Alex Smith and the Chiefs aim for a 4-0 start when they host the Redskins
Here’s a little trivia for you: who had the highest quarterback rating in the NFL three weeks into the season?
Whoops. Guess again.
Aaron Rodgers? Dak Prescott? Drew Brees.
Nope, nope, and nope. The answer comes from a most unexpected place, one of many reasons why the Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) are emerging as a dark horse Super Bowl contender.
That’s right; the very same guy some predicted would be replaced by first-round pick Patrick Mahomes outplayed Brady in Week 1 and has been near perfect. He’s thrown for 774 yards, seven touchdowns and no picks while combining with rookie running back Kareem Hunt to form a 1-2 offensive punch for the NFL’s lone remaining undefeated team following Atlanta’s home loss to Buffalo on Sunday.
Washington (2-1) feels like it has some offensive firepower of its own even though Kirk Cousins, after an awful Week 1 showing against Philadelphia, was left for dead by some. But he has been lights out since and now sits fifth in the NFL in quarterback rating (105.3).
Which one of these unexpected stars will shine brightest tonight? The Chiefs are trying to stay perfect and a game clear of the Broncos in the AFC West. The Redskins are looking to make it three wins in a row and tie the Eagles for first in the NFC East.
Incidentally, these two teams have played nine times previously with Kansas City winning all but one of those games. Washington’s last win over the Chiefs came way back in 1983.
Washington at Kansas City
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Chiefs -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Redskins’ defense pressure Alex Smith?
While Smith has been brilliant thus far in 2017, he also has been sacked a total of 12 times through three weeks. Only Aaron Rodgers (who has already played four games) has been sacked more entering the Week 4 finale.
It’s kind of a weird stat, especially since the offensive line has opened holes for the spectacular Kareem Hunt to explode through. But Washington’s defense, in particular the linebacking corps, is licking its chops at what the Redskins view as an opportunity.
Both Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith have at least a half-sack in every game thus far this season. Outstanding nights by both of them would put the pressure on Smith and perhaps force him into the one mistake he hasn’t made this year – an interception.
2. Can the Redskins’ run game come close to matching Hunt?
Hunt (right), the best rookie of the first three weeks if not the best player period, shows no signs of slowing down. With 401 yards, he leads the NFL entering tonight and is one of those guys likely to gain 80-100 yards per game regardless of the defensive front. I don’t think the Redskins or anyone is slowing him down anytime soon; he’s becoming this year’s Ezekiel Elliott.
But can the Redskins come close to matching Hunt’s production? Their rushing attack, boasting 409 rushing yards in total, ranks seventh in the NFL. With Chris Thompson, Rob Kelley and rookie Samaje Perine, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh has options.
Thompson, in particular, has developed into a pass-catching force. His 231 receiving yards leads the team and he’s perhaps the most under-the-radar running back in the NFL. Monday night gives him a chance to show that Hunt is not the only guy who can have a breakout performance.
3. Who will win the turnover battle?
Good teams hold onto the football. The Andy Reid-coached Chiefs understand the value of fundamentals and have a plus-four turnover margin, tied for third in the NFL entering Week 4. They’ve only given the ball away once (Hunt’s fumble on his first career carry vs. the Patriots in Week 1) in three games, an outstanding track record.
The Redskins, meanwhile have been prone to silly mistakes. Only three teams – the Bears, Browns and Bengals – have more than Washington’s six giveaways, and those other three teams have played four games. It’s no surprise that Chicago, Cleveland and Cincinnati have combined for a record of 2-10 through four weeks.
Kirk Cousins will have to hold onto the ball while dealing with a raucous Arrowhead Stadium crowd and avoid the mistakes that have doomed past road performances. That’s not going to be easy against a Kansas City defense that remains formidable (19.0 ppg allowed) despite injuries to players like All-Pro safety Eric Berry that have depleted its ranks.
Arrowhead Stadium remains one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. In the past three years, the Chiefs are 19-6 there and gain an extra edge from their raucous fan base. Keep in mind the Redskins have never won here and their only win against the Chiefs came at RFK Stadium back when Joe Gibbs was the head coach, not a NASCAR owner.
It’s a difficult type of environment to play in, one that has haunted Kirk Cousins at times in the past. Expect another mistake-free performance by Alex Smith as the Chiefs remain one of the NFL’s early surprises and run their record to 4-0.
Prediction: Chiefs 31, Redskins 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.