Coming off five straight wins and sitting in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, everything was coming up Chiefs. But alas, the team’s old nemesis came back for the third time this calendar year.
There’s a chance that when we look back on the 2022 season, last Sunday’s game will just be a blip on the radar — a small part of the story about what the team overcame en route to a Super Bowl. That’s the hope, at least.
Now, however, we look ahead to the final five-game stretch of the regular season — beginning with the Denver Broncos. The team is probably ahead of where we thought they’d be at this point. Everything is still on the table — if the Chiefs take care of business.
Cornerback Trent McDuffie: Kansas City drafted a No. 1 cornerback with their first pick of the NFL Draft last spring. He’s now been tested — and has passed with flying colors. Watch this kid play down the stretch, because he’ll keep getting better and more comfortable. Denver should be fun for him, because he’ll be able to draw on the experience of facing the Bengals’ gauntlet of receivers last Sunday. While the Broncos do have good receivers, they are not the same physical freaks — and their quarterback isn’t as accurate. Opposing teams are already starting to realize that McDuffie isn’t the guy they want to target. Expect that trend to continue.
Running back Isiah Pacheco: This team has a running game — and one that we think is good enough to convert in key situations. Pacheco has the explosive running style that is a perfect fit for the Chiefs’ offense — and he still has upside as a receiver, too. He’s getting better and more comfortable each week. It’s likely that Kansas City will always be a running-back-by-committee team — but Pacheco has shown that as his volume goes up, so does his production. As strong as the Denver defense is, teams have been able to run on them. So it would make sense for Pacheco to get a good number of carries in Week 14, as we continue to learn how the offense can evolve around him down the stretch.
Wide receiver Skyy Moore: I think that after watching Week 13’s film, the Chiefs’ coaching staff will realize that they were missing an important offensive element. Mecole Hardman won’t return from injured reserve for at least a couple of weeks. Kadarius Toney is sitting out with a bad hamstring; he doesn’t appear to be set to return against the Broncos. With these wideouts unavailable, Moore didn’t have one target against the Bengals. The Kansas City offense needs a receiver who can get the ball in space and get upfield quickly. Moore isn’t the same player as those other guys, but he can do some of that stuff. I believe that the coaches will look at the film and realize that this kid needs the ball more. It should start this week against Denver.
Others trending in the right direction: tackle Lucas Niang, safety Brian Cook, cornerback Joshua Williams, defensive end George Karlaftis, right guard Trey Smith, center Creed Humphrey and tight end Noah Gray.
Safety Juan Thornhill: Heading into last Sunday’s game, it seemed obvious that Thornhill would be critically important against the Cincinnati offense. Those receivers would require a safety — not just a corner — to help slow them down. As it turned out, coverage was not the biggest problem. Instead, tackling was the largest issue — and upon further review, Thornhill was among the worst. This season, safeties — led by Thornhill and Justin Reid — were supposed to be a strength of the defense. But after their performance in Cincinnati, many are wondering how the team can rebuild the position next season. In Denver, Thornhill will have a chance to get back on track against a much less precise quarterback. Hopefully, he can show that the Bengals game was a fluke.
Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.: Another player hoping that last Sunday was a fluke is Kansas City’s franchise-tagged tackle. Brown has been inconsistent this season — but against the Bengals, he had a couple of really bad losses in the most critical situations. There are other factors contributing to his struggles. Earlier in the year, he dealt with injuries — and in the last couple of weeks, All-Pro-caliber left guard Joe Thuney hasn’t been playing next to him. But as this team marches towards the postseason, Brown needs to be playing his best football. It’s critical to the team’s success — not to mention Brown’s prospects for another payday. Now that they’ve traded Bradley Chubb, the Bronocos don’t have many big-name pass rushers — but they’ll still test the Chiefs on the edges. We’ll see how Brown responds.
Linebacker Willie Gay Jr.: The Bengals exposed a big weakness in the middle of the Kansas City defense. They had little success passing to the outside against the young corners, but they had a field day inside against linebackers and safeties. Gay is the most athletic linebacker on the team — the guy who is expected to be great in coverage. He’s also the guy we thought would be causing turnovers and erasing plays sideline-to-sideline. But for some unknown reason, the Chiefs coaching staff is rotating Gay with Darius Harris. Every one of the linebackers struggled against the Bengals in one way or another. But Gay’s lack of impact is concerning — and something we should be watching.
Others trending in the wrong direction: running back Ronald Jones, defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi and Khalen Saunders, linebackers Darius Harris and Nick Bolton, defensive end Mike Danna and guard Nick Allegretti.
Value (sleeper) pick: Defensive tackle Brandon Williams
Ron Kopp Jr. and I talked about it during this week’s Arrowhead Pride Out of Structure podcast. We agreed that the Chiefs know there is a problem on the defensive line — but it’s worse on the interior than on the edge. Cincinnati just had its way with Kansas City’s defensive front, making life very difficult for the linebackers and safeties. Derrick Nnadi is not playing well. Khalen Saunders has been good, but isn’t as stout against the run as we’d like. Taylor Stallworth was just released. The Chiefs have Danny Shelton — who hasn’t been called up yet — on the practice squad. Now they have added Williams to the practice squad, too. I think that in Denver, Williams could leapfrog the field to be part of the rotation. He has a history with the defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who is getting a lot of credit for Chris Jones’s big year. There is precedent for Kansas City to make an in-season move to acquire a veteran difference-maker who is stout against the run. Could Williams be this year’s Mike Pennel? Against the Broncos, we might start to find out.