The Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs are defined by MVP-caliber quarterback play. But while Aaron Rodgers is coming off a season-best six-touchdown performance against the Oakland Raiders, Patrick Mahomes is lucky to be standing on both knees.
Indeed, it’s Mahomes’ dislocated kneecap that takes some of the luster off of this matchup. Even though Mahomes somewhat miraculously returned to practice this week, the Chiefs removed any suspicion regarding his status when they officially ruled him out Friday afternoon. That means veteran Matt Moore, who played admirably during the second half of a comfortable win last weekend against the lowly Denver Broncos, will get the start. Mahomes may be in just his second season as a starter in the NFL, but the drop-off in performance from him to Moore, who has just five starts in the last seven seasons, is pretty substantial. Moore has fewer career TD passes (46) in more than a decade of play than Mahomes racked up just last season (50).
The Packers also offer a much higher level of competition. Red hot under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers are 6-1, tied for the second-best record in the NFC behind the undefeated San Francisco 49ers. And it’s their defense, not Rodgers, that has propelled them, last week’s offensive explosion notwithstanding. A strong performance against the Chiefs on Sunday night sends a message that this revamped team is worth considering as a Super Bowl contender.
Can Rodgers hand the Chiefs an unthinkable third straight loss at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL? Or will the Chiefs feel the pain of their MIA quarterback and suffer a third loss in four games after sprinting out to a 4-0 start?
Green Bay at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 27 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -3.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Moving on without Mahomes
The fact that this was even up for debate prior to Mahomes being ruled out Friday afternoon is a testament to his impressive physical condition. The typical recovery timeframe for a dislocated kneecap, even under a best-case scenario, is three weeks. But there was Mahomes, practicing Wednesday as if he hadn't slumped to the ground in total agony six days earlier, the Chiefs’ season hanging in the balance with every painful step off the field.
Following that performance, Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter was among those adamant that Mahomes could make an unlikely start this Sunday. Was head coach Andy Reid really considering such a risky move just 10 days after a serious injury? Or were they simply trying to throw the Packers off the scent? The intrigue only deepened when Mahomes made another appearance in Thursday's practice, but early Friday afternoon, Reid put an end to all of the speculation.
While this is disappointing to Chiefs fans, football fans in general, and certainly Mahomes' fantasy owners, the question for Reid all along was, why rush it? Moore threw a TD pass in the second half of last week's game, as the Chiefs easily shut out the Broncos after Mahomes’ goal-line injury. It was a crucial win that improved their record to 5-2 and gave them control of their own destiny in the AFC West.
Sure, a loss to the Packers would push them to 5-3 with another red-hot NFC North team, the Minnesota Vikings, in line after that. But even a 5-4 record won’t be enough to keep the Chiefs from winning the AFC West. Their main competition, the Los Angeles Chargers, sit at 2-5 and have been a mess in the fourth quarter of recent games. The Oakland Raiders sit at 3-3, but the Chiefs hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. (Mahomes will almost certainly be back for their next matchup in Week 13, which comes after the Kansas City's bye).
So with winning the Super Bowl the ultimate goal, it simply wasn't worth the risk to trot Mahomes out there, even for a prime-time matchup against one of the NFC's best (teams and quarterbacks). The Chiefs currently sit as the second seed in the AFC but already have fallen two games behind the Patriots and are unlikely to catch them. If they’re going to end up a division winner anyway, there was no reason to risk further injury to the face of the franchise.
That leaves the Chiefs in the capable hands of Moore, who showed with a 57-yard strike to Tyreek Hill that he was still capable of using the weapons at his disposal. This team may be led by Mahomes but still has a top-three receiver in the game in Hill, a high-end running back in LeSean McCoy, and an elite tight end in Travis Kelce. The offensive weaponry makes them difficult to cover on any down; Moore simply has to manage the game and wait for one of his options to get open.
The journeyman’s career record as a starter is 15-15, not terrible considering the awful teams he was a part of through seven years with the Miami Dolphins. After a week of reps with the first team, you have to expect he’ll be well prepared.
2. Can Aaron Rodgers follow up on his most recent performance?
Rodgers, believe it or not, had been a bit player through the Packers’ hot start. Through six games, he was on pace for just 21 touchdown passes, easily the lowest total of his career over a 16-game season. LaFleur’s offensive system, putting more of an emphasis on the rushing attack, had kept Rodgers’ numbers down, along with a long-term injury to star receiver Davante Adams (turf toe).
But you can’t keep a Hall of Fame quarterback down forever. Rodgers finally exploded against a hapless Raiders defense, slicing through the secondary and connecting with a hodgepodge group of pass-catchers (aging tight end Jimmy Graham doesn’t really count). Jake Kumerow? Jamaal Williams? Allen Lazard? These are the names of average players Rodgers’ arm is capable of turning into superstars.
The one top receiver who was healthy last week, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, burst onto the scene with two incredible deep catches. His season-high 133 yards receiving included a 74-yard touchdown that put the game away in the fourth quarter. Assuming Adams is able to work his way back —he remains questionable at press time — the Chiefs defense will be even more stretched, opening up the field for another Valdes-Scantling bomb.
Keep in mind that the Chiefs, while ranking 10th against the pass, are just 24th on defense in total yards. It’s a soft enough unit that Rodgers can carve it up at will if he’s hot. And, make no mistake — Rodgers is on top of his game right now.
3. Can the Packers defense keep up this pace?
Much of the early-season story regarding the Packers has been about their resurgent defense. A goal-line turnover against Derek Carr swung the game last week against the Raiders; the Packers remain second in the NFC behind Carolina with 13 takeaways. Given that Moore hasn’t started an NFL game since 2017, one would expect that total to rise.
That makes defensive line play increasingly important. A unit that started out firing on all cylinders didn’t sack Carr once last week. The Smiths (Preston and Za’Darius) need to add to their total of 13 sacks and put pressure on Moore to rush his throws.
Both the Packers and Chiefs average a little over one turnover per game. If the Packers defense can push that number up to two or three? They’ll win handily.
Even with no Patrick Mahomes running the show, I think Matt Moore is plenty capable of helping Kansas City keep this game close. But to me, Sunday night becomes a referendum on Matt LaFleur, Aaron Rodgers, and Green Bay's new-look attack. It’s a chance to show that this team is back in front of a national audience against a top-tier opponent who enters the game wounded.
I fully expect the Packers to show exactly that. LaFleur has done an outstanding job in his first year as head coach, and we’re about to see the fruits of that labor up close.
Prediction: Green Bay 34, Kansas City 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.