After the longest regular season in NFL history, the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) have made it to Week 18 — but not in the position many believed they would be in at this point.
Rather than resting their starters against the Denver Broncos (7-9), the Chiefs — 10.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook — still have something to play for: an outside shot at the AFC’s first postseason seed. If Kansas City wins — and the Houston Texans win their Sunday game against the Tennessee Titans — the Chiefs would earn the single AFC playoff bye.
Even if the Texans can’t pull off the upset, a Chiefs win would secure the second seed. A loss, however, could drop them to either the third or fourth seed depending on other results.
I have five things to watch in the Saturday afternoon’s battle
1. Secondary pass-catchers carrying the load
In the first matchup between these teams, the Broncos made an effort to take away the Chiefs’ best receivers: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. That strategy isn’t anything new, but no other opposing defense had as much success.
Hill and Kelce combined for 49 yards on five receptions — the lowest they had in any game this season. It severely impacted the offense, which mustered a touchdown on the opening drive and then settled for field goals for the rest of the game; in total, the offense scored just 16 points.
It also forced the pass catchers behind them to step up — but they didn’t. Wide receiver Byron Pringle had two drops, catching only one of his four targets. Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman turned their three combined receptions into just 33 yards. Kansas City running backs that had to carry the load through the air.
Even with Denver’s injuries in the secondary, they will likely implement a similar strategy — one that other teams are likely to use in the playoffs. This will be a good last opportunity for the Chiefs’ secondary receivers to gain momentum heading into the postseason.
2. Getting the Broncos to third down
The Broncos have had average play at quarterback all season, but after starter Teddy Bridgewater was placed on injured reserve, the situation has become worse. It has been Denver’s former starter in his place: second-year gunslinger (and former Missouri star) Drew Lock.
With Lock taking the snaps, Denver has focused even more on running the ball to protect him — and that’s something with which they found success against the Chiefs in Week 13. Denver totaled 154 yards on the ground — even as they were missing Melvin Gordon, who is one of their two starting running backs.
The play-making rookie Javonte Williams did the bulk of the damage — and on Saturday, he’ll have Gordon back to complement him.
Denver’s best chance of winning is to stay ahead of the sticks and succeed on early-down runs — but if the Chiefs can slow the ground game and get them to third down, they’ll be in a great spot: the Broncos have the league’s 23rd-ranked third-down conversion rate — which includes converting only four of their last 21 attempts.
3. Building momentum in the running game
Against the Bengals, the Chiefs missed starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and right tackle Lucas Niang. Unfortunately, Niang won’t be returning this season.
On top of that, they faced one of the NFL’s top run defenses — and backups Darrel Williams and Derrick Gore proceeded to run all over them. The duo totaled 125 yards on 17 carries, scoring twice. Each had two runs of at least 10 yards, including a 23-yard scamper by Gore to set up a touchdown.
In the postseason, you’ll never know who will have to step up and take the handoffs — and that’s why the Chiefs need to lean on the ground game, continuing to get Williams, Gore — and even veteran Jerick McKinnon — into a rhythm; Edwards-Helaire has already been ruled out of the game.
It should be an effective way to control this game — and it shouldn’t be hard. Over the last two games, Denver has allowed over 250 rushing yards.
4. Showing off the depth of the pass rush
In the last month, the Chiefs’ pass rush has only been slowed by the absence of defensive tackle Chris Jones for one game; outside of that, they’ve consistently been terrorizing quarterbacks — even in last week’s 34-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was hit 10 times, all by Chiefs defensive linemen. Jones led the group with three — while Jarran Reed, Melvin Ingram, Frank Clark, Mike Danna and Alex Okafor all chipped in as well.
It was good to see that group of reserve pass rushers contribute — and it didn’t even include defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton, who has forced multiple fumbles and wreaked havoc as a pass rusher leading into the Week 17 game.
With the possibility of no bye week, it’d be nice to see the team’s depth players get the majority of the work — allowing veterans like Jones, Clark and Ingram to save their legs a bit.
5. Statistical milestones
Darrel Williams is only 37 yards shy of 1,000 total yards for the season, something that he admitted to reporters “meant a lot” to him. Head coach Andy Reid isn’t unaware — just like he wasn’t unaware that Kareem Hunt needed some yards to become the league’s leading rusher in 2017; after a first-drive touchdown run got them, Hunt immediately went to the bench.
Chris Jones needs only one sack to reach 10 for the year — which would trigger a $1.25 million incentive in his contract.
Rookie linebacker Nick Bolton has 11 tackles for loss this season — which is the most by a Chiefs’ off-ball linebacker since the all-time great Derrick Johnson in 2013. If he were to earn two on Saturday, he’d pass that mark and have the most since Johnson’s 18 in 2007.