t beaten a legitimate contender this year. They started 0-4 against teams with a current winning record; they’ve won two straight over winning teams — but one was missing its starting quarterback and the other was the spiraling Las Vegas Raiders.

It’s a measuring-stick game for the Cowboys because they still haven’t solidified themselves in the elite of the NFL in the era of quarterback Dak Prescott. They’ve been flashy and exciting but have yet to put it all together for an entire season. A win over former Super Bowl champions and a former league MVP is a big step towards proving they belong at the top.

I have five things to watch in FOX’s America’s Game of the Week:

1. How to pressure Dak Prescott

NFL: NOV 24 Cowboys at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Similar to the Raiders’ Derek Carr, Prescott can be a machine from the pocket. Different from Carr, Prescott does it at a much higher level.

Prescott is as dangerous with a blitz in his face as he is from a clean pocket. He plays with high-level intelligence that allows him to find the vulnerabilities in a blitzing defense. He leads the NFL in passer rating, touchdown passes and first-down conversions against the blitz this season.

Kansas City backed off from their season blitz rate of 32% last week by only blitzing Carr on 13% of his dropbacks. They should have a similar game plan for Prescott, who can still make mistakes when he has time; four of five of Prescott’s interceptions have come when he was throwing from a clean pocket, per PFF.

Either way, getting pressure on Prescott will still be critical. Dallas’ offensive line is great; the Chiefs’ best chances at penetrating are from the interior, where second-year center Tyler Biadasz and left guard Connor Williams are as close to weak points as it gets for the Cowboys. Williams has been so disappointing the Cowboys plan to start 2019 third-rounder Connor McGovern at left guard against the Chiefs.

2. Chiefs’ passing attack riding momentum

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

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes had his first game with a passer rating over 100 since Week 4 against the Raiders, and there’s reason to believe he can continue the success.

You heard all year how opposing defenses were sitting in two-deep safety coverages, funneling everything in front of them. Well, the Raiders are fundamentally a one-high safety team — and so is Dallas. The Chiefs’ vertical pass game had more opportunities against Vegas.

Kansas City entered the game averaging four attempts of 20 or more yards downfield per game but dialed it up to eight attempts against the Raiders. Mahomes only completed three of them — but for two touchdowns; they’ve had only four other touchdowns on those types of passes all season.

Dallas plays man coverage at one of the highest rates in the NFL; along with their tendency to play with only one deep safety, it could give the Chiefs another opportunity to attack vertically more often than they have been able to most of this year.

3. A big test for an improving cornerback group

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

One of the highlights of the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround has been the performance of the young cornerbacks. All three of Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton have played well during the three-game win streak.

They’ve benefitted from playing teams missing players in their receiving corps or at the quarterback position — and that will continue to be the case against Dallas. Prescott was set to have all three of his starting wide receivers in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup; Gallup just returned from injury last week. However, Cooper went on the COVID-19 list on Friday; he was ruled out because of it.

With Gallup’s ability as an outside receiver absent, they’ve had to use Lamb more outside — but Gallup’s return allows for Lamb to be in the slot more often; last week, Lamb caught all four of his targets from a slot alignment and converted them into 48 yards and two touchdowns.

That said, Cooper’s absence will likely force the Cowboys to use Lamb and Gallup as their primary outside receivers again, which will put Cedrick Wilson Jr. back in the slot in three-receiver sets. He’s the team leader in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns from a slot alignment; he has been in that role for most of the season.

4. Chiefs’ offensive line owning the line of scrimmage

Kansas City Chiefs v Washington Foootball Team Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It feels like the Chiefs’ offensive line gets more dominant and more effective each week.

Against the Cowboys, they’ll face a pass-rush unit that is missing its top two edge rushers: Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. They use rookie linebacker Micah Parson as a situational edge rusher — utilizing his athleticism to fly around the corner of the offensive tackle — but he’ll be in an off-ball position for most of the snaps.

In pass protection, the Chiefs can focus on helping whichever offensive tackle has to deal with Parson’s speed in those situations — then trust that the rest of the unit can handle their assignments.

When Kansas City runs the ball, they should have the advantage; they have developed into one of the best run-blocking units in the league — averaging 4.5 yards per carry, the ninth-best rate among teams this season. This season, Dallas is allowing 4.5 yards per carry to opposing running backs; they have the fourth-worst run-defense grade in the league, per PFF.

5. A significant game for Chiefs linebackers

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

An influx of young talent has boosted the performance of the Chiefs’ linebackers in the defense’s recent stretch of success; it’s led to one of the statistically best run defenses in the NFL over the last month.

Dallas still wants to run the ball; they’ve had the fourth-most rushing attempts in the NFL this season, and running back Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are averaging 4.9 yards per carry combined; that would be the ninth-best rate for a single running back in the NFL this season.

With an offensive line capable of winning at the line of scrimmage, it will be up to the second-level defenders to make plays against the run. Anthony Hitchens — who spent two years playing with the Cowboys’ current offensive core — will have extra motivation in his first game against his former team.

Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. will also play critical roles; Gay’s abilities in coverage could be vital to take away tight end Dalton Schultz — who has the third-most targets on the team and has been a reliable option for Prescott all season.