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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Raiders

Round 2 of Chiefs-Raiders 2021 has even more playoff implications than Round 1.

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

If you’re a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs — now 8-4 on the season — you’re likely elated that you get to watch two games in a span of five days. But if you’re a member of the organization, the quick turnaround can mark one of the toughest stretches of the season.

That’s what the Chiefs are coming up against this weekend — starting on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders (6-6) in a noon kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City is a 9.5-point favorite at DraftKings Sportsbook — a similar line to the one we saw before Sunday’s 22-9 victory over the Denver Broncos. The Chiefs have actually covered the spread as the favorite in three straight games.

Then the Chiefs will travel to California for a Thursday Night Football matchup against another division rival: the Los Angeles Chargers.

But just like the team, we have to take these games one at a time. Sunday’s contest will be the Chiefs’ first opportunity for a return match with a divisional opponent this year. Less than a month ago, they went to Las Vegas and beat the Raiders 41-14 in a significant game for playoff seeding. But this one is even more vital.

Kansas City now has a legitimate shot at the postseason bye week — while the Raiders’ playoff hopes depend on a victory. I have five things to watch in this pivotal matchup:

1. Pressuring Derek Carr

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

I don’t see the Raiders messing around in this do-or-die game: the offense will come out firing in the passing game, cranking it up more than they already do with the NFL’s eighth-most passing attempts and second-most passing yards.

In the last matchup, that was the only way Las Vegas could beat the Chiefs’ defense. Derek Carr threw two touchdowns — one that was beautifully placed between defenders from 40 yards away — and another deep completion to wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who inexplicably turned around and allowed cornerback Rashad Fenton to force a fumble.

All that is to say that Carr was finding holes in the Kansas City secondary — but thanks to pressure, he also threw up some turnover opportunities; one of them was intercepted by safety Daniel Sorensen. On the 14 dropbacks where Carr was pressured, he was able to gain only 31 passing yards.

Since the Chiefs’ five-game winning streak started, no NFL player has averaged more pressure per game than defensive tackle Chris Jones. With teammates Frank Clark, Melvin Ingram and Jarran Reed also heating up, Sunday will be another opportunity for the group to have a game-wrecking performance.

2. Leaning on Travis Kelce

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

In the first game between these teams, the Raiders gave little resistance to tight end Travis Kelce, who caught eight of his 10 targets for 119 yards; seven of those catches moved the chains.

The Raiders have tried different strategies to take him out of their games against the Chiefs — but simply put, they don’t have the personnel to do so. Safety Jonathan Abram is trusted to play over Kelce, but his lack of coverage instincts is consistently exposed by Kelce’s route running. The last time, Las Vegas pressed Kelce a few times with cornerbacks, but one specifically failed — a play where Kelce created tons of separation at the sticks on third down.

That’s the exact opposite from what we saw against Denver, when Kelce faced a defense that has safeties and linebackers who can truly take him away.

Las Vegas just doesn’t — and the Chiefs can’t overthink it: when they need yards or a first down, they need to look Kelce’s way.

3. Chiefs linebackers in coverage

Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Speaking of elite pass-catching tight ends, the Raiders have one: Darren Waller. But he will not be available; on Friday, Las Vegas listed him as out for the game.

Either way, the Raiders will want to attack the middle of the field. They did so in Week 10; the 37-yard touchdown to wide receiver Bryan Edwards took advantage of linebacker Anthony Hitchens being unable to effectively cover Edwards from his trailing position in a Cover 2 zone where the deep safeties were widened with routes on the outside — making Hitchens responsible for an inside receiver running vertically to the vacant space.

That’s where Willie Gay Jr. comes in. He is a lot closer than you might think to having four interceptions on the season — which would tie for the league lead among linebackers. In the last two games, he has jumped in front of receivers on short routes and managed to get his hands on the ball — but in each case, he couldn’t quite pull it in. But he has also succeeded in similar situations: against the Giants, he had an early-game pick.

If he can continue making plays on passes over the middle, he could take advantage of Carr testing that area.

4. Continuing to work the running game

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

The last time these teams faced off, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire wasn’t able to play; Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon, and Derrick Gore combined to rush for 88 yards on 20 attempts — an average of 4.4 yards per carry.

In their last 10 games, the Raiders have only held two teams under 112 rushing yards: the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day — who still had 437 total yards — and the Chiefs in Week 10.

Kansas City has the offensive line to take advantage of this exploitable run defense. But now, the Chiefs will also have their starting running back available — and will still have Williams to complement him; in the last game, Williams had a run of 21 yards.

5. Offensive play-calling

Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

In the win over the Broncos, it was fairly obvious that head coach Andy Reid and the rest of the offensive coaching staff didn’t throw out their best stuff. The opening drive was very effective, but featured little creativity: while it was executed to perfection — scoring a touchdown — it was a very basic version of the Kansas City offense.

Simply put, the Chiefs’ offense didn’t execute for most of the remaining drives, which included drive-killing penalties and drops. If the offense had been properly executed against Denver, it had opportunities to score even more.

With two games in five days, it’s possible that the Chiefs will once again trust a basic script to get the job done against a division rival they’ve owned during the Reid era — while having the good stuff ready for the Chargers on Thursday night. A loss to Los Angeles would not only make it substantially more difficult for the Chiefs to win the division, but also greatly reduce their opportunity to claim the AFC’s postseason bye.

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