The timing could not be better. With the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints fighting to claim the lone first-round byes in their respective conferences, Drew Brees is set to make his return from a punctured lung and 11 fractured ribs when the teams face off on Sunday.
The 41-year-old future Hall of Famer has been out since taking a crushing sack against the 49ers in Week 10, and the Saints have managed without him. They haven't looked great; scoring is down from 30.1 ppg to 24.3 ppg. But Taysom Hill did enough for New Orleans to win three out of four games.
That good luck came to an end last week when their streak of dominating defense and efficient offense unexpectedly crashed in Philadelphia. The Eagles dominated the Saints on both sides of the line of scrimmage and led 17-0 at halftime. Despite scoring touchdowns during their first two possessions in the second half, the Saints could never grab the lead and fell behind the Packers in the NFC standings due to tiebreakers.
The Chiefs also found themselves trailing early, this time 10-0 at Miami early in the second quarter. But they responded with 30 unanswered points through the end of the third quarter. The Dolphins made the final quarter interesting by scoring 17 points. However, in the end, Kansas City had emerged with its eighth consecutive victory and the AFC's top seed.
The Chiefs lead this all-time series, 6-5, and even hold a 4-2 lead for games played in New Orleans. Kansas City has won the two most recent meetings between these teams, but things can be expected to look different with Mahomes meeting Brees for the first time.
Kansas City at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 20 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Travis Kelceagainst the Saints' secondary
Tight end Travis Kelce is one of the most potent weapons at Patrick Mahomes' disposal. Kelce leads the Chiefs in receptions (90) and receiving yards (1,250). He also ranks second on the team with nine touchdown receptions. Those marks also rank second, first (by 283 yards), and tied for first among tight ends league-wide.
The Saints defense has shown vulnerability to opponents' tight ends. Raiders star Darren Waller enjoyed his second-most productive day of the season so far, 12 receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown. The Packers' Robert Tonyan caught five passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. San Francisco's Jordan Reed also turned in his second-most impressive performance of 2020 at New Orleans, accounting for five catches for 62 yards. In Philadelphia, Dallas Goedert hauled in four passes for 43 yards. Three of those four commendable efforts contributed to New Orleans' defeats during this season, so stopping Kelce is a must.
2. Has the Saints' rushing defense been exposed?
In last week's loss, the Saints allowed a 100-yard rusher for the first time since Washington's Samaje Perine did so on Nov. 19, 2017. However, the Saints actually allowed two players, Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders, to surpass the 100-yard hurdle on the ground. That marks the first time that two players on an opposing offense gained more than 100 rushing yards during Sean Payton's tenure in New Orleans, which began in 2006.
The Chiefs have experienced significant extremes in their ability to run the ball. They have exceeded 100 yards on the ground in seven games and over 200 yards once. They also been limited to 50 or fewer rushing yards twice. In terms of yards per carry, they have ranged as low as 2.5 and as high as 6.1 in games this season.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire accounts for a huge portion of Kansas City's running attack by averaging 60.3 rushing yards per game. He has carried the ball 167 times, more than three times anyone else on the Chiefs' roster. His 724 rushing yards are nearly three times the amount from the second-highest contributor, Mahomes. Edwards-Helaire has scored four of the Chiefs' 11 rushing touchdowns. Le'Veon Bell has been a relative non-factor with 41 carries for 162 yards and a score in seven games.
So which Saints defense will show up? The one that ranks second in the league at 89.2 rushing yards allowed per game and 3.7 yards per rush. Or the one that just got gashed last week, leading to an embarrassing loss?
3. How will Brees look in his return?
This is the big question everyone has been wondering about since Brees went down five weeks ago. His injuries sound awful for any player, and there's a tiny sample of players who have played at his age, let alone come back from these painful injuries.
Despite his age and lessened arm strength, Brees had been playing at a high level when healthy. He was leading the league in completion rate (73.5 percent) even as his average intended air yards dipped significantly for the second straight season from 7.1 to 6.4 to 5.4 yards per attempt. Also importantly, he had 18 touchdowns to three interceptions and was only sacked 10 times in nine games — even if the 10th one was season-altering.
The question is whether his 11 broken ribs and collapsed lung have healed sufficiently for him to play up to his high standards. If he's unable to complete the game, the Saints would likely be in big trouble. Beating the Chiefs requires dominating the turnover margin — even when Mahomes threw three interceptions last week, the Dolphins still lost by five. And that has been the Saints' backups biggest problem.
Taysom Hill has been a weapon on the ground and completed passes at a high rate (72.3 percent), but he also has 10 fumbles already this season and two interceptions. He's also taken 14 sacks in just four full games at quarterback. Jameis Winston is no better in that department. Although he has thankfully avoided any picks in 11 attempts this season, he has 88 in 75 career games.
Thanks to the Steelers' second consecutive defeat last Sunday, the Chiefs have risen to first place in the AFC. In order to guarantee themselves the top seed in the AFC playoffs, they need to win their final three contests. This contest in New Orleans appears to be the most formidable obstacle remaining in the Chiefs' path toward the lone first-round bye.
The Saints let the top seed in their conference slip through their fingers in Philadelphia. In order to regain the lead in the NFC, the Packers will need to drop at least one game, and New Orleans will likely need to sweep its final three matches. Can the Saints overcome a much tougher opponent this week to start a new winning streak?
Prediction: Chiefs 37, Saints 30
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.