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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Broncos on New Year’s Day

Kansas City is taking on the first of two division rivals it will play to close out the regular season.

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Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs have played their last game of the 2022 calendar year.

When you watch them next, they will be playing in 2023 — on New Year’s Day. It will be a noon kickoff on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium against the Denver Broncos.

According to DraftKings SportsBook at this writing, the Chiefs are 12.5-point favorites. After Denver fired its head coach — along with its special teams coordinator and offensive line coachthe line has been volatile. With only two games remaining in the regular season, it will be admirable to see any fight from Broncos players.

I have five things to watch on Sunday:

1. Patrick Mahomes coming back from three Week 14 interceptions

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

The last matchup with Denver produced one of the highlights of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ career — an amazing toss to Jerick McKinnon for a 56-yard touchdown — but it was overshadowed by the three interceptions he threw.

It was the third time Mahomes had thrown three interceptions — and the first since December of 2020. Each of the picks was preventable; they were unnecessarily testing tight throwing windows while the team held a multiple-possession lead. Mahomes followed that subpar performance with an unbelievable showing against the Houston Texans, in which he set a single-game NFL record for completion percentage (40 or more attempts) and completely avoided turnovers.

I believe the Week 14 interceptions against Denver simply came at a time in the game where Mahomes wasn’t completely locked in — which motivated his performance a week later. I believe he will be locked-in for four full quarters in the home rematch against Denver.

Keeping his foot on the gas pedal will help his MVP argument, too.

2. Kansas City pass rush gaining momentum

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

According to PFF, Chiefs’ defensive tackle Chris Jones totaled a season-high nine pressures during the 24-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Among them were a sack and three quarterback hits.

Jones is peaking at the right time — especially considering the impact it has on the players around him. Rookie defensive end George Karlaftis is gaining momentum as well, earning a sack in four of the last five games. He’s looking more and more comfortable in beating a pass block one-on-one.

Each player earned a sack in the Week 14 matchup — in which the team accumulated a season-high six sacks. Defensive end Mike Danna also earned a takedown, quickly beating a guard in a one-on-one rep. Danna’s improvement as an inside rusher has gained steam since his return from injury in Week 9.

Since the Broncos have allowed the NFL’s most sacks, this should be another confidence-boosting game for the defensive line.

3. Rotation of wide receivers

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

After hinting at the possibility of his return for this game, Kansas City did not activate wide receiver Mecole Hardman from the Reserve/Injured list. There is only one more regular-season game in which he can suit up.

Since Hardman dropped out of the lineup in Week 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Justin Watson has played at least 62% of the offensive snaps in every game. Before then, he rarely exceeded 20%.

For such a huge chunk of targets, his production has been limited — and it was made worse by three drops over the last two games. Hardman’s return likely would have reduced the team’s reliance on Watson — but that’s not going to happen on Sunday. Something needs to change.

Rookie wideout Skyy Moore can do all the things Watson has been asked to do as a receiver. Anything else the veteran might do better than the rookie shouldn’t make enough of a difference for him to play over Moore. The team needs reliable reserve receivers. Watson has dropped four passes over his 28 targets — while Moore has had no drops in the same number of targets.

4. The third cornerback

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

This season’s battle for the Chiefs’ third cornerback spot has been fun to follow. Two rookie corners have each had their turns holding down the outside — but after the team’s Week 8 bye, it appeared that fourth-rounder Joshua Williams had taken over the spot from seventh-rounder Jaylen Watson.

Now, however, the battle is back. Over the last two games, Watson has actually taken more snaps (81) than Williams (72) — but the two players have turned similar performances. Each has allowed four catches on eight targets — and both have allowed a touchdown.

But Williams added two defensed passes to his stat line — while Watson has had little activity around the ball since his pick-six in Week 2.

The rookies appear to be once again competing for the coaching staff’s trust — and they will face a great challenge from Denver wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton.

5. Third-down defense

NFL: DEC 24 Seahawks at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A unit led by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo prides itself on getting off the field on third down. It’s his specialty: causing chaos in pass protection and getting the quarterback to either make a bad decision or be swallowed up before he can even make one.

The defense is ranked 12th among NFL defenses in third-down conversion rate. While that is a respectable mark, it still isn’t high enough for Kansas City’s coaches or fans. But the defense held Seattle to only two conversions on 12 third-down attempts in Week 16 — and the Seahawks failed on three fourth-down attempts.

That is Spagnuolo’s recipe for success: get to a third down where the offense must pass. These situations allow the mad defensive scientist to cook up his best stuff — and as the postseason nears, he appears to be turning the Chaos knob all the way up to 11.

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