NFL

Chiefs’ offensive circus, NFL power rankings, Kyler Murray and more

Super Bowl favorites for the first time, the Kansas City Chiefs appear better than a year ago. If health prevails, Kansas City might author a tour de force.

If the Kansas City Chiefs don’t win Super Bowl LIV, their season is a failure.

This the reality for a franchise far more familiar with failure than success. Yet it’s the situation as the Chiefs enter 2019, with a 23-year-old demigod at quarterback, a fleet of weapons around him and a head coach who knows how to use them all.

Patrick Mahomes is the engine of the league’s snazziest car. Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins are a trio beyond reproach. The offensive line features a Pro Bowl left tackle in Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz, an All-Pro right tackle. The rookie class boasts receiver Mecole Hardman and running back Darwin Thompson. The former already has two touchdowns in the preseason. The latter has dynamic talent with blocking skill to match.

Unless the NFL allows teams to use 12 defenders against Kansas City, the only way to stop this group is four-man pressure. Last year, the Chiefs lost five games. Each time, the opposition got home without blitzing, and had either a Pro Bowl or All-Pro quarterback of its own. Four times, the game still came down to the final possession. Three times, it came to the final play.

In most years, contenders lose proven parts and attempt to rebuild either from within or using the draft. Kansas City lost little off its roster and simply loaded up further.

While Dee Ford and Justin Houston are gone, Frank Clark headlines a revamped front seven. Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah, Damien Wilson and Darron Lee were all acquired this spring, while Chris Jones continues to anchor the line. The secondary saw a complete overhaul, with Tyrann Mathieu, Bashaud Breeland and rookie safety Juan Thornhill being inserted into the lineup.

Quite simply, the Chiefs are the co-favorites in Las Vegas at 6/1 for winning the Super Bowl, alongside the New England Patriots. The two teams hooked up for classics last season, with New England twice winning on the last play of the game. In both affairs, Mahomes and the offense were flummoxed by Bill Belichick in the first half, combining to score six points. In the second half, Kansas City revved up, amassing 62 points.

It stands to reason Mahomes won’t always be confounded by Belichick for 30 minutes. When that game comes, so does a blowout win for Kansas City.

As with any NFL team, pitfalls are possible. The defense ranked 31st last year and needs to prove all the new parts can mesh. The Chiefs not only have new personnel, but are changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

There’s also the division, which is devoid of any walkovers. The Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos aren’t powers, but they possess talent. The Los Angeles Chargers have arguably the league’s best all-around roster — although the loss of Derwin James is enormous — and are Super Bowl favorites in some corners.

Still, this year is ripe for Kansas City. With Hill, Jones and star corner Kendall Fuller are scheduled for free agency after this season, the roster could take significant hits. Additionally, Mahomes is due for a mega extension he’ll almost certainly sign early in 2020, tying up ample cap space moving forward. It’s foolish to think the Chiefs won’t have chances after this season with Mahomes and Andy Reid, but it’s equally foolish to not realize how well set-up they are in the moment.

After an offsides penalty delayed their dreams eight months ago, the Chiefs now charge at football’s ultimate challenge once more. The pieces are in place for them to be even better.

It’s Super Bowl or bust for Kansas City.

Power rankings

Worst 10 quarterbacks to win a playoff game since 1990

1. Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos (2011)
2. T.J. Yates, Houston Texans (2011)
3. Shaun King, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1999)
4. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets (2009, 2010)
5. Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (2016)
6. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (2017)
7. Rex Grossman, Chicago Bears (2006)
8. Steve Walsh, Chicago Bears (1994)
9. Kordell Stewart, Pittsburgh Steelers (1997, 2001)
10. Aaron Brooks, New Orleans Saints (2000)

Quotable

“I’m not 21 anymore, so it’s probably pretty good to, if you can find a place in the schedule where you think you can get some rest and just kind of feel fresh again, might as well,”

– Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on getting more rest days

Stafford dealt with a back injury last season, impeding Detroit as it went 5-11. If Stafford and the Lions are going to bounce back in 2019, a litany of factors must go right. It starts with the quarterback being the best version of himself. Giving him veteran days is a good start.

