Big Litmus Test for Vikings as Chiefs and Mahomes Come to Town
It’s a terrific local sports weekend coming up with the Twins in the ALDS at Houston, the Golden Gophers hosting Michigan, and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs coming to U.S. Bank Stadium with future Hall of Famers Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes leading the charge. And oh yeah, there could be a certain singer in the house if she continues to follow her tight end/boyfriend — Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Big Litmus Test for Vikings as Chiefs and Mahomes Come to Town
For the 1-3 Vikings coming off their first win last Sunday in Carolina, this is a big litmus test on whether they can play well enough to get back in the NFC North race in the coming weeks with the first divisional game at Chicago next weekend. A victory over the 3-1 Chiefs is not likely, and as I often say, there are no moral victories in the NFL, but if the Vikings can be competitive in this matchup, it would build confidence moving forward as the schedule appears to ease somewhat in midseason. And with the Chiefs not looking as dominant as last year, an upset by the Purple would be surprising but not shocking.
The Chiefs struggled in the opening loss to the Lions, who were fortunate to face them when Kelce and All-Pro DT Chris Jones were missing. The Chiefs dominated the dismal Bears in Week 3 but were not impressive in the 17-9 Week 2 win in Jacksonville or the 23-20 victory over the Jets last Sunday night when they had a 17-0 lead.
The Chiefs don’t look like a Super Bowl team through four weeks, and I think it starts with Mahomes’ supporting cast on offense. With the departure the past two offseasons of leading wide receivers Tyreek Hill (111 catches, 1,239 yards, 9 TDs in 2021) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (78 catches, 933 yards, 3 TDs in 2022), there is no true No. 1 wideout.
The Chiefs’ wide receivers combined for only 65 yards on seven receptions in the Jets game. Reid and Mahomes have not gotten the production thus far in 2023 that they were counting on from Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6 receptions, 104 yards), Skyy Moore (7 catches, 112 yards), rookie second-rounder Rashee Rice (13 catches, 112 yards) and ex-Giants Kadarius Toney (9 catches, 57 yards) and Richie James (one catch for 6 yards). Justin Watson has added eight receptions for 163 yards.
Toney cost the Chiefs a likely win in the opener against the Lions when he had three drops, including a deep ball on the final drive that would’ve set up a winning field goal attempt.
Kelce is getting extra attention, with the wide receivers less effective. He has 17 catches (with 2 TDs) to lead the team, but his yards per game (52) have dropped by 26 yards compared to last season.
The offensive line lost its two starting tackles in free agency — Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie. Donovan Smith is a big drop-off from Brown on Mahomes’ blind side. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor is off to a shaky start with five penalties in Week 2, two in Week 3, and a safety in the Jets game when he was called for grabbing the facemask in the end zone.
Mahomes is having to scramble more to escape pressure, running 23 times already compared to 61 all of last season. His passer rating dropped from 105.2 last year to 92.0 (which currently ranks 15th ) after he threw two bad interceptions in the Jets game. He has thrown for 252 yards per game through four games compared to 309 yards per game over the entire 2022 season.
The Chiefs had to lean on the running of second-year back Isiah Pacheco to lead the offense against the Jets. Other than the Bear game, Kansas City is averaging only 20 points per game, which would rank 20th after leading the league with a 29.2 average last season. And the Jets are the only top-10 defense from last season that the Chiefs have faced.
The Kansas City defense was underrated last season when it ranked second in sacks with 55 and 11th overall. Defensive end Frank Clark (7.5 sacks, including playoffs last season) was another salary cap casualty, and the team now ranks 19th with 10 sacks, well off their 2022 pace. The Chiefs have only allowed 15 points per game, but Detroit is the only strong offense they’ve faced in the first four games, and many top-10 offenses are coming up on the schedule, including the Vikings (No. 9) this Sunday.
As with all championship teams in the NFL, the Chiefs have had to deal with a rising salary cap, a tougher first-place schedule, and usually drafting at the bottom of every round (2023 first-round pick Felix Anudike-Uzomah is currently a backup defensive end with eight tackles and a half-sack).
They’ve got plenty of competition in the AFC from surging Buffalo, Miami, Baltimore, and Cincinnati if Joe Burrow’s calf gets better and perhaps from the Chargers in their division. We’ll see this Sunday if the Chiefs can start righting their ship after the down performance — despite winning — against the Jets.
Here are my keys to the Vikings upsetting the Chiefs:
1. For the first time this season, win the turnover battle and be better in the red zone: the Vikings are minus 8 and lead the league with 11 giveaways. The Chiefs aren’t great in this area at minus 3. Kirk Cousins and Company must protect the ball. The red zone issues that plagued the Vikings offense in the Chargers game especially just can’t happen against the Chiefs.
