At this point, the Cincinnati Bengals are an interesting opponent for the Kansas City Chiefs. In recent seasons, they have been an important rival — ending one of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl runs and watching Kansas City continue another.
But as the 2023 season winds down, the Chiefs are the ones who have been bungling things. Since the bye week, Kansas City has dropped four of six games. In what looked like the easier half of the season, this is hardly the result we expected. Rather than making progress, the Chiefs’ offense feels like it’s been going backward. Can the team turn things around to clinch the AFC West?
If so, they’ll rely on these players to continue (or reverse) their recent trends.
EDGE George Karlaftis: 2022’s first-round draft pick is on the verge of achieving something many of us never expected of him: with nine quarterback sacks heading into this weekend’s game, there’s a very good chance that he reaches double-digits in his second NFL season. The matchup against a former teammate — left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. — is a pretty favorable one for the Kansas City pass rush. Look for Furious George to get it done — and hit a milestone — as his stock continues to rise.
Wide receiver Richie James: He’s brought competence back to the punt and kickoff return games. He also seems to be finding more opportunities on offense; James might be part of the solution for the Kansas City passing attack. Patrick Mahomes needs guys who can get to where they are supposed to be and catch the football. James can do that. He can create a little separation from the slot and a few yards after the catch. He doesn’t have to be a star. If he can just be a viable option, that will mean a lot.
Running back Isiah Pacheco: If he can keep his helmet on, the second-year running back should once again be a huge part of the offense, which needs balance and energy. Pacheco can bring both. He should get at least 15 carries — but if he gets 20, he’s likely to have 100 total yards — and that will be part of a comfortable win.
Others trending in the right direction: Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, defensive tackles Chris Jones and Mike Pennel, defensive back Chamarri Conner, defensive end Charles Omenihu, wide receiver Rashee Rice and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: In Sunday’s game, one of two things could happen with the sixth-year veteran. He could have a bounce-back performance that would be reminiscent of his AFC Championship game against the Bengals last season. He stepped up when nobody else could, putting together a six-catch, 116-yard game. Or he could finally see his snaps dramatically decline. After playing in 80% of the Week 16 snaps (without recording a catch), there’s little reason to keep trotting him out there. Mahomes just doesn’t seem to want to throw his way. Considering how the season is gone, the latter is the more logical outcome — but we’ll just have to see what happens.
Tight end Travis Kelce: Still the greatest of all time, the Chiefs’ superstar hasn’t seemed to be at the top of his game in 2023. A year ago, he was one of the league’s best pass-catchers — but now, he more closely resembles other great tight ends at the end of their careers. While he can still get open (and make plays) by beating zone coverages, he might no longer be one of the team’s main targets — or the focal point of each opponent’s defensive game plan. Hopefully, there’s still enough of the old Kelce left to make a run in the playoffs. But it’s clear that he’s been frustrated — and it could be because he can’t do what he once could.
Linebacker Drue Tranquill: This former Los Angeles Chargers player has been fantastic in Kansas City, filling in for Nick Bolton and providing another element to the linebacker group — especially against the pass. But now that Bolton is back on the field, Tranquill’s snaps have declined, limiting his opportunity to make an impact. The Bengals represent a matchup where Tranquill could be quite useful — but will defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo choose to use him?
Others trending in the wrong direction: Placekicker Harrison Butker, cornerback Jaylen Watson and safety Mike Edwards.
Value (Sleeper) Pick: wide receiver Mecole Hardman
Just activated from the Reserve/Injured (injured reserve) list, the speedy former (and current) Chiefs receiver comes in with a chance to provide a spark to a unit that has really struggled. If he can be a fraction of what he was as a rookie — when he averaged over 20 yards per catch and had six touchdowns — he could be a revelation. He’s never been a high-volume receiver with a precise route tree — but if Kansas City can get him involved on end-arounds, wide receiver screens (and/or a long pass or two), he’ll justify the mid-season trade that brought him back home.