After a tough, competitive 24-20 loss to their rival (and fellow AFC contender) Buffalo Bills, this Sunday’s Kansas City Chiefs matchup with the San Francisco 49ers could go either way. Are the Chiefs motivated to get back on track? Are they ready to roll over the 49ers like they did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4? Or could the issues that popped up in the Buffalo game continue to haunt Kansas City’s season?
Here are a few Chiefs who could be trending as we head into Week 7.
Trent McDuffie and Willie Gay Jr.: Kansas City’s defensive cavalry might be arriving just in time. These two players will step back into key roles for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo — roles that have been held down (albeit admirably) by late-round rookie corners and journeymen linebackers. McDuffie has a chance to be the team’s best cover corner, giving it the opportunity to stick with opponents’ best receivers (like Deebo Samuel, for example). Gay’s return should bring back a more dynamic element against both the pass and the run — where his sideline-to-sideline speed has been missed.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: This season, the story of the Chiefs’ wide receivers is one in which each guy will have big games but there isn’t a clear No. 1. After Smith-Schuster’s performance on Sunday (and the consistent yards after catch he has delivered), that narrative might need adjustment. The sixth-year wideout is close to establishing himself as the team’s primary pass-catcher not named Travis Kelce. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is still spreading the ball around — and Kelce is still the only guy who gets double-digit targets. But we’ve seen enough to say that Smith-Schuster should be getting a bigger share of the action. In recent weeks, the 49ers haven’t given up a lot of yards to receivers — but Smith-Schuster may still have an opportunity to be a difference-maker, separating himself from the pack.
Patrick Mahomes: Since he’s already Kansas City’s best player, there isn’t room to for him to climb — so Mahomes doesn’t typically appear on this list. But after a couple of bad decisions made him come up short against the Bills, he’s due for a bounce-back game. He’ll face a very good (but banged-up) San Francisco defense — but will be motivated by keeping the Chiefs in the running for their postseason goals. Look for Mahomes to set the tone early, getting Kansas City out to a substantial lead. One should never bet against the world’s best quarterback — especially when he has something to prove.
Others headed in the right direction: defensive tackle Khalen Saunders, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, tight end Travis Kelce and punter Tommy Townsend.
Jody Fortson: During Sunday’s game, Mahomes threw a jump ball to a big target in the end zone. Unfortunately, it was the wrong big target. These opportunities should only go to Fortson, who possesses the unique ability (which nobody else on this team really has) to find space in the end zone and come down with those jump balls. So why hasn’t he seen more targets inside the 20s — much less between them? Whatever the reason, Fortson isn’t the part of the offense we thought he would be in 2022. And yes... for the record, I’m still trying the reverse-jinx here.
Jerick McKinnon: There’s a formula that works for the Chiefs’ offense. It requires a balance between running and passing. It also includes a running back by committee — one that in my opinion, should feature the two backs who were the most productive when the offense was at its recent best: Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isiah Pacheco. McKinnon has done some good things this season — but in this offense, there are only so many rushing carries to go around. Those limited opportunities should not be squandered by trying to run outside zone — or by trying to run McKinnon up the middle.
Andrew Wylie and Orlando Brown, Jr.: The sample size is now big enough to be sure that the issues are real: Kansas City officially has an offensive tackle problem. Brown is struggling to prevent pressures — while Wylie is struggling across the board. Finding help won’t be simple or quick. The roster does not include a highly-touted backup who is waiting for his chance. Lucas Niang isn’t going to be back this week — and in the eyes of the coaches, Darian Kinnard doesn’t seem to be ready. So for at least another week, it’s going to be Wylie and Brown up against another of the league’s top defenses. San Francisco’s Nick Bosa should be making his return — which could once again make this Sunday afternoon an adventure for Mahomes.
Others headed in the wrong direction: linebacker Leo Chenal, tight end Noah Gray and wide receivers Justin Watson and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Value (sleeper) pick: George Karlaftis
In each game, the Greek Freak has gotten close a few times — but so far, he hasn’t really been able to make a big impact. While he’s leading NFL rookies in quarterback pressures, he only has half of a sack to show for his efforts. Against the Bills, he was probably tasked with staying home so that quarterback Josh Allen didn’t run all over the Kansas City defense. This week, however, could be Karlaftis’ time. While Trent Williams is likely to be returning from injury, Mike McGlinchey is also banged up. This is the time of the season when rookies aren’t really rookies any longer. We’re due for the team’s first-round defensive end to turn in a breakout performance.