The Kansas City Chiefs have provided a high level of entertainment lately, and we’re not talking about who’s been attending their games.
While apparently most of the free world is wondering whether Taylor Swift will be showing up at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis this Sunday to catch another glimpse of rumored new beau Travis Kelce, we’ve been spending the last week pondering exactly when Kelce and his Chiefs teammates will start catching Patrick Mahomes’ passes on a consistent basis.
It’s far from Code Red time for the defending Super Bowl champions, who still reside atop the AFC West and still have the highest probability of representing the conference again in the Big Game, according to our projection model.
Still, there’s got to be at least a slightly heightened level of concern at 1 Arrowhead Drive after the NFL’s typically most fearsome offense sputtered for the better part of three quarters in last week’s 23-20 win over the Aaron Rodgers-less New York Jets.
The Chiefs certainly weren’t punchless over the course of the season’s first quarter, but they have been uncharacteristically sloppy, as a multitude of miscues and breakdowns have rendered their usually prolific passing attack into a middle-of-the-pack outfit for much of their 3-1 start that has included a three-game winning streak over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Jets.
It’s a situation Kansas City’s next opponent can relate to, with one very big exception.
The Minnesota Vikings have had their share of mistakes through the season’s opening four weeks, but unlike the Chiefs, they generally haven’t been able to overcome them in getting out of the blocks with three straight losses before beating the Carolina Panthers 21-13 last week.
That unwanted start has given the reigning NFC North champs a 32.4% chance of reaching the playoffs, according to our model. Not insurmountable by any means, but it already leaves the Vikings with little margin for error with a still-elite opponent next on the docket.
Since the NFL expanded the playoffs from 10 to 12 teams in 1990, just six of 161 teams that have started 1-4 have reached the postseason (6.8%). And the last to do it, the 2020 Washington Football Team, got there by winning an unusually soft NFC East that year with a 7-9 record.
That should further illustrate what an important game this is for Minnesota, which we should point out could easily be entering this matchup with an identical record as the Chiefs if not for reasons we’ll get into later. And the Vikings possess the offensive firepower to potentially do what the handcuffed Jets couldn’t against Kansas City a week ago.
That’s one reason why our SmartRatings system has placed this contest squarely into the “Good Game” category while ranking it second on the watchability scale for NFL Week 5, eclipsed only by the anticipated Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers showdown on Sunday Night Football.
Sportsbooks also have assigned this clash the highest over/under total of the week at 52.5 points with the Chiefs currently sitting as the moneyline favorites with the point spread at 3.5. Our predictive model leans slightly to the under and the underdogs as the best bets, giving the Vikings more than a puncher’s chance to take down the NFL’s present titleholders.
KC Keys: Sharpen the Passing Game/Beat the Blitz
The bar has been set awfully high when you’ve won two MVPs in a five-year span, but Mahomes admittedly hasn’t played his best football through the season’s first month – and the traditional numbers support that take.
His 64.3% completion rate and 7.0 passing yards per attempt would be his lowest marks in a season since becoming Kansas City’s starting quarterback in 2018, while his interception percentage of 2.8 would be his highest.
Don’t fret too much about that relatively low completion percentage, which has been weighed down by the Chiefs owning the league’s highest rate of dropped catchable passes at 9.5%. Mahomes’ well-thrown rate of 82.7% isn’t elite, but it’s still comfortably above league average.
The turnovers have been a bit of an issue, however. Mahomes’ 5.04 pickable pass percentage ranks 29th of 34 quarterbacks with at least 50 adjusted attempts this season, and his two badly under-thrown deep balls that were intercepted last week helped the Jets nearly come back from a 17-0 first-quarter deficit.
What’s most puzzling, though, is how much Mahomes has struggled when blitzed in the early going. Kansas City’s franchise quarterback is just 10 of 19 (52.6%) with one interception when faced with additional pass rushers, a 67.4 passer rating that ranks near the bottom of the league.
LOWEST PASSER RATING VS. BLITZ THROUGH WEEK 4 (MIN. 15 ATTEMPTS)
- Daniel Jones, New York Giants (54.4)
- Jared Goff, Detroit Lions (58.1)
- Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (67.4)
- Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (70.8)
- Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers (71.2)
That’s a staggering contrast to Mahomes’ performance over the previous four seasons, a stretch in which he finished no lower than fourth in the NFL in passer rating versus the blitz. His overall stats when blitzed over that period are as follows: A 69.0% completion rate, a QB rating of 125.0 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 42-to-3.
Mahomes had better rediscover that old touch very quickly, as he’ll be facing by far the most blitz-happy defense in the NFL this week.
To say the Vikings defense is aggressive would be a colossal understatement, as Minnesota has blitzed on an astonishing 73.5% of opponent’s passing plays during the short reign of new defensive mastermind Brian Flores.
And although that philosophy has resulted in a lot of catches – Minnesota is 31st in the NFL in opposing completion percentage (76.6) and 30th in opponent’s open percentage (85.8) – they’re often short ones as the Vikings have allowed the third-lowest average depth per target at 6.5 yards.