Since 2011, Stafford had never dipped below 4,262 passing yards until last year, when he amassed 3,777. His 21 touchdown passes and 6.8 yards per attempt were his lowest figurs since 2012.

The NFC North is packed with contenders. If the Lions are going to compete with the Minnesota Vikings, Bears and Packers, it starts with Stafford finding his old form.

Podcast

Random stat

The NFC East is the only division to ever win four straight Super Bowls.

GOING DEEP: Prescott’s stance isn’t wild as believed

The New York Giants were champions in ’90, with the Washington Redskins earning the crown in ’91. The Dallas Cowboys then launched their dynasty, winning in ’92, ’93 and ’95.

Info learned this week

1. Brown, Raiders situation going nuclear over helmet

Mike Mayock’s statement was a bombshell by NFL standards. In essence, get here or get out.

The Raiders have dealt withAntonio Brown’s nonsense throughout the summer, and they’ve clearly reached breaking point. In this space a week ago, I wrote about head coach Jon Gruden supporting Brown, and how it was the only move. Now, with Brown disappearing from camp once more, going public with frustration tells everyone how uncontrollable the player has become.

Let’s get a few things cleared up. Oakland owes Brown $15 million this season. If he’s released, the Raiders would be looking at a $30 million dead cap hit. Not happening. They could attempt to go after his guaranteed money, but winning said battle against the NFLPA would be arduous and uphill, to be kind. As for trading him, good luck. Nobody is going near Brown.

As for Brown himself, trying to guess his next move is wasted time. Don’t apply a logical line of thinking to someone who isn’t logical. Brown could show up on Monday and pretend none of this happened. He could call a press conference and retire. Anything and everything is on the table.

What is certain is the Raiders are fed up. Oakland traded a pair of draft picks for Brown and packed $30 million into his existing deal. It expected to get an elite player in return. Instead, it’s gotten nothing but a migraine headache from the start.

Some will say the Raiders should have known. Brown was out of control his final year in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers dealt him away for pennies on the dollar. Regardless, Oakland made its bet, and so far, it’s a gigantic bust.

2. If Luck misses early time, Brissett will have golden opportunity

The Andrew Luck saga continues in Indianapolis.

Last week, we learned Luck has an ankle ailment to accompany his strained calf. We also heard general manager Chris Ballard non-committal on Luck’s availability for Week 1 against the Chargers. Unlike 2017 when Luck was recovering from a serious shoulder surgery, this doesn’t appear season-ending (although who can ever know?). However, if Luck has to miss a few games or go on the PUP list, the Colts might be in an inescapable hole.

GOING DEEP: Brissett could be league’s hottest free agent in 2020

Indianapolis has a brutal start to its season. After visiting Los Angeles, the slate reads as follows: at Tennessee, vs. Atlanta, vs. Oakland, at Kansas City, vs. Houston. Two divisional games, two brutal AFC West foes and a home-opener against the Falcons. Again, brutal.

Should Luck be out, Jacoby Brissett will be in. I wrote extensively on what this could mean for Brissett career (see above), as he readies for free agency in 2020. If the N.C. State product keeps the Colts alive and puts up numbers, nobody will be a hotter commodity come March.

Brissett, 26, is one of the league’s more well-regarded backups. If things don’t improve, Indianapolis will need him to step into the breach and perform, or watch a potential title contender fall by the wayside.

3. Chargers’ woes are mounting in preseason

Melvin Gordon. Derwin James. Russell Okung. Keenan Allen.  The Chargers are certainly without one come September, and could be without all four.

On Friday, word broke James will likely miss at least 6-8 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. Without the Pro Bowler, the Chargers defense will rely even more heavily on the pass-rushing prowess of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

As for the offense, Allen is expected back for Week 1 despite an ankle injury. Okung and Gordon are more uncertain, with the former on the NFI list due to a pulmonary embolism this offseason. His timetable remains unknown. Gordon is holding out and doesn’t appear headed towards the field anytime soon.

