Who can ambush Kansas City?
With three weeks until the playoffs begin, a burning question is ringing around the National Football League: which team is most likely to beat the Kansas City Chiefs? Let’s look at the runners and riders. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints possess the leading defenses. After a terrific run, the Steelers are losing star players on defense and look toothless on offense. The Saints were effective at slowing Patrick Mahomes down today, but lack the requisite explosiveness on offense to be a real threat. You have to be able keep up on the scoreboard. Kansas City has seen the Baltimore Ravens off numerous times in the Lamar Jackson-era and won’t fear them. But if the resurgent Ravens ground game pounds the Chiefs’ defense and Jackson can be accurate downfield they have a chance. Against Kansas City, you might only get one shot. You need to be perfect. The Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns are the outsiders capable of putting together a devastating running game, allied with natural passing quarterbacks. In terms of a balanced offense and an improving defense, the Buffalo Bills are timing their run beautifully. Quarterback Josh Allen has taken the leap and is consistently playing like a top five quarterback, while the offense he leads are scoring points by the bucket load each week. Head coach Sean McDermott’s defense is starting to come alive. Remember, the Bills were considered a defense-first team only a year ago. In the NFC, the Green Bay Packer have Aaron Rodgers’ MVP season to build off, while the Seattle Seahawks are showing at the right time that they can beat teams with their passing and running game.
I’ll review Week 15 before returning to the line-up of contenders.
Game of the Week: Kansas City Chiefs @ New Orleans Saints
The Kansas City Chiefs had too much speed and guile for the New Orleans Saints to win 32-29, to go to the longest active streak of 11 away wins. For Tyreek Hill’s first half touchdown, Kansas City’s offense brought a blend of misdirection and deception to bear. Hill went back and forth in motion at the line of scrimmage, Patrick Mahomes rolled to his right, eyes back and forth scanning for the open target. Hill was able to ghost through the New Orleans defense undetected and catch the pass.
Multiple times during the game, Mahomes and his offensive line bought the receivers enough time to get open on their second routes. Such is the majesty of this offense. The Chiefs defense also looked good for stretches off this game, helped by a fragile Saints offense.
The Chiefs shot out to a 14-0 lead before the Saints defense got a foothold in the game, and had a chance to strike. Despite conceding 14 quick points, the Saints defensive line dominated the first half and forced the Chiefs into five punts. When the Chiefs present you with a chance you need to take: New Orleans fluffed the chance to recover a mishandled punt in the Chiefs’ end zone. That was their chance. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was rusty returning from injury, and guilty of throwing random passes to Mr Nobody in this game. The Saints defense was forced by its offense to be on the field too far too long in the second half. It was inevitable that the Chiefs running game would wear them down. The final dagger for New Orleans came when the Chiefs had a 3rd down and 9 at the start of the fourth quarter. Star defensive lineman Cameron Jordan was ejected for throwing a punch. Predictably, Kansas City scored on the next play.
Another suitor is seen off by the Super Bowl holders. Whoever wants to beat them in the postseason, had better have a superior offense than the Saints. Week 15 Highlights
Jet Sweep: The New York Jets won for the first time this season, dispatching the heavily favored Los Angeles Rams. The ageless wonder, running back Frank Gore, scored his 100th NFL touchdown in a victory that sent Jets fans into tizzy. The win meant the almost certainty that they would be in line to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence as the number one pick in the NFL draft, is suddenly a lot less certain. The Jets now share a miserable 1-15 record with the Jacksonville Jaguars, with the Jags possessing the easier final two games. The Jets players were never ‘tanking for Trevor’. They got the win their efforts deserved.
Game of the Season: Since my Week 14 article dropped last Monday morning, the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns played out the best game of the season on Monday night. Lamar Jackson went off injured only to come back on when third choice quarterback Trace McSorley went down, and led the Ravens game-winning drive. It was a thrilling end-to-end shoot-out that suggests the Browns and Ravens will have a say once the AFC playoffs get underway.
MVP of the Week: I questioned whether Josh Allen had the temperament and application to become the Buffalo Bills franchise quarterback in my pre-season article. On Saturday, the Bills won its first AFC East title since 1995, and Allen put in another masterful performance. He threw for 359 yards and scored four touchdowns - two on the ground and two through the air.
Stat of the Week: For the first time since 2008, the New England Patriots won’t be going to the playoffs after a record setting run of 11-years. They’ve enjoyed incredible success in the Bill Belichick era. With yesterday's loss to Miami, it’s time for Belichick to dream it up again. There are giant holes on the roster.
NFC West: Seattle withstood a late comeback from Washington to wrestle back a slim lead in the division. Kyler Murray’s Arizona saw off Philadelphia, while the Rams succumbed to one of the season's biggest upsets. The 49ers wretched season continued with a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Bradywatch: Tampa Bay came back from 0-17 down to beat Atlanta and maintain their slow march towards the playoffs. After being unable to get anything going on offense, the Bucs scored on their first five possessions of the second half to take the lead. In the third quarter alone, Brady passed for 188 yards on three TD drives. The Brady-Mike Evans connection was what sparked the Bucs into life. If they are to be a threat in the playoffs, Brady needs to get Evans the ball early and often.
Quote of the Week: “The more Jalen Hurts plays, the worse Doug Pederson looks for hanging onto Carson Wentz so long,” Gregg Rosenthal from the Around the NFL Podcast tweeted. With stories about Wentz’s morose behavior in Philadelphia starting to trickle out, head coach Doug Pederson must be looking over his own shoulder.
Race for the Prize The 49ers showing in the Super Bowl was a demonstration of one way to get into a position to beat the Chiefs: with a suffocating defense and Kyle Shanahan offensive scheme. With eight minutes left and ten points up, San Francisco faltered. They couldn’t convert a big play or two that would have won them the game. They put the ball in Jimmy Garoppolo's hands and moved away from their running game that got them that far. The best defenses can only keep Patrick Mahomes under wraps for portions of a quarter or half: he’s too good to lock up for an entire game.
Teams such as Pittsburgh and New Orleans can slow Kansas City down. The team best equipped to beat the Chiefs is an offensive juggernaut, whose average or worse defense can be relied on to make a crucial stop with the game on the line. Seattle, Buffalo, Baltimore, Green Bay and Tennessee appear to match that description. And because of how battle hardened and competitive its teams are, an AFC team just might have the best chance of all.
Who is the sleeper team in the AFC that can drop a hammer on the favorites just like Tennessee did to Baltimore in last year's playoffs? January will reveal all.