The Kansas City Chiefs have a Week 17 matchup against a Denver Broncos franchise that is in shambles. Firing their head coach, offensive line coach and special teams coach after a devastating 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas Day means that they are starting over in many ways. Now being led by the man who was hired to assist former head coach Nathaniel Hackett with in-game clock management, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect — but it’s not likely to be good.
The last time these two teams matched up, Kansas City got out to a big lead — before sloppy play and turnovers nearly let Denver come back. This Sunday, the Chiefs shouldn’t give them that level of hope — because to do so could be dangerous. Sometimes in these situations, you end up with a group of guys playing for their jobs and careers — and surprising things can happen.
Here are a few Chiefs that might be trending heading into the New Year’s Day matchup that should be another comfortable win — but might not be.
Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed: As his role evolves, the narrative around Sneed is shifting — and it has big ramifications for the entire defense. When he plays his accustomed hybrid slot defender role, he is arguably the league’s best blitzing (3.5 sacks this season) and tackling (102 tackles) defensive back. When he’s roaming the middle of the field, he can be a playmaker (three forced fumbles) and a ballhawk (10 passes defended and two interceptions). Ironically, we thought that coverage was the weakest part of his game. But in recent weeks, he’s asked for — and received — assignments to follow and cover the opponent’s best wide receiver. This role has had pros and cons. On one hand, it’s great to see defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo be flexible enough to assign a very athletic corner to contain a top receiver. On the other hand, it could be part of the reason the defense has forced fewer turnovers. Either way, it’s great to see Sneed developing into a player who can literally do anything. On Sunday, we’ll be likely to see if he can shut down Jerry Jeudy, whose three scores in Week 14 almost single-handedly brought the Broncos back for a win.
Running back Jerick McKinnon: In 2021’s postseason, the longtime veteran was The Man, accumulating 315 total yards in three games. It looks like things are lining up for “Jet” to once again be featured down the stretch. He’s already set career-highs in touchdowns (seven), receiving yards (460) and yards per reception (9.4). Even with the wealth of running back talent on Kansas City’s roster — including Isiah Pacheco, who is having a tremendous rookie season — McKinnon is basically forcing the coaching staff to keep him on the field. He’s proved his worth both in pass protection and as a receiver, but has also been effective in basically every other area — except, perhaps, in short-yardage situations. He’s one of the team’s offensive cornerstones, ranking second on the team in touchdowns and fourth in receiving yards. His stock is rising as the Chiefs roll into the playoffs. If his usage declines in the next two games, it’s likely only to preserve his legs for the postseason.
Linebacker Willie Gay Jr.: It hasn’t been the breakout season we had hoped Gay would have, but he might be turning the corner a bit. After missing time with a suspension (and sharing snaps with Darius Harris), Gay played one of his better games against Seattle. Not coincidentally, the defense also put up one of its best games of the season. When Gay is out there knocking down passes in coverage and wrapping up on tackles, the Chiefs have a middle-of-the-field linebacker who can erase problems. The last time he faced Denver, Gay had his biggest play of the season: a 47-yard pick-six. Even if we don’t see a repeat of that play, watch to see if he continues to increase his snap count — and elevate the Kansas City defense.
Others trending in the right direction: defensive tackles Chris Jones and Brandon Williams, defensive end George Karlaftis, left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., linebacker Nick Bolton, wide receiver Kadarius Toney, safety Bryan Cook, placekicker Harrison Butker and cornerback Trent McDuffie.
Wide receiver Justin Watson: He’s getting snaps like a No. 2 wideout (60-70%), but he’s not getting much production. He’s dropping passes at a crazy rate (25%), missing all four of his targets last Sunday. There are young, talented players waiting for their chance at an expanded role — including Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney — and now, Mecole Hardman is set to make his return. The Kansas City offense is leading the league in almost every category, so drastic changes aren’t needed to make a deep playoff run. But one change might be to reduce Watson’s role in favor of guys who are more likely to make a play. Watch to see if that shift in snaps and targets begins against Denver.
Cornerback Joshua Williams: It’s worth noting that against Seattle, Williams had one of his lowest snap counts of the season (25%). Fellow rookie Jaylen Watson has also been out-snapping Williams over the last couple of weeks — and he’s made a couple of big plays in that time. Williams will be a big part of this team’s future, but the decline in his usage is something to watch over the next couple of weeks.
Others trending in the wrong direction: linebacker Darius Harris, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Value (sleeper) pick: Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Lately, many fans and pundits have been down on Valdes-Scantling — and with good reason. He’s mostly been inefficient, with at least two missed catches in each of the last three games. Other than his spectacular touchdown against the Houston Texans (and a 20-yard catch to help seal the game against Denver), he hasn’t really done anything of note in this quarter of the season. But if you take a step back and look at the season as a whole, it may be better than you think. Valdes-Scantling is third on the Chiefs in receiving yards (632) and fourth in receptions (37). He’s second on the team in 20-plus yard receptions (12). He’s on pace to set new career highs in each category, while maintaining near his career average per catch (17.1). In short, he’s been exactly what we should have expected him to be. While Valdes-Scantling hasn’t taken a step toward becoming the No. 1 wide receiver, he’s been the deep threat the team has needed to keep defenses honest. He’s this week’s value pick because I believe we’ve undervalued his contributions thus far. He’s a sleeper pick because he’s due for a big game. As a high-variance player, there’s a good chance he’s due for another game like he had against San Francisco (three catches for 111 yards) or Las Vegas (six for 90). Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been patiently taking the plays defenses have been giving him — which has been efficient — but the big plays may be lacking a bit. Hitting a couple of passes to his deep target on Sunday could be just what Mahomes needs to get the offense to its full potential.