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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Raiders on Christmas Day

The holiday game will feature two rivals trying to build momentum off a win.

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Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The (9-5) Kansas City Chiefs and (6-8) Las Vegas Raiders are taking over Christmas Day, facing off as the first of three games on the NFL’s holiday slate Monday. The AFC West rivals will battle at Arrowhead Stadium with a noon kickoff. As of Saturday, the Chiefs are 10.5-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

The Raiders are 1-1 since losing to the Chiefs in Week 12: they lost 3-0 to the Minnesota Vikings, then flipped the script with a 63-21 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. With momentum and 10 days rest, Las Vegas will be playing spoiler, looking to ruin the festive day in Kansas City.

I have five things to watch on Christmas Day:

1. Maxx Crosby versus Patrick Mahomes

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

Over the nine career games the two have faced each other, Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Raiders’ defensive end Maxx Crosby have had memorable moments — like last year at Arrowhead Stadium: Crosby racked up two sacks and went face to face with the MVP.

The individual rivalry is real, because Crosby is truly one of the NFL’s top players, alongside Mahomes. He leads all NFL defensive linemen in Stops, a PFF statistic that tracks tackles constituting a “failure” for the offense. His 13.5 sacks this year are tied for the fifth most across the league, while he sits at sixth in pressures.

Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Matt Nagy missed the first three years of the rivalry, but relishes witnessing it.

“It’s been fun to be a part of the last couple years,” Nagy reflected. “You see two ultimate competitors that are at the top of the league at their positions... None of it is ever personal, but it’s cool to be on the sideline and see the fire they have, and be on the field afterwards to see the mutual respect they have for each other.”

2. The Chiefs utilizing blitzes

NFL: DEC 17 Chiefs at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the first matchup, Raiders’ rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell appeared to pick apart the Chiefs’ defense early. He converted three third downs on the opening drive, and beat the blitz on other occasions to help build a 14-0 lead.

Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo credited the Raiders’ offense, but recognized his unit’s shortcomings early as well.

“I just thought we made some mistakes there that had we executed it the way we practiced, we might have been able to get off the field in those first couple of drives,” Spagnuolo recalled with reporters on Friday. “That’s probably typical of any of these games where we’ve allowed drives early, usually it was somebody just out of wack a little bit, and we just have to settle in and be us just a lot sooner. We have to start faster.”

My advice: keep blitzing O’Connell, early and often. It began working for Kansas City as the game wore on, and it was the main reason Minnesota held the Raiders scoreless. The Vikings blitzed O’Connell at an absurd rate of 41%.

3. The return of Isiah Pacheco

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images

Pacheco has been a full participant in practice this week, tracking to return to the lineup after missing two games with a shoulder injury. The Chiefs’ offense missed him, especially on the ground: over the last two games, the running back position has averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry.

When Pacheco played the Raiders last, he didn’t have his most productive game — totaling only 55 yards on 15 attempts — but five of those carries moved the chains or punched in a touchdown, and two of them were on third down.

That doesn’t mean the team has to dump the same workload back on Pacheco. Watch for Clyde Edwards-Helaire to spell the lead back more, and to be joined by a practice squad player; Jerick McKinnon will not play on Monday due to a groin injury.

With rookie Deneric Prince and La’Mical Perine out of elevations, the Chiefs will likely call up Keaontay Ingram to the 53-man roster before Monday.

4. A tightened up Chiefs’ run defense

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

Last week, the Chiefs’ defense held the New England Patriots to 52 team rushing yards. That was the team’s lowest allowed total of the year, and the first time surrendering under 114 yards on the ground since Week 5.

On the surface, it was a big improvement on the performance against Las Vegas in last matchup. Running back Josh Jacobs got to 110 yards on 20 attempts — but only one of those carries went longer than eight yards: the long touchdown run that capped off the Raiders’ hot start.

“You look at the last game we played against them, other than that 63-yard run, we were good,” Spagnuolo pointed out Friday. “Not great... but it all counts. When you give up a 63-yard run, that’s part of it, and they ended up with 123 yards rushing; we have to limit those... we better be committed to trying to stop it.”

A more consistent, disciplined game against the run will be a focus for the second-straight week.

5. Change in Chiefs’ receiver rotation

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The Chiefs’ rotation of wide receivers will see a shake up on Sunday: second-year wideout Skyy Moore went to Injured Reserve this week, and wide receiver Kadarius Toney has been ruled out of playing with a hip injury.

That leaves wide receiver Richie James, who projects to fill a similar role that Moore and Toney have played for the offense. James is a slot receiver primarily, and flashed in training camp at that spot after Toney was initially injured.

Reflecting back on my training camp observations, I was very impressed with James and his fit with the first-team offense. He may be able to make some of the same exciting plays Toney can after the catch, while providing more reliability down to down.

In 2022 with the New York Giants, James’ dropped three passes among 82 targets. That would be a fourth-ranked drop rate in the NFL this season.

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