2. Run the ball to win time of possession and keep Mahomes off the field: the Vikings ground game has improved significantly in recent weeks (135 yards last week between Alex Mattison and Cam Akers behind better blocking upfront). Running the ball effectively will be a key, along with converting third downs (1 of 8 against the Panthers), whether running or passing.
3. Cousins must get back to accurate Kirk: he overthrew several passes last week, with the worst being the 3rd-and-2 pass to an open Justin Jefferson in the 3-and-out fourth-quarter series. The Chiefs corners are average, other than Trent McDuffie, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Jordan Addison and K.J. Osborn, who had only one reception between them in Carolina (in part due to Cousins’ poor game). Jefferson can beat any corner, including McDuffie, if the Chiefs single cover J.J. and it’s more likely they’ll double J.J. but he still needs 10 or more targets (he had only nine last week).
4. Hockenson should have a big game: tight ends have a 99 passer rating when targeted against K.C., so T.J. Hockenson should have a big game if Cousins has time to throw.
5. Which gets us to the O-line and changes needed: the good news for the Vikings is Garrett Bradbury’s back injury has improved, so he is on track to start. And this is a great week for recent addition Dalton Risner to take over at right guard in place of Ed Ingram. Risner faced Jones twice a year in Denver, so he has a much better chance to block him than the shaky Ingram, who gave up six pressures last Sunday.
6. Contain Mahomes’ scrambling and extending plays: this is a huge challenge for the entire defense but especially edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport, along with inside linebackers Jordan Hicks and Ivan Pace Jr. Mahomes ran for 51 yards and several first downs against the Jets.
7. Limit your blitzing, Coach Flores: we know Harrison Smith had a career day with his three sacks last week, but Mahomes is a savvy vet (unlike Bryce Young last week) who will get the ball out quickly to Kelce, his wide receivers and to Pacheco and ex-Viking Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield. The Vikings DC shouldn’t try anything close to what he called unsuccessfully against Justin Herbert two weeks ago with blitzes on 81% of the snaps. Throw a few strategic blitzes at Mahomes and his O-line with Smith, but not too many.
8. Double cover Kelce: Smith and Cam Bynum must be on their game, along with the linebackers helping.
9. Stop Pacheco and the run game: the Vikings have been better against the run the past two weeks (83 yards allowed last week) after the disaster in Philly (259 yards given up on the ground). That needs to continue against the hard-running Pacheco, who rushed for 115 yards last Sunday against a good Jets defense.
10. Win the special teams battle: the Chiefs are well coached in all phases, so it will be a challenge to outperform them on special teams, but a big return or big kicks by Greg Joseph could turn the tide.
The crowd noise won’t phase Mahomes, but perhaps his linemen will help the Vikings with some false starts, and Hunter and Davenport can get off the ball quicker. I don’t see Mahomes having two bad games in a row, and I don’t trust the Vikings corners and safeties other than Smith to stick with the receivers when Mahomes extends plays. I also need to see Cousins start playing at the level he did last year (except for the end of the playoff game). A Vikings upset is possible if they play almost error-free, but I need to see it to believe it, especially against Mahomes and one of the NFL’s best coaches in Andy Reid.
Kansas City wins 31-27 in an exciting game that will have the Vikings shaking their heads afterward due to another missed opportunity for a big win (as was the case in earlier home losses to the Bucs and Chargers). But I think they’ll play well enough to have hope for a run back into contention in the weeks ahead.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Sad to hear Dick Butkus passed away at 80. The Hall of Famer was the leader of the tough Bears defenses in the 1960s and a ferocious tackler at middle linebacker. I’ll always consider Butkus, Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and “Papa Bear” George Halas as the ultimate Chicago Bears icons.
2. The game of the week is Dallas at San Francisco on Sunday night. The unbeaten 49ers and their outstanding defense should force a couple of Dak Prescott turnovers, and the Niners’ Brock Purdy-led offense will do enough against a strong Dallas D to get the win.
3. I think the other two teams, along with the 49ers that are rolling now — the 4-0 Eagles and 3-1 Bills — will win tough games against the Jaguars by the Bills (in London) and Rams (in L.A. for the Eagles), but an upset in either of these games wouldn’t surprise me.
With their banged-up offensive line, I also think the Packers will have their hands full in Las Vegas on Monday night. I like the Raiders to win, but only if QB Jimmy Garoppolo has recovered from his concussion. And can you imagine the number of Packer fans who will descend on Vegas this weekend and stay to cheer on their team?
Vikings Add New QB
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl