4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -3, Over/Under: 52.5
With just three weeks left in the Regular Season the NFL hands the viewing public an early Christmas gift, as the New Orleans Saints play host to the Kansas City Chiefs in a potential Super Bowl preview from Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. To the shock of absolutely nobody, the Chiefs (12-1, 1st in AFC West) have separated themselves from the rest of a congested AFC, marching towards the No. One Overall Seed, which this season is all the more significant since there will be only one First Round Bye issued per conference. While other teams have commanded the headlines at varying points throughout the campaign, it’s laughable to think that any other team apart from Kansas City was legitimately the favorite to return to the game’s grandest of stages, for in many regards the reigning Super Bowl Champions appear even better than they were last season. Together (Head Coach) Andy Reid and (General Manager) Brett Veach spent the majority of the Offseason locking down their elite talent, signing (Franchise Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes (68.4%, 4,208 YDS, 7.93 NY/A, 33 TD, 5 INT, 84.3 QBR) and (All-Pro Tight End) Travis Kelce (90 REC, 1,250 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 9 TD) to lucrative long-term contract extensions, and re-signing (Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle) Chris Jones (35 TKL, 2 TFL, 22 QBH, 6.5 SK, 2 FF, 3 PD) to a new deal, while further adding more weapons via the Draft, selecting (versatile Tailback) Clyde Edwards-Helaire (202 TCH, 1,017 YDS, 5.0 Y/T, 5 TD) at the end of the First Round. With the COVID-19 pandemic turning life upside down for everyone in the National Football League, the teams that enjoyed consistency of both roster and staff were always going to be at an advantage over the rest of the competition in 2020, and is it any surprise that after thirteen games it’s the Chiefs once again sitting atop the proverbial mountain?
It’s been said that to be the best you have to beat the best, and if you buy into that particular rhetoric then the Chiefs are clearly in a class of their own. It seems like ages ago that they suffered what has been their lone loss of the season, a 40-32 thriller against the Raiders back on October 11th. Since that turn of events, Kansas City has strung together eight consecutive victories, and even though their last five wins have come by six points or less, it never really felt like they were threatened in any of those contests. They rallied back from an early 14-3 deficit at home against the Panthers, surviving as the visitors’ potential game-winning, 67-yard field goal fell short. Two weeks later and trailing 31-28 with just 1:43 left to play in a rematch with Las Vegas, Mahomes went seventy-five yards in seven plays, ending the affair with a walk-off, 22-yard touchdown to Kelce to win 35-31. The next week they would race out to a comfortable 20-3 lead in the First Half at the Buccaneers en route to racking up a season-high 543 total yards though Tampa would make it look respectable late in a 27-24 outcome. Then at Arrowhead against the struggling Broncos, the hosts overcame their early red zone woes, relegated to field goals on four of their first six drives of the night, before ultimately rallying back to a 22-16 victory. Lastly, just last weekend Reid’s charges managed to overcome three interceptions and as many sacks of Mahomes to outlast the Dolphins in a 33-27 triumph to clinch their fifth consecutive AFC West title. If bad teams consistently find ways to lose games in which they’re in a position to win, then the opposite must also hold true as good teams consistently find ways to win games in which they’re in a position to lose, which is a notion that describes this team to a tee. During this stretch, the Offense has been as explosive as ever in averaging 30.0 points on 459.0 total yards, with the passing game taking precedence; Mahomes has completed a stellar 70.4% of his passes for an average of 378.6 yards on a whopping 8.6 net yards per attempt, with twelve touchdowns and four interceptions over that span, while rushing for another eighty-five yards on eighteen carries. While not quite reaching the statistical heights of his MVP campaign in 2018, the 25-year old is certainly on the shortlist of favorites for the award in 2020, completing a career-best 68.4% of his attempts, while leading the league in passing yards (4,208) yards per game (323.7) and net yards per attempt (7.93), with his QBR (84.3) surpassing the highest mark of his young career. The aforementioned Kelce, for that matter is leading the NFL in receiving yards (1,250), with an excellent chance of becoming the first Tight End in league history to do so by the end of the season. Ironically, his own teammate could thwart his attempts to do so, for (Receiver) Tyreek Hill (77 REC, 1,158 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 14 TD) is only ninety-two yards behind him for fourth in that category. Think about that for a moment, folks: Kansas City not only has TWO 1,000-yard receivers, but could very well become the first team in NFL history to have two players finish one and two in receiving yards. In many ways, this really is the best version of this Offense, for it’s difficult to imagine them reaching an even higher level. After missing a few games last season, both Mahomes and Hill haven’t missed any action thus far, and an Offensive Line that played musical chairs throughout 2019 has remained largely healthy in 2020. The only real weakness lies on the Defense, where they continue to struggle against the run; (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s charges are a nightmare for opponents when they have the luxury of playing with a lead, but opponents have continued to enjoy success against them on the ground, averaging 128.4 yards (26th Overall) on 4.7 yards per carry (30th Overall), which is the prime reason that their performance in the red zone has been the worst in the league, allowing a touchdown on 75.0% of attempts (32nd Overall).
