Back in August, the NFL's Week 9 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs was considered a potential Super Bowl preview. Two former MVP quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, seemed well-positioned to lead their teams deep into the playoffs once again.
Instead, Sunday afternoon feels like a game of survival. While the Packers have lived up to their side of the bargain, racing out to a 7-1 record, Rodgers will be unavailable for this weekend after testing positive for COVID-19. The protocols also revealed he is unvaccinated, meaning the earliest he can return to practice is next Saturday.
That leaves second-year quarterback Jordan Love in line for his first NFL start. It's a chance for the Packers to see what life without Rodgers might be like if this year is, indeed, his last with the team.
Love will face a desperate Chiefs squad that's stumbling through a sloppy first half of the year. Sitting at 4-4, they wouldn't make the playoffs if the season ended today and face an uphill climb to get back in the AFC West race. The second-half schedule is loaded with high-quality opponents: they don't have a single game left against a team with a losing record.
That increases the pressure on the Chiefs to take advantage here. Can their defense, under heavy criticism, get their act together against an unproven quarterback? Or will the Packers pull through adversity for a second straight week after beating the Cardinals without star wide receiver Davante Adams?
Green Bay (7-1) at Kansas City (4-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Jordan Love do in his first NFL start?
Love starts Sunday with a clean slate. In his only real NFL regular-season action, he went 5-for-7 for 68 yards against the Saints, replacing Rodgers during a lopsided Week 1 loss when the game was already out of hand. The Californian was hotly pursued by the Packers, who traded up to take him 26th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, after setting a Utah State record with 9,003 yards of total offense.
The move set off a Rodgers tantrum that led to a summer holdout and questions as to whether he'd even be back with the team. Now, with the star quarterback sidelined, we're about to find out if Love was worth the drama.
The good news is there's a full complement of offensive pieces around him. Adams returns this week after his own stint on the COVID-19 list. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon provided 137 yards of rushing offense in last week's win against the previously undefeated Cardinals. Veteran Randall Cobb had two big touchdown catches while tight end Robert Tonyan (now out for the season with a torn ACL) caught three balls for 49 yards.
Love goes up against a Chiefs defense ranked dead last in total yards per play (6.43) and 25th against the pass (269.8 ypg). But it's honestly hard to gauge how a guy will do when he hasn't been on the field in two years. He could be the next Mike White or the next Brandon Weeden. We'll soon find out.
2. When will Patrick Mahomes stop turning the ball over?
It's wild how often the 2018 NFL MVP has been his own worst enemy this season. Another interception during a 20-17 squeaker against the Giants brought his total to 10 on the year. By comparison, he threw 11 picks in the last two seasons combined.
Mahomes' struggles come despite his supporting cast still playing at a high level. Tyreek Hill leads the league with 64 receptions totaling 735 yards and six touchdowns. Travis Kelce, with 563 receiving yards of his own, leads NFL tight ends.
Sure, Mahomes has been hurt by a rushing attack that's without Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who remains on injured reserve with a knee injury. Helaire went over 100 yards in two of the first five games; replacement Darrel Williams hasn't mustered up more than 62, averaging an anemic 3.5 yards per carry.
But it's holding onto the ball that has to be the focus of this offense going forward. The Chiefs are last in the league with 19 giveaways, producing an anemic turnover margin of minus-11. During their first three years of the Mahomes era, they were plus-23 as the quarterback has been getting far too aggressive on throws.
Head coach Andy Reid spoke out on the situation this week, agreeing Mahomes was trying to do too much. "Sometimes," he said, "You can try so hard that you do something that you normally wouldn't do."
Mahomes pushed back on that assumption, claiming he "tries to score every time we touch the football. That's how it’s been my entire career here."
With Love and not Rodgers leading the Packers' offense on Sunday, the Chiefs really don't need to do that. Slow, clock-eating drives would put pressure on the young quarterback who's unlikely to throw for a touchdown every time he's got the ball. But that's not really Kansas City's style. Can Mahomes take a minute, breathe and be a game manager to rebuild confidence?
3. Can the Chiefs' defense come through?
This unit actually showed some signs of life last week against the Giants. Limiting them to just 17 points, the pressure was put on Daniel Jones, who was sacked three times and forced into a costly interception that proved the difference. It's the second time in the last three games this group has allowed less than 20 points.
Will that build into a trend against Love and the Packers? Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged the challenge of an unknown quarterback while also stressing the importance of defending the whole Packers offense — not just one guy.
"I'll tell you this," he explained this week. "Those two running backs (Dillon and Jones) are as good as we've faced — and will face — in my opinion. What they do with them, I think is really, really good.
"I would expect that they would feature those guys. But we'll see."
Focusing on stopping the run and forcing Love to beat them through the air is the likely strategy here. But that's easier said than done considering Kansas City is a middling 21st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 122 yards per game on the ground.
This game depends entirely on how you feel about Love. There's such limited NFL game film to go on, although a weaker defense will provide the 23-year-old an opportunity to succeed. Perhaps at Lambeau Field, there'd be a better chance for the Packers to pull off the upset.
Instead, the Chiefs have one of the best home-field advantages (Arrowhead Stadium) in all of sports and understand the sense of urgency. It's hard to see a Reid-coached team, with Mahomes under center, 4-5 at the halfway mark of the year. Kansas City hasn't lost that many games over a full season since Alex Smith was the starting quarterback in 2017.
Prediction: Chiefs 35, Packers 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.