The Chiefs theoretically have the right outlet to combat that strategy in Kelce, but the Vikings have been very good at defending tight ends with just 82 yards allowed over their four games. They held the high-caliber Dallas Goedert to 22 yards on six catches against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2, while the Panthers’ Hayden Hurst caught just 1 of 3 targets for seven yards in Minny’s 21-13 win last Sunday.
Wide receivers, on the other hand, have accounted for over 70% of the receptions the Vikings have permitted and more than 86% of the receiving yards they’ve allowed. If that trend holds, how the Chiefs’ primary underneath wideouts – rookie Rashee Rice, Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney – perform may have a big say in the outcome.
None of the three have been particularly consistent this season. Rice has impressive burn and open rates of 84.2% in each category, but he and Toney have been among the biggest culprits to Kansas City’s poor overall drop rate. Moore has largely been a non-factor, recording zero catches in two of the four games despite being tied for the team lead in snaps from receivers.
Toney has been a disappointment to date as well with a mere 57 yards on nine catches for the season, but the former Giants first-round pick is certainly capable of having a greater impact as a short-range weapon. His average of 6.3 yards after the catch per reception since entering the league in 2021 ranks fifth among wide receivers with 60 or more catches over that time frame.
To further the point, running back Isiah Pacheco is third on the team with 10 receptions.
MIN Key: Protect the Ball
It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to pinpoint the single biggest factor for the Vikings’ 1-3 start, a league-high 11 giveaways and a minus-8 turnover margin that’s tied for 30th in the NFL.
It’s the utterly obvious Achilles heel for an offense that can be downright lethal when it isn’t screwing up. The Vikings lead the NFL with five touchdown passes of 30 or more yards and rank fifth overall in percentage of successful plays (42.9), and the four teams ahead of them (Miami Dolphins, San Francisco, Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia) are a combined 14-2.
The problem isn’t just the amount of mistakes the Vikings are making, it’s that they’re coming far too often in the most important situations.
Kirk Cousins has thrown four interceptions. Three have come inside the red zone, and two of those (an end-of-the-half pick against Tampa Bay in Week 1 and a final-play INT against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 3) were probably the difference in games Minnesota lost by three and four points, respectively. (He’s also lost three fumbles, while T.J. Hockenson, Justin Jefferson, Alexander Mattison and Brandon Powell have lost one.)
Cousins still ranks third in the NFL in well-thrown percentage (87.0) and has been mostly brilliant when operating outside the red zone, where he’s produced an excellent 72.4 completion percentage and a 107.1 passer rating that’s bettered only by the 49ers’ Brock Purdy among quarterbacks who have made multiple starts this season.
And he’s been great against the blitz, something the Chiefs have done at the fifth-highest rate in 2023. In those situations, Cousins has hit on 78.0% of his attempts with five touchdown passes and a 139.8 rating.
Inside the enemy’s 20-yard line has been an entirely different matter altogether, as Cousins has completed just 47.8% of his attempts with an atrocious 56.1 rating.
LOWEST PASSER RATING IN RED ZONE (MIN. 5 ATTEMPTS)
- Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders (21.3)
- Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings (56.1)
- Jimmy Garoppolo, Las Vegas Raiders (62.5)
- Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (65.3)
- Sam Howell, Washington Commanders (70.0)
Much like Mahomes’ inexplicable numbers against the blitz, it’s a bizarre turn of events for a quarterback who threw just two picks in 99 red-zone passes in 2022 and completed nearly 61% of his attempts.
Perhaps the offseason departure of Adam Thielen, a red-zone savant for much of his long tenure in Minnesota, offers some explanation, but it’s not like the Vikings lack quality receivers. Jefferson leads the NFL with 543 receiving yards while sporting a high burn percentage of 65.2, while Hockenson’s 25 catches are tied for the most among tight ends and he boasts an outstanding open rate of 83.9%.
Kansas City’s defense, which has allowed just 5.3 yards per pass play (fourth-best in the NFL) and a mere three points outside the red zone, will present a challenge. But so should the Vikings, a clear step up in competition than the two mostly dysfunctional offenses (the Bears and Jets) the Chiefs have seen the past two weeks.
It’s still a must that Minnesota cuts down on its turnovers and improves its play within the red zone, where it’s tied for last in the league in scoring efficiency (66.7%) and is tied for 29th in points per possession.
Since Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018, the Chiefs are 33-4 in games in which their opponents have two or more giveaways. In each of those losses, the opponent scored 29 or more points.
The Vikings may realistically need at least 30 to avoid falling to 1-4. That’s also not out of the realm of possibility, provided their possessions don’t continue to end in fumbles or picks.
Check out the rest of our picks, along with every team’s chances at making the playoffs in our NFL season predictions. We also have all the college football top 25 predictions for Week 6. And don’t forget to follow us on X and Instagram.