When we last saw the Chiefs, they continued their dominance over the division in clinching their fifth straight AFC West crown on the strength of a 33-27 victory at the Miami Dolphins. This one really wasn’t as close as the final score would lead you to believe, for after Miami established an early 10-0 lead, the visitors exploded for THIRTY unanswered points in little over a quarter of play. Throwing interceptions on two of his first three drives, Mahomes eventually calmed down and led Kansas City seventy-five yards downfield in just four plays, with the aforementioned Hill turning the corner on a 32-yard touchdown. Following a quick three and out, the Chiefs put together successive 74-yard and 75-yard drives, the first consisting of nine plays and the second needing only three to breach the end zone, with Mahomes finding Kelce for a 6-yard score before throwing a 44-yard rocket to Hill for another. It wouldn’t be long before their Special Teams got into the act, with (Receiver) Mecole Hardman (43 REC, 489 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 3 TD) taking a Dolphins’ punt sixty-seven yards for another touchdown, and if that wasn’t enough, the Defense would make their presence felt sacking Tua Tagovailoa in his own end zone for a safety courtesy of Jones. The home side would regain momentum after forcing two more turnovers, but it would ultimately be case of too little too late. When it was all said and done, the Chiefs overcame FOUR turnovers, three sacks, and eight penalties in a victory that they utterly dominated for long stretches. Mahmoes was error-prone in completing 24-of-34 passes for 393 yards with two touchdowns and those three interceptions, while Hill racked up 111 yards and a pair of scores on just four touches. Kelce added to his league-best total with 136 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions, while four different players logged a sack of Tagovailoa, with (Safety) Tyrann Mathieu (59 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 QBH, 1 FR, 6 INT, 9 PD, 1 TD) intercepting him late in the First Half.
Meanwhile, as their opponent is currently running away with the AFC, the Saints (10-3, 1st in NFC South) have found themselves in a dogfight with the Green Bay Packers for the No. One Overall Seed in the conference, which given the situation at Quarterback should be of the utmost importance for this team. Even though Sean Payton has shown an uncanny ability over the past two seasons to craft a successful game plan no matter who is taking snaps at Quarterback, obtaining that First Round Bye should be the mandate in New Orleans, who will reportedly welcome back (veteran Quarterback) Drew Brees (73.5%, 2,396 YDS, 6.90 NY/A, 18 TD, 3 INT, 80.1 QBR) for today’s huge matchup with the reigning Super Bowl Champions. The 41-year old has missed the last five outings after suffering ELEVEN fractured ribs and a collapsed lung in a 27-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers back on November 15th, and though Payton managed to coax a 4-1 record out of his Backup, Taysom Hill (72.3%, 920 YDS, 6.26 NY/A, 4 TD, 2 INT, 56.1 QBR), the feeling out of the Big Easy is that they were indeed on borrowed time, and would need Brees back in the saddle to prevent a collapse down the stretch; in comparison to Green Bay, they have a much more difficult remaining schedule, with this affair with Kansas City followed by the home finale against Minnesota and a trip to Carolina to close out the Regular Season. Unfortunately, reports out New Orleans have indicated that the medical staff believes that the 20-year veteran would need as much time as possible to get back to full strength, but circumstances have necessitated his return. If the Saints still retained the top seed then he’d in all likelihood continue to rehab, but now that they’ve fallen to second in the NFC following last weekend’s shocking 24-21 defeat at the Philadelphia Eagles (more on that in a bit), the situation has clearly changed.
