Like a dominant NBA franchise, the Kansas City Chiefs’ real season starts on Saturday.
After a regular season that was (perhaps surprisingly) quite successful, the team enjoyed a bye week while the rest of the AFC field struggled through their Wild Card matchups.
They’ll face an upstart Jacksonville Jaguars squad that has gone 7-1 since it lost to the Chiefs 27-17 in Week 10. Jacksonville’s offense will test the Kansas City defense in both the short and intermediate areas of the field — and has a quarterback who can take advantage of coverage lapses. While it lacks big names, the Jaguars’ defense has also turned in several near-dominant performances during the winning streak.
Jacksonville should not be a pushover — but a well-prepared (and locked-in) Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid should be able to demonstrate which team is better.
Here are a few Chiefs who may be trending as they try to advance to the team’s fifth consecutive AFC Championship.
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney: Could Kansas City have a new No. 1 wide receiver for the playoffs? In the past two weeks, Toney has caught all six of his targets, amassing 115 total yards and a touchdown. (Actually, he scored one touchdown twice because of a bogus penalty). The last time he faced Jacksonville, Toney made a spectacular catch down the sideline, showing that he’s more than a gadget player. According to ESPN’s Louis Riddick, Kansas City general manager Brett Veach thinks that during the postseason, Toney could emerge as the team’s best wideout. We already know that his ability to change direction (and make tacklers miss) is special. Now we get to see how Reid unleashes him in the playoffs.
Defensive lineman Chris Jones: How much further can Jones’ stock climb? After a career-high in sacks (and a defensive-player-of-the-year season), Jones is at the peak of his powers. There’s just one thing left to prove: that he can be a postseason closer. It’s an astonishing fact: Jones hasn’t yet recorded a sack in a playoff game. That’s one thing that is likely to change on Saturday. If his playoff performances become what we think they could be, serious consideration will be given to signing Jones to the massive contract extension he will have earned.
Kicker Harrison Butker: We certainly wouldn’t say that Butker’s stock is high — but it could be on the rise from a low point. Butker has had a rocky season. But in the last month, he’s made all of his field goals under 50 yards — and has converted his last 10 extra-point attempts. He hasn’t recently demonstrated his ability to hit long field goals, but it’s a good sign that he’s regaining his accuracy on shorter kicks. As we enter the postseason, we can’t say that Butker’s 2022 story is filling us with confidence — but when opponent quality goes up (and margins are slim), the Chiefs will likely need him. If we can be bullish on players (like Jones) who are breaking through their ceilings, then we can also be bullish on players who are coming back up from their floors.
Others trending in the right direction: safeties Bryan Cook and Justin Reid, defensive end George Karlaftis, running back Jerick McKinnon and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
Running back Ronald Jones: Many wondered if Kansas City was saving Jones for the postseason. He finally saw significant action in the regular-season finale against the Las Vegas Raiders, delivering 45 yards (and a touchdown) on 10 carries. But Jones is already buried on the depth chart behind two very productive backs — and the team might be getting ready to activate another one. We’ll soon see if Jones was being saved for the postseason run — or if he was simply allowed to conduct a brief audition for his next team.
Cornerback Joshua Williams: In recent weeks, the Chiefs have reorganized their defensive backfield. L’Jarius Sneed is playing more on the outside — and also following each opposing team’s best receiver. Rookie Trent McDuffie is now taking Sneed’s place, spending the majority of his time in the slot. And at least for the moment, what once felt like a competition for the third cornerback position seems to have been settled. Jaylen Watson has taken over for fellow rookie Joshua Williams. Kansas City may still need Williams for specific matchups against bigger, more physical receivers — but given what we know about the Jacksonville offense, that isn't likely to happen on Saturday. Williams will continue to play a role on special teams, but it might be a while before he gets another shot at significant cornerback snaps.
Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: Yes... it may feel like we’re just piling on to the veteran wide receiver — but there are some concerning trends surrounding him. The last time he had more than 28 yards was December 4 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Including that game, Valdes-Scantling has caught just 11 of the 29 targets that closed out his regular season. Going into the playoffs, that level of inefficiency does not inspire confidence. Outcomes from targeting the wideout are frustratingly uncertain. When the team has to move the chains, Mahomes needs to be looking elsewhere.
Others trending in the wrong direction: wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Justin Watson, defensive end Frank Clark and linebacker Darius Harris.
Value (sleeper) pick
Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire: It seems like everyone is sleeping on the former first-round pick. Perhaps the solid start to his season has faded from memory. Still, he did have six touchdowns in the first seven games. His best games were against the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers, where he was a factor as both a runner and receiver — and was productive in the red zone. Yes... more recently, Jerick McKinnon and Isiah Pacheco have both been great in their roles — but only good things can come from having another talented back available; Edwards-Helaire would have value even if is simply ready to go in case of injury. But if he is activated to the roster, don’t be shocked if regains some kind of role as a red-zone threat or a change-of-pace back.