The Kansas City Chiefs are arguably the NFL’s most watchable team for 2018, and could yet prove to be the league’s best come February 3rd and the Super Bowl in Atlanta, but are there problems set to surface as we head down the stretch?
Surely not? This, after all, is a team that sits atop the AFC currently with a lofty 10-2 record – their only defeats being spectacular shootout losses to the New England Patriots (43-40) and Los Angeles Rams (54-51), the only team with a better record than them.
However, Kansas City’s No 1 scoring offense is balanced by the second-worst defense in the NFL, they beat the two-win Oakland Raiders by only seven points last weekend and they have the distraction of their star running back, Kareem Hunt, having been cut from the team after a video emerged of him shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel in February.
On top of that, the Chiefs are entering arguably the trickiest part of their schedule. The Baltimore Ravens and their No 1 defense come to visit on Sunday – live on Sky Sports Action from 5pm – before they face the Los Angeles Chargers, who currently sit only one game behind them in the AFC West. Then make one of the NLF’s toughest road trips to take on the playoff-chasing Seattle Seahawks.
December 9, 2018, 5:00pm
Reasons for concern? Speaking to Sky Sports, NFL.com analyst and former player Bucky Brooks doesn’t necessarily thinks so.
“The concern about the Chiefs centres around their defense. Is the unit good enough to get stops in a competitive game?” says Bucky. “When you get into this time of year, December and then the playoffs, being able to stop an offence and force turnovers, is absolutely paramount.
“But, even with their struggles, even with the issue at running back, they’ve still got so much on offense that it is going to be hard to slow them down.”
So much on offense indeed. The Chiefs have put up an NFL-best 444 points through their first 12 games, at an average of 37 a game. Improve that mark by a point over the final four games of the season and it would be the most in NFL history.
The standout star is undoubtedly quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has a remarkable 41 passing touchdowns, and 43 in total, in his first year as an NFL starter. Mahomes’ TD tally is more than 29 teams entire offenses have managed, with the New Orleans Saints (49) and Rams (44) the only exceptions.
But Kansas City’s success isn’t all down to Mahomes. Speedy wideout Tyreek Hill and athletic tight end Travis Kelce make for a devastating duo, both topping 1,000 yards receiving for the second-straight season and account for almost half of Mahomes’ touchdown strikes (20).
“From an offensive standpoint, they’re explosive,” adds Bucky. “They have a video-game-like offense, with Mahomes a unique quarterback that can throw the ball all over the yard. His arm strength is remarkable.
“I don’t think anyone could truthfully say they expected Mahomes to be an MVP candidate in only his second season, and first as a starter.
“Most people recognised he was immensely talented coming out of Texas Tech. He had rare arm talent – you hear coaches talk about his ability to throw the ball out of the stadium – but you worried about his decision-making and turnovers.
“Because he had such a frenetic, backyard football style, you wondered whether a coach could get him to play within a structured environment. What a pleasant surprise he has been.
“Mahomes alone is really hard to contain. But then you have to consider the playmakers he has around him. Hill and Kelce are both dynamic in their own right. Hill is maybe the fastest guy in the league and takes the top off the defense, while Kelce is just a matchup nightmare – a big, oversized wide receiver listed as a tight end.”
One of Kansas City’s biggest weapons on offense, however, is no longer with the team. Hunt, was the NFL’s leading rusher last season with 1,327 yards and he was on pace to match those numbers this year too after tallying 824 through 11 games.
But Hunt’s NFL future is now in doubt after the damning video released which showed him pushing and kicking a woman. The Chiefs swiftly released the running back and he has been placed on the commissioner’s exemption list while he awaits a suspension.
With a team on course for the playoffs, potentially the Super Bowl, could such a distraction derail their season?
“It certainly is a huge distraction,” says Bucky. “The guys in the locker room are used to Kareem being there, and they were leaning on him – he was a big contributor to what they did on offense, so his presence will be missed.
“Normally though it’s that first week when you’re worrying about him not being there, especially as it happened late in the week. If anything it would have been the Oakland game where they would have been distracted the most.
“From now, as a player, you’ve got to kind of treat it like an injury. Kareem’s not there and so it’s just a case of ‘next man up’ and you go about your business.
“Even last week against the Raiders, they still rushed for 174 yards. They didn’t have one guy do it, they did it by committee and if you look back at Andy Reid’s time as head coach of Kansas City, every running back has had success.
“I don’t want to say it’s down to the system more than the talent, but the system is certainly very good. I think they have more than enough to continue to weather the storm and keep it rolling down the stretch.”
The first test down the stretch for the Chiefs is Sunday’s visit of the Ravens and their No 1 defense, while the Chargers and Seahawks’ defensive units aren’t to be sniffed at either in their upcoming three-week run.
And, on top of their two defeats, the team that has caused Kansas City the most trouble so far this season is the Denver Broncos and their sneak-good D, who succumbed to two closely-contested one-score losses.
“On paper, the Ravens are good enough to give them a still challenge,” adds Bucky. “When you get into these winter months, it’s the teams with a good running game and defense that are typically the ones you can lean on. Those things travel well.
“The Ravens do a couple of things they’ve always been known for. They’re physical, they will beat you up at the line of scrimmage and their defensive backs are going to challenge your guys on the outside.
“Can the likes of Hill and Kelce cope with the physicality, the contact they’ll have to deal with to get free? Also, Mahomes has to deal with the pass rush, Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon – those guys collapsing the pocket and getting to him off the edge.
“If Baltimore can get to him and hit him early, we’ll get a chance to see if he has enough poise and composure to handle it? The teams that have given Mahomes the most problems are the teams that have been able to get pressure in his face and make him throw off schedule.
“Without Hunt, and given their defensive struggles, can the Chiefs collectively perform well enough to ensure it’s not all put on Mahomes’ shoulders?”
Mahomes and the Chiefs have shown plenty to prove they can compete in a shootout, but further tests against top-tier defenses – the likes of which await them in the playoffs – will give a greater indication of this team’s readiness to challenge.