Houston at KANSAS CITY
Although many would love to boil this one down to a showdown between Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, two of the brightest young signal callers in the NFL, there is a ton more going on here than that.
Mahomes rates a slight edge over Watson, maybe even a bit more than that, but nowhere near the gap between the Chiefs and the Texans that establishes Kansas City as a 9½-point favorite Sunday.
It’s not that the Texans and Watson don’t deserve to be here – they clearly do – but with about six minutes to play in the third quarter Saturday against Buffalo, Houston had managed 92 yards of total offense and was being shut out, 16-0.
If the Texans have another start like that this week, this game will be over by halftime.
Houston will need a much better performance from an offensive line that has struggled all season, allowing 49 sacks in the regular season and seven more Sunday.
As a result, Watson was jumpy and indecisive in the pocket and limited by the lack of a second option after DeAndre Hopkins, with Will Fuller once again inactive and the reluctance of coach Bill O’Brien to feed Carlos Hyde more on the ground early and get the ball to Duke Johnson, who was his most effective weapon on the day.
J.J. Watt was huge last week, even though he was limited all day and clearly protected his left side where he tore a pectoral muscle. But Watt made a few plays, and his presence keeps offenses from focusing on Whitney Mercilus and Zach Cunningham, who have game-wrecking abilities in their own right.
Playing the Bills compared with the Chiefs and Mahomes is kind of like saying the ACT and the bar exam are similar tests.
Defensively, the Chiefs are vastly improved over where they were even eight weeks ago.
Expect Chris Jones and Frank Clark to have similar success as the Bills with harassing Watson, although Kansas City won’t send pressure from as many defenders as the Bills did, and Tyrann Mathieu and Kendall Fuller are a lot more dangerous than any of the Bills’ defensive backs not named Tre’Davious White.
However, it is on offense where Kansas City tends to run away and hide from folks.
Because the Chiefs are so explosive through the air, it is easy to forget they were only the 23rd-best rushing team in the league this year. But Houston’s run defense was only 25th and 27th in average gain per rush, a real danger as no back in the league matched Damien Williams’ 84- and 91-yard runs this season, and although up in years, LeSean McCoy still can take off at any time.
You already know about the dangers of Mahomes targeting Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, etc., so it appears the only path to victory for the Texans may be guarding the football with their lives, taking it away from the Chiefs several times and keeping that Kansas City offense on the sideline as long as possible by running the ball.
That would be an extremely tough putt anywhere, but doubly difficult in Kansas City, where Arrowhead Stadium yields one of the biggest home-field edges in the league.