With three weeks to go in the 2022 NFL regular season, the 11-3 Kansas City Chiefs are fighting for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs and face a 7-7 Seattle Seahawks team with even more motivation than that. The Chiefs host the important matchup in Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday, kicking off at noon on Christmas Eve.
As of Friday morning, the Chiefs were listed as a 10-point favorite by DraftKings SportsBook. That large spread doesn’t respect the desperation that Seattle will be playing with, fighting for the seventh spot in the NFC postseason. It also may not weigh the impact of the frigid temperatures, which can naturally narrow the differences between two teams.
It should be a well-earned win by whichever side emerges victorious. I have five things to watch while you cheer the Chiefs on:
1. Continuing to gear up the run game
For all the things to nitpick about the Chiefs in recent weeks, there’s no denying the exponential improvement of the rushing attack. Since Week 10, rookie running back Isiah Pacheco is second among NFL running backs in rushing yards, with a 5.1-yard average; veteran Jerick McKinnon has success on the ground in his own way — averaging 5.2 yards per attempt during last week’s win.
Pacheco’s run style is beginning to live up to the way it was advertised leading into the season. He is starting to run through arm tackles at a higher rate, angling his runs better to avoid straight-on contact. At the same time, McKinnon has superior experience running zone repeatedly during his seven NFL seasons; that comes through in his vision, which sets up and maximizes the blocks of the offensive linemen.
The front five have been studs, and the coaching staff is beginning to utilize them further: they’re experimenting with center Creed Humphrey pulling to lead block in space. At the same time, right guard Trey Smith is putting his physicality and experience together to play as well as he ever has.
It all adds up to the team's ability to rely on and lean on the rushing attack, especially against a Seattle defense that has allowed an average of 200 yards on the ground per game in their last five.
2. Rookie cornerbacks on D.K. Metcalf
With Seattle’s second wide receiver Tyler Lockett missing the game due to injury, the pass game will be funneled through star wideout D.K. Metcalf as much as possible.
Top 15 CB's at preventing separation pic.twitter.com/jLqVFMNx6G— Jrfortgang (@throwthedamball) December 21, 2022
The good news: Chiefs rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Joshua Williams have shown a lot of positive traits this year — especially with preventing separation. That will be important against Metcalf, who can run away from a defender when he gets a head of steam.
At the same time, Metcalf doesn’t need separation to catch passes — especially with Seahawks’ quarterback Geno Smith playing with great timing and accuracy. It will take an even further effort from the Chiefs’ outside cornerbacks to not only stick on Metcalf but knock passes away and deny contested catches.
3. A record-breaking start to the game
Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed the final 20 passes he attempted in the Week 15 win over the Houston Texans. With that in mind, a good start to Saturday’s game could land him with another all-time record.
Only three quarterbacks have ever completed 25 consecutive pass attempts — which is the NFL record. It was last done by former Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles in 2018; he tied marks by Phillip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill.
So if the opening script can produce six completions without any hiccups in between, it could become a record-breaking game quickly. It also would be nice; the Chiefs’ offense has sputtered in the first quarter in each of its last two games.
They have not scored a first-quarter touchdown since Week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams, an uncharacteristic stat for the Chiefs and head coach Andy Reid.
4. Getting to Geno Smith
The Seahawks’ offense has been one of the NFL’s best this year; they rank seventh in scoring and fourth in yards per play this season. The key to their success has been the impressively efficient play of starting quarterback Geno Smith.
He has been great at getting the ball out in time and in rhythm, which can sometimes negate pressures his offensive line allowed. Their front five is bookended by two impressive rookies: left tackle Charles Cross and right tackle Abraham Lucas. The first-year players have earned their starting spots — but veteran edge rushers like Frank Clark and Carlos Dunlap need to use the experience advantage and find ways to win on a few true pass sets.
Rookie offensive tackles can also be exploited by creative blitz packages, something defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should feel good about unleashing this week. Disrupting the pass offense’s timing has been the only way to get Seattle off its game this year.
5. A good test for the Chiefs’ linebackers
As exciting as the young duo of linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. can be, their play down the stretch of the season has left a lot to be desired.
It’s proven by opponents’ success over the middle of the field. Whether it’s by running into the second level of the defense or finding success with in-breaking patterns, it doesn’t seem the linebackers are showing up to make plays as much as they did in the past. Last year, it didn’t seem like any NFL linebacker was impacting more passing lanes over the middle than Gay.
Against Seattle, they’ll be tested with an offense that doesn’t mind pounding the rock consistently — but they will weaponize play action and try to manipulate the movement of linebackers and safeties. It would be an encouraging sign to see the young linebackers embrace the challenge and step up to close off the middle of the field more.