Call us crazy, but there is a prevailing theory that we could be witnessing the end of the Saints as we know them with their Super Bowl window likely closing shut at the conclusion of this season. Over the last four years no team in the league has won more games than New Orleans, who has gone an impressive 47-14 (.770) en route to their fourth consecutive NFC South title in that time. However, as stellar as they’ve been during the Regular Season, they’ve routinely come up short in the Playoffs, with heartbreak after heartbreak summing up their efforts. Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard miracle touchdown as time expired eliminated them in the 2018 Division Round, while an egregiously-blown Pass Interference penalty ended their march in the 2019 NFC Championship, with last season’s 26-20 upset at the hands of the Vikings marking their second consecutive Postseason ousting in Overtime. For some reason, this team just seems to fall apart in January, and with their venerable talisman falling apart over the last two campaigns, the end could be nigh for Brees, who has all but confirmed that this season will be his last. Though he had been remarkably healthy throughout his illustrious career with the franchise since his arrival back in 2006, these last two years haven’t been very kind to the 13-time Pro Bowler; Brees has missed ten games over the last two seasons alone, in comparison to missing just three contests in the previous thirteen years with the club. However, as we stated earlier, Payton has performed a commendable job of keeping his team afloat in his absence; Teddy Bridgewater led New Orleans to a 5-0 record early last season while Brees rehabbed from torn ligaments in his right thumb, while the aforementioned Hill enjoyed similar success in guiding the Saints to a 4-1 record over the last five games. Many scoffed at New Orleans re-signing the 30-year old to a one-year/$16.3 million contract to remain in house and letting Bridgewater leave via Free Agency, but Payton insisted on the value of the fourth-year veteran, whom he also utilizes in a plethora of other ways, including as a runner in short yard situations (73 CAR, 395 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 5 TD). Nobody really expected much of him as a traditional starter, particularly after the team signed Jameis Winston in the Offseason, but his coach continued to stick with him, and for all intents and purposes he has repaid that confidence with his play on the field; over the last five games, Hill has managed the game well in completing 71.9% of his attempts for an average of 208.5 yards on 6.6 net yards per attempt, with four touchdowns and two interceptions, while also rushing thirty-nine times for another 209 yards and four scores. Granted, the schedule hasn’t been very difficult, with a pair of meetings with the Atlanta Falcons coupled with dates against the Denver Broncos and the aforementioned Eagles. With the Offense being largely grounded over that period of time, it’ll be curious to see just how Payton shifts back to the precision passing attack that has long been Brees calling card. One thing is for certain though: (Pro Bowl Tailback) Alvin Kamara (231 TCH, 1,422 YDS, 6.2 Y/T, 14 TD) should be elated to have his Quarterback in the huddle again, for he had seen a precipitous decline in production since the transition to Hill. As versatile as they come out of the Backfield, the 25-year old averaged 126.0 yards from scrimmage for 6.6 yards per touch with eleven touchdowns through the first nine games of the season before Brees’ injury, but has 72.1 yards from scrimmage on 4.8 yards per touch with three scores over the last five outings without him. Unsurprisingly, the biggest difference has been in the passing game, with the former Offensive Rookie of the year logging just 2.5 receptions per game over the last five contests, a steep decline from the 7.4 catches that he averaged beforehand. With that said, the same can’t be said for (Receiver) Michael Thomas (40 REC, 438 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 0 TD), who has limped through a miserable 2020 thanks to a nagging high ankle sprain suffered in the Season Opener, in turn costing him six games, and will now reportedly miss the rest of the Regular Season on (short-term) Injured Reserve. The two-time reigning receptions leader hauled in 149 catches and a league-best 1,725 yards last year, but has been relegated to just 438 on forty thus far, with ZERO touchdowns to his credit. However, he had appeared to be getting back to full strength, totaling eight or more receptions in four of his last five games, with a total of 343 yards to his credit.
When we last saw the Saints, they suffered what was clearly the biggest upset of the weekend as they were bested by the Eagles in a 24-21 affair that dropped them out of the top spot in the NFC. The reason that this particular contest was view as such as upset wasn’t necessarily due to Philadelphia’s persistent struggles in 2020, but because they were starting a Rookie at Quarterback in the form of Jalen Hurts, who was making the first start of his career. While most expected him to fail in the same vein as his predecessor, the youngster shocked many en route to thriving in a simplistic, run-heavy game plan, completing 17-of-30 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for a career-high 106 yards on eighteen carries, the most by a Quarterback in his debut in NFL history. The hosts raced out to an early 17-0 lead, as Payton’s charges appeared blindsided by what they saw, punting on four of their first six drives of evening, while missing a field goal and turning over the football on the other two possessions. Eventually, they would find their rhythm, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back drives to cut the lead to 17-14 late in the Third Quarter following a beautiful 37-yard dime from Hill to (Receiver) Emmanuel Sanders (44 REC, 504 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 4 TD). However, New Orleans simply couldn’t stand prosperity as Hill literally fumbled away their next possession on a strip sack, while (Kicker) Will Lutz missed his second field goal attempt, this one from fifty-seven yards. After forcing a turnover of their own, the visitors would cut the deficit to three once again, with Hill finding (Tight End) Jared Cook (28 REC, 350 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 6 TD) in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard score, but they were unable to recover the ensuing onside kick, effectively ending the game. (Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen had to be disappointed in his side’s performance, yielding 246 rushing yards on thirty-six carries, while failing to register a single sack of the young Hurts, while the Saints were held below 100 rushing yards for the first time since Hill took over. For his part, the veteran wasn’t terrible, completing 28-of-38 passes for 291 yards, and a pair of touchdowns, but he failed to take care of the football committing two crucial turnovers, and was sacked five times for a loss of twenty-nine yards.