Ultimately, this could all be early-season drama we forget about come the stretch drive. Allen could be fine, Gordon could return, Okung hopefully gets cleared and James only misses six games. On the flip side, these situations could be key in keeping Los Angeles from winning the AFC West for the first time since 2009.

It’s only August, but it’s a rough start for the Chargers.

4. Eagles smart to find veteran backup in McCown

Here’s what I wrote before the Eagles signed Josh McCown, in preparation for this column:

Carson Wentz hasn’t finished a season in two years. Nick Foles now plays in Jacksonville.

Translation: the Philadelphia Eagles better find a capable backup.

The team entered training camp with Nate Sudfeld and Cody Kessler as the primary options behind Wentz. Shaky for sure, but with upside. Now, Sudfeld has a broken wrist and Kessler is battling back from a concussion. While both are expected back for the regular season, Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman should be considering a stronger insurance policy.

The Eagles don’t have much cap space, but finding a veteran for relatively cheap shouldn’t prove difficult. If Josh Rosen wins the battle with Ryan Fitzpatrick in Miami, the journeyman would be a terrific get for a late-round draft pick. Brian Hoyer of the Patriots also makes plenty of sense.

In a dream world, Wentz plays 16 games and Philadelphia maintains its status as legitimate contender. Reality, and recent history, suggests a different future could be in the offing.

In short, smart move.

5. Cards’ start shouldn’t surprise, but should raise concerns

The Arizona Cardinals are putting their future on Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury. The extremely early returns largely are inconsequential, but they do hint at a pair of issues.

In Thursday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders, Murray struggled. The No. 1 overall pick completed 3-of-8 passes for 12 yards. Yikes. Watching the tape, Murray struggled with accuracy and missed on some deeper throws which required touch. Murray was also under constant pressure.

Speaking of pressure, this is something to watch in Kingsbury’s offense. Speaking to an NFL assistant coach this offseason, there was concern over Arizona’s blocking schemes in this new-age offense. The notion was Kingsbury is asking for larger splits, which will make picking up blitzes harder. We’ve seen some of this issue in the preseason.

If the Cardinals can’t block better than they did a year ago for Josh Rosen, Murray is going to have a brutal campaign as teams identify the new scheme’s weaknesses.

History lesson

In 1973, the NFL adopted jersey number ranges. For example, quarterbacks today can only sport a jersey number between 1-19.

The last quarterback to roam outside that range? John Hadl. Hadl wore No. 21 for the San Diego Chargers, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams and Houston Oilers from 1962-77, grandfathered into the rule.

Hadl was a terrific player, winning an AFL championship with the Chargers in 1963. He was also a two-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in ’73 with the Rams.

Parting shot

The AFC North is a fascinating study this season. One perennial contender lost stars and is being forgotten about. One perennial doormat added them, and is now the Vegas frontrunner.

There’s also one more switch to consider. The consistently noisy Pittsburgh Steelers are all business now. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns can’t stop making headlines.

There are ample reasons to love the Browns’ roster. They traded for Odell Beckham Jr. They signed Sheldon Richardson and Kareem Hunt. They have Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward in their second seasons.

There are also reasons to worry about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are gone. Joe Haden is aging and oft-injured. The secondary has far more questions than answers.

Hell, don’t forget about the Baltimore Ravens, who actually won the North last year.

All told, though, Pittsburgh has a damn good chance to emerge when we’re through 17 weeks. Addition by subtraction is a real thing, and the Steelers losing Brown and Bell had to do wonders in the locker room. Pittsburgh also has a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Mike Tomlin who appears rejuvenated with the circus leaving town.

In Cleveland, nobody knows what Freddie Kitchens will become. Maybe he’s great, maybe he’s unemployed before New Year’s. No team’s start matters more than the Browns, where if things go sideways, it could go sideways.

The best story would be Cleveland rising from the proverbial ashes to become a power. But the games aren’t decided on narratives, but on execution, experience and talent.

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