Packers vs. Chiefs: 5 things to watch and a prediction

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When the NFL’s schedule was announced in May, the Week 9 meeting between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs was in the running for the best game of the year. With Aaron Rodgers out and the Chiefs struggling, some of the shine has left this once epic matchup. But Sunday’s game is still a game between the Packers, who have been in the NFC title game each of the last two seasons, and the Chiefs, the AFC champions in back-to-back years.

Can Jordan Love, in his first NFL start, step into the spotlight and produce a star-caliber performance with Patrick Mahomes on the other sideline?

Here are five things to watch and a prediction for Sunday’s showdown:

All we need is...Love?

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The obvious one first. All eyes will be on Jordan Love, the 2020 first-round pick who is set to make his first NFL start on Sunday. There are a million things to watch within this one subplot. Will he play fast and mistake-free? How will Matt LaFleur protect him? Is the offense going to change significantly? How will he manage the game? Can he find big plays behind a good offensive line? Is the moment going to be too big for him? Will his play have any effect on the future decision at quarterback? This is such a big moment, both for the player and team. And it’s a terrific evaluation opportunity. Love will have a talented supporting cast and a great playcaller on his side against a poor defense.

Big dose of 33 and 28?

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The Packers gave Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon 31 rushing attempts and 38 total touches during last Thursday night’s win over the Cardinals. With Rodgers out and Love in, expect a similar plan on Sunday in Kansas City. Jones and Dillon’s ability in the run game and passing game could take a lot of heat off the young quarterback, especially early as he settles in. And feeding the ball to the running back duo would be an effective strategy regardless of the quarterback. The Chiefs are giving up 4.6 yards per carry and have the NFL’s worst run defense grade at Pro Football Focus so far this season. The gameplan could revolve around getting the ball to the running backs and hitting big plays off run action.

Big play preventers

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How have teams made life difficult on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs this season? At least part of the plan has been playing two-deep coverages, preventing explosive plays down the field and forcing the Chiefs to operate perfectly on a long drive to score. Mahomes is certainly capable, but he’s a big-play hunter, and his hunts have been coming up empty more often this season. The Packers defense is designed to take away big plays and force offenses to go on long drives to score, so this looks like a good scheme for slowing down Mahomes and the Chiefs. All it takes is one penalty, or one negative play, or one poor decision to derail a drive. The Packers need to make sure the explosive plays are limited from playmakers like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and force Mahomes to dink and dunk his way down the field.

Return of All-Pros

Photo by Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s possible both Davante Adams and David Bakhtiari will return Sunday. The return of the two All-Pros would provide a big boost for an offense starting a young quarterback in a hostile environment. What’s more helpful than a receiver that can consistently get open and a left tackle that can take away the blindside? The Packers might also return Marquez Valdes-Scantling, providing a deep threat who can open up the intermediate areas, and getting back Bakhtiari would allow the Packers to move Elgton Jenkins back to the interior, solidifying the inside. This offense could be at or near full strength around Love on Sunday. Considering how poor the Chiefs have played defensively, both against the run and pass (seven defenders have allowed a passer rating of 100.0 or more against their coverage, per PFF), this is a real opportunity for Matt LaFleur to show his offense is much more than just the MVP quarterback.

Turning up the heat

(AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

No quarterback has been under pressure on more dropbacks this season than Mahomes, and no quarterback has thrown more interceptions under pressure than Mahomes (five). He’s also third in turnover-worth plays under pressure (seven), per PFF. Can the Packers turn up the heat and force Mahomes into poor decisions on Sunday? He’s willing to throw to covered players downfield while extending plays and inviting pressure. Not surprisingly, the Packers have won the turnover battle each game during the seven-game win streak. And the Chiefs are last in the NFL with 19 turnovers. Getting a few takeaways on Mahomes is one path to an upset win on the road.

Prediction: Packers 27, Chiefs 24 (5-3)

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

I went back and forth on this prediction. Jordan Love is a great unknown, but the Packers are talented around him, and there’s a lot to like about the matchup between the Packers offense and Chiefs defense. Plus, Joe Barry’s defense scheme is designed around doing what Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have struggled to figure out during the 2021 season. There are a lot of factors pointing Green Bay’s direction. My gut told me to take the Packers last week but I wasn’t sure Matt LaFleur’s team could overcome that much adversity. They did. They can overcome this and win. Think of it this way: Are the Packers with Love not considerably better than Daniel Jones and the Giants, who had a chance to beat the Chiefs last week in Kansas City?

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