As the Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) prepares to host the Denver Broncos (3-3), there will be a fair amount of concern placed on this veteran team to get the memory of the previous two weeks out of their minds.
Their first two losses of the year were handed to them in a span of four days, a very new and very concerning blip on what had previously felt like a magical season. If the Chiefs can’t find a way to win this game at Arrowhead then their legitimate hopes of being an ACTUAL THREAT in the AFC Playoffs in January take a MAJOR dash. Here are seven things I think will be defining factors in the AFC West Monday Night Football showdown.
1) Can KC return to weeks 1-5 form? The first five weeks of 2017 saw Kansas City come out of the gates looking like the best team in football, unquestionably. Weeks 6 and 7? Not so much. There are enough veteran voices in the locker room (not even mentioning the coaching staff) to keep them from getting distracted after two back-to-back losses, not allowing any finger pointing.
2) Steven Nelson’s return could bolster a secondary at a time that it could certainly use it. Nelson returned to practice this week fully, inspiring hope in Chiefs’ faithful across the Kingdom that Nelson can return to his rightful role in the defense – while sending Philip Gaines to the bench where he belongs. Gaines is much more suited as a role player at this point, allowing 175 yards in the 4th quarter alone in the loss to the Oakland Raiders.
3) The return of continuity along the offensive line will go a long way for the run game. Kareem Hunt has still produced the past couple of games, despite being hit in the backfield more often than not. Returning at least one of Mitch Morse or Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (or preferably both) will give Hunt a fighting chance and quite possibly make this offense operate on all cylinders again. The absence of the interior offensive line has severely limited Andy Reid’s play calling.
4) Can the Chiefs rediscover their defensive mojo? Pittsburgh had their way running the ball against the Chiefs, dictating the pace of the game through the run. No matter what Sutton tried, the Steelers continued to gash for huge chunks of yardage. Last week against the Raiders was much of the same, although this time via the pass. Philip Gaines got exposed badly against Carr, being targeted for 15 (!!!) receptions. Bob Sutton cannot allow the bleeding to continue, he has to right the ship defensively- and quickly.
5) The duo of Shane Ray/Von Miller are finally healthy. Can KC survive 4 quarters against that rush? Their tackles are good, but keeping Miller and Ray from setting the edge is a tall task for anyone. Miller in particular can take over a game in a hurry, requiring coordinators to avoid his half of the field or add an extra blocker. This defense has seen Alex Smith flustered and panicked before, and they will be looking to bring out the ‘happy-feet’ version of Smith.
6) Does Demarcus Robinson continue to step up in the absence of Chris Conley? Robinson has shown a penchant for getting open (Or so it seems without knowing the playbook) in his short starting debut. It has seemed like every big chunk play that KC has gotten involved a block by Robinson as well, a good sign for a young player to be looking for work on plays not designed for him.
7) Kareem Hunt’s usage. It will be interesting going forward to see how KC’s coaching staff utilizes Hunt as the weather gets colder and the games become more meaningful. December/January football are an entirely different beast and I am among the hopeful that Kareem doesn’t hit the dreaded rookie wall. I think using Hunt early and often is important as a tone setter, but at the same time you don’t want the wheels to fall off and the offense to be a shell of itself come playoffs. It will be on Reid & Co. to find creative ways to get role players like Demetrius Harris, De’Anthony Thomas, Charcandrick West, and Akeem Hunt opportunities to take the pressure off of the bell cow.