NFL Week 16 roundtable: What AFC team poses the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs?
Kansas City seems to be barreling its way to becoming the first repeat Super Bowl champion since New England after the 2003 and 2004 NFL seasons.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is in the running for a second season MVP award in three years, and while there are concerns around an ankle injury to stellar rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and questions about the defense, the reality is the Chiefs are 13-1, and a victory Sunday against the 4-10 Falcons gives them the No. 1 seed and first-round bye in the AFC.
Teams like Buffalo and Tennessee (and Baltimore if it even makes the playoffs) present problems for Kansas City. But to what extent?
With that in mind, our NFL staff was asked to address the question: Which AFC team poses the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs?
Titans running back Derrick Henry, here against the Chiefs in last season's AFC title game, might hold the key to challenging Kansas City this year in the road to the Super Bowl. (Photo: Denny Medley, USA TODAY Sports)
The Tennessee Titans. I’m so tempted to pencil in the Baltimore Ravens in this slot because the image of Lamar Jackson coming out of the locker room on that Monday night in Cleveland still resonates. Magic can happen with Lamar and in one game, he can provide that extra-level sizzle to beat anybody. But then I think of how the Chiefs just destroyed Baltimore earlier this year, how Baltimore was one-and-done the past two years in the playoffs … and how as Week 16 commenced the Ravens (9-5) were not even holding a playoff slot, trailing the Dolphins, Colts and Browns in the wild-card pecking order. So, maybe not Baltimore. Unless it happens.
Tennessee, though, looms as dangerous because the Titans are just that pesky, balanced team to give anybody a fit. Plus, there’s King Henry, Derrick Henry, the NFL’s soon-to-be repeat rushing champ. Playoff football always escalates the value of a running game and Henry gives Tennessee (10-4) that foundation, while efficient and mobile-when-needed Ryan Tannehill can sling it to two impressive and physical receivers, A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. And remember: The Titans advanced to the AFC title game last year after stinging No. 1-seeded Baltimore while riding Henry’s back. Then they threatened to upset the Chiefs at Arrowhead — at least for a quarter or so, they threatened — in building a 17-7 lead before the Chiefs ignited the after-burners. In any event, the Titans saw the formula, again, of what it would take to knock off Kansas City. Control the tempo and clock with Henry. And they saw it in November of 2019, too, when they beat the Chiefs in a shootout at Nashville. So, the vision is there in more ways than one. Now, the Chiefs are even better this season. But if the Titans can keep it close — Tennessee is 5-2 this season in games decided by 7 points or fewer — they will have a better chance than any in the AFC to spoil Kansas City’s desired destiny of claiming another Lombardi Trophy.
Though I think the Chiefs are the team to beat in the AFC, I hardly think it will be a walkover. The Bills, Ravens, Colts and even Steelers could all provide significant problems in a one-and-done playoff game against Kansas City. But I think the reigning champs’ primary threat could be the Tennessee Titans, whom they faced in last year’s AFC title game. Derrick Henry is the league’s top rusher, exactly the type of weapon that allows for a keep-away strategy to keep Patrick Mahomes and Co. off the field. And Titans QB Ryan Tannehill and WRs A.J. Brown and Corey Davis also form a very underrated passing attack quite capable of exploiting a so-so K.C. D. Would love to see these teams in a January rematch.
To stop the Chiefs, one must slow and match Patrick Mahomes. The AFC is full of ballhawking defenses – hello Miami, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis – but I don’t trust their offenses to match Mahomes’ firepower. Baltimore, meanwhile, has allowed just 20.5 points a game (fourth in the league) while ranking fourth-stingiest on third down at 36.63%. The Ravens ability to kill drives will be key to containing Mahomes, whose threat never dissipates when he’s on the field. On offense, Baltimore’s 28.8 points a game ranks sixth in the league, and it leads the league gashing defenses for 172.7 yards a game by ground. The Ravens can score and take time doing it. Questions fairly loom about Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s ability to thrive in the playoffs (0-2 career) and against the Chiefs (0-3), which is where I believe Jackson’s recent performance in the Ravens’ 47-42 Monday night win over the Browns clarifies the picture. Jackson was recovering from a COVID-19 bout. He battled cramps and dehydration that required mid-game IVs. And he missed much of the fourth quarter. Despite all that, he emerged from the locker room at the 2-minute warning to take the field on fourth-and-5, promptly nailing receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown with a 44-yard, game-winning touchdown. It was the epitome of clutch. And it’s a trait that, unlocked, he can use to conquer his Chiefs demons.
I’m going to say the Chiefs themselves. There’s not a team in the AFC that possesses the same kind of versatility or potency to really threaten the Chiefs. People really like the Bills, but Josh Allen is too up and down for me to believe in them just yet. The Titans have one of the highest scoring offenses, but they can’t quick-strike score like K.C. Maybe their methodical, balanced approach would help keep the Chiefs off the field. But if the game is on the line, do you really trust that Titans defense to get a stop?
Baltimore is hot right now, and the Browns are having an impressive year. But I still need to see them shine in big, high-pressure moments before I buy into them as a threat. (And that’s IF Baltimore gets in.) And Pittsburgh is on life support. Miami forced three Mahomes interceptions and still couldn’t beat them. So, I’ll say the Chiefs. If they roll into games, sloppy and seemingly disinterested as they have at times, then they could be primed for a sloppy outing, offensively. And that will put even more pressure on their defense, which is the last thing that unit needs. Ultimately, they won’t receive a real challenge until the Super Bowl, against the likes of Green Bay.
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