Some could have predicted these teams coming into Week 18 like this before the season: the Kansas City Chiefs are 13-3 and facing a Las Vegas Raiders team sitting at 6-10 and out of playoff contention. However, that leaves out the context that makes this a much more significant game.
Even as the Chiefs stand at nine-point favorites heading into the weekend — courtesy of DraftKings SportsBook — this contest will have all AFC teams and fans on the edges of their seats:
A Chiefs win would clinch the No. 1 overall seed and a postseason bye week. A loss opens the door for the Buffalo Bills to take over home-field advantage. No matter the other circumstances surrounding the logistics of the playoffs, the one seed is vital for rest and matchup purposes.
I have five things to watch in what should be an appropriate tune-up for the postseason:
1. Finding a balanced offensive rhythm
There’s one simple way to show the Chiefs’ offense has hit a snag as of late: punter Tommy Townsend has punted 15 times in three games; that is the same number of punts he had in the previous six weeks.
In Week 18, Kansas City’s goal should never be to have the punt team take the field, something the unit can do — especially against a Raiders’ defense with no impact players available outside of defensive end Maxx Crosby. This has the makings of a game where the offense should be able to do what it wants and not turn the ball over; Las Vegas has forced the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL this season.
It’d be a valuable boost before the postseason, getting everything to click for a full four quarters — something it feels like hasn’t happened in any games down the stretch. If they have familiar struggles, the panic meter on whether this offense can flip a switch in the playoffs could rise slightly.
2. A surprising challenge for the defense
Even though the Raiders benched long-time starting quarterback Derek Carr, their offense looked as functional and effective as it had all season with fourth-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham under center last week. Just ask Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who shared what he saw with reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
“When they put Stidham in there last week, the mechanics and actions of the way he was doing it, I saw Tom Brady,” Spagnuolo began. “Because I’m sure [Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels] coaches it that way, I’m talking about the way he was getting in and out of checks, the signals he was using.
“This guy is a real good player. I thought he was really aggressive last week, he put some points on the board against a really good defense. So we have ourselves quite a challenge defensively.”
34 points in a narrow overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers was very impressive. Stidham stuck to the script, which presents a different challenge than Carr, who tends to be more of a gunslinger. When you have a running game that can gash opponents — like putting up 155 yards on the Chiefs in Week 5 — it opens up throwing windows and creates clean pockets.
Suddenly, this becomes a good test for linebackers and safeties regarding how they handle play-action and how much ground they can cover in the passing game.
3. The return of Mecole Hardman
Even though Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid told reporters he’d “be holding him back” in reference to wide receiver Mecole Hardman in his first week off the Injured Reserve, I think we can still see something productive from the speed threat.
It would be Hardman’s first game since Week 9, a game he caught six passes and turned them into 79 yards and a red-zone touchdown. In the week prior to that, he torched the San Francisco 49ers on jet-sweep plays to score three times.
I imagine Reid sees the benefit of getting Hardman some live, full-speed reps before postseason play — especially with rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore ruled out. They want to get him going on the jet sweeps or other horizontally-directed plays. Watch to see if they pull those out in the red zone; five of the six touchdowns Hardman has scored this season came inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
4. One more tune-up for the pass rush
As we close the season, it’s an excellent time to acknowledge the Chiefs’ pass-rush statistics through 16 games.
They’ve racked up 49 sacks, the most in any of the four seasons under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. It’s the second most of any team in the era of Andy Reid (the 2018 team earned 52 sacks). However, their team pressure rate this year is lower than the previous two seasons – even though those years featured only 31 and 32 sacks, respectively.
They have a chance to add to that 17-sack increase from year to year – although the Raiders did not allow a single sack against the 49ers last week. The Chiefs only got to Carr twice in the first matchup, but the improvement from a player like rookie George Karlaftis ideally helps create more disruption in the pocket this time around.
5. Chance for running game to gain steam
I mentioned the offense being balanced – but I wouldn’t mind if it becomes unbalanced towards the run game in this matchup.
The Raiders have allowed an average of 161 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks; in each game, they’ve given up at least 106 yards. The Raiders’ defense has yielded the seventh-most standard fantasy points to the running back position for the season. Especially since edge defender Chandler Jones went out with an injury, the Raiders’ front seven gets picked on — as long as Crosby is contained.
I predict Pacheco will break his career-high mark of 107 rushing yards this week, taking advantage of an offensive line that enjoys beating up a Las Vegas defense ready for the offseason. It could be a nice confidence boost heading into the playoffs — if they come out with the right mindset.