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5 things to watch as the Chiefs cap a 3-game road trip against the Texans

Kansas City hopes to return from Houston with another win.

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Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

After two divisional games that ended as victories, the (10-3) Kansas City Chiefs have put themselves in a position to clinch the AFC West this weekend with a win over the (1-11-1) Houston Texans. The Chiefs entered the weekend as 14-point favorites, according to DraftKings SportsBook.

The historic seventh straight division championship would come in a matchup that has some history itself: the Texans were the opponent that the Chiefs came back from 24-0 defeat in the 2019 playoffs — and Houston was where the 2015 Chiefs snapped a 22-year streak of playoff losses.

It will also be a cool moment for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, starting a game in his home state for the first time in his NFL career.

I have five things we could see after Sunday’s Noon kickoff:

1. A complete game

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

While there are still four games left in the regular season, none of the remaining opponents will provide the same level of challenge that Kansas City will face in the playoffs.

In Week 14, the Chiefs took a 27-0 lead over an inferior opponent — but then, in the second half, they allowed the lowly Denver Broncos to come within a touchdown of winning. It’s understandable to let off the gas pedal against a poor team, but the Chiefs will continue to face those scenarios in the regular season — including against Houston on Sunday.

If the game feels in control, Kansas City will still need to see it all the way through. The team can’t get comfortable coasting to the finish. Otherwise, that could leak into how it performs in similar situations during the postseason.

That doesn’t have to mean throwing a lot of passes or blitzing aggressively. Instead, it’s about continuing to execute play calls at a high level — not to mention fewer bone-headed interceptions and a better second-half defensive effort.

2. Production from edge rushers

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

One of the few mismatches that will favor Houston on Sunday is in a true pass set when their offensive tackles are facing the Chiefs’ traditional defensive ends.

Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap and George Karlaftis have scratched and clawed their way to combine for 11.5 sacks. Nothing has come easy for them. So any pass-rushing production they can provide will be a positive.

But at offensive tackle, the Texans boast one of the league’s most formidable duos: left tackle Laremy Tunsil and right tackle Tytus Howard. Each has allowed only one sack this season. Houston is also expected to use two quarterbacks, which will help keep the defense guessing about running or passing situations. That will give Kansas City’s pass rushers fewer opportunities to pin their ears back and go.

If the Chiefs’ edge rushers can find success, it won’t be they were facing a team with only one win on the season.

3. Orlando Brown Jr. versus Jerry Hughes

Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ offensive tackles have been a roller coaster in pass protection — but one that has been fairly predictable. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.’s struggles usually come against edge rushers that can fly upfield quickly — or get low and turn the corner cleanly.

Those are the strengths of Houston’s leading sack man: veteran Jerry Hughes. Just like he has throughout his 13-year career, his compact frame combines with great burst to tuck under the arms of offensive tackles and squeeze into the pocket. It will be an excellent challenge for Brown — one that will hopefully refine his pass-protection skills before the playoffs.

When the Chiefs need to score, you’ll likely see chip help when Hughes aligns against Brown — but if the score gets more comfortable, leaving him on an island with Hughes may just be a way to challenge him a few more times as the team gears up for the postseason.

4. Forcing turnovers

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Speaking of things to improve on before the playoffs, the Chiefs’ defense needs to find a way to create more turnovers. Right now, it’s the main difference between this team and those of other recent seasons. The team’s minus-5 turnover margin is the lowest mark since head coach Andy Reid arrived in 2013.

While that statistic can speak both to forcing turnovers and giving them up, Kansas City’s biggest factor is how few turnovers the defense is creating. In the previous four seasons with Mahomes as the starter, the Chiefs’ defense forced at least 22 turnovers each year. In 2021, they forced 29. This season, Kansas City has forced only 14.

The Texans have committed 22 turnovers this season, which is the league’s second-highest total. Kansas City’s defense needs to use this game as a confidence booster, helping it to start making more plays down the stretch. An interception or a forced fumble would be a nice thing to see on Sunday.

5. Leaning on the two-man backfield

NFL: SEP 25 Chiefs at Colts Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In recent games, the Chiefs seemed to have found the right way to use running backs Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon. The former has the fifth-most rushing yards by an NFL running back since Week 10, while the other racked up 112 receiving yards and two touchdowns in Denver last week.

When you combine this momentum with the run blocking of the Kansas City offensive line, it adds up to a unit that should continue leaning on its two running backs to get the job done — especially as it still awaits the return of wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Kadarius Toney. Toney was a limited participant in practice all week and was officially listed as questionable to play.

The main thing is to keep feeding Pacheco against a Houston defense that allows 4.8 yards per carry as a team. Pacheco seems to get better with every carry he gets. This matchup should be a long (and fruitful) lesson.

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