Kansas City begins their Super Bowl title defense at home against Houston to kick off the 2020 season in the shadow of COVID-19
The last time we saw the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs play together, the NFL — and the country — was in a very different place. It was Jan. 19, 2020, and most Americans didn't even know what a coronavirus was. Tom Brady was still a New England Patriot, Kobe Bryant was a living NBA ambassador, and the Chiefs hadn't yet won a Super Bowl under Andy Reid.
It sure looked like that drought would continue, too. The Texans sucker-punched the Chiefs right out of the gate, capitalizing on a series of sloppy errors to build a 24-0 lead by the second quarter. Patrick Mahomes and Co. appeared to be punched in the face by Deshaun Watson's group.
Boy, did they punch back. The rest of the quarter, the Chiefs scored 28 unanswered points, an explosive offensive attack in which three of four scoring drives were less than two minutes. (The fourth? A measly 2:03.) That 28-24 halftime lead was one the Chiefs would never relinquish; they dominated the second half en route to a 51-31 thrashing.
And they never looked back. It was a confidence-building moment, momentum the Chiefs carried all the way through to their Super Bowl LIV victory. Their title defense begins on the precipice of an uncertain future, COVID-19 dominating the news but rearmed with most puzzle pieces that got them the trophy: head coach Reid, Pro Bowl quarterback Mahomes, and offensive weapons Travis Kelce (TE), Tyreek Hill (WR), and Sammy Watkins (WR). This 2020 NFL kickoff serves as their coronation; will they retain their place atop the NFL elite, building their own dynasty now that the New England Patriots are in a post-Brady era?
The Texans, meanwhile, remain reeling from that January TKO. The team traded away Watson's top weapon, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, during the offseason for oft-injured running back David Johnson. The move fueled criticism of head coach/GM Bill O'Brien, who seemingly enters 2020 on the hot seat despite four playoff appearances in the past five seasons.
Starting the year by enacting revenge on the Chiefs would be a great way to quiet the critics. Even with the uncertainty of play with COVID-19... that's a tall order.
Houston at Kansas City
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 10 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -9
Three Things To Watch
1. How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect the level of play?
Looming over this game, Week 1 and the entire NFL season is the COVID-19 pandemic. You can't get around it; continued daily testing means this preview could become outdated the second a player tests positive the day of a game. The entire preseason was canceled, meaning for many fans, the first time they get to see any football action is Thursday night. Roster cuts, depth charts, and building camaraderie were done through scrimmages, practice sessions, and front office maneuvering. Even the best media experts, through limited team interaction, don't really know what's coming out of the gate.
Already, several players have opted out due to fears of catching the virus. The Chiefs starting right guard last season, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, has opted out for the season in order to work at a medical facility in Canada. Damien Williams, the team's leading rusher from 2019, is joining him on the sidelines. That means first-round draft pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire will have a larger workload earlier than expected; no one really knows how he'll do in an NFL game setting.
Home-field advantage, long a strength of the Chiefs, will also be muted. Arrowhead Stadium has been reduced to 22 percent capacity for Thursday night's home game. Mask-wearing will be required, tailgating will be limited, and physical distancing means the "crowd" will be spread out in pods.
The Texans, as the road team with a more limited COVID-19 impact, should be on a more level playing field in theory. But you just don't know; any positive tests between now and Thursday could take out key cogs in their lineup. It's a weekly mystery that will continue to unfold and impact every game of the 2020 NFL season up through the Super Bowl.
2. Does Deshaun Watson have enough offensive weapons to compete?
Watson, the leader of the Texans offense, was rewarded last week with a four-year, $160 million contract extension. While not quite the level of Mahomes' 10-year, $477 million extension signed this offseason, it's clear this elite-level quarterback will be contending with Houston in the AFC for years to come.
The question for Watson is who steps up in the receiving corps with Hopkins catching passes elsewhere. Will Fuller V was a boom-or-bust receiver at times last year, balancing a 217-yard, three-touchdown performance against Atlanta in October with four games catching two passes or fewer. (Fuller also missed five more games due to injury.) He had 89 receiving yards against the Chiefs in January and will be asked to step up to a leading role.
Offseason trade acquisition Brandin Cooks, limited in practice this week (quad), will combine with free agent Randall Cobb to give Watson some deep threats. But both are coming off so-so seasons, at best, with Cooks posting just 583 yards with the Los Angeles Rams (less than half his total from 2018). Cobb benefited greatly from Amari Cooper alongside him in Dallas and, at 30, is at a pivotal moment in his career.
As the season progresses, the Texans running game will take center stage after their blockbuster trade. But the Chiefs are going to score points; that much is clear. You're going to have to beat them punch-for-punch, and that means Watson working magic through the air.
3. Travis Kelce, Take II?
Mahomes should Mahomes Thursday night; that perhaps give 2020 a brief moment of normalcy. The 2019 NFL MVP torched the Texans in January with 321 passing yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions in that playoff romp.
Don't expect a slow 2020 start. In fact, last year it took Mahomes until Week 6 to throw a pick (ironically, vs. Houston during a 31-24 regular season loss Oct. 13, a game which feels like it happened 100 years ago).
It's unlikely lightning will strike twice and Mahomes will make silly mistakes versus the Texans. However, one of his top weapons, Travis Kelce, was limited in practice this week with a knee injury. He was the top receiver in Mahomes' arsenal during the January comeback, torching the Texans for 10 receptions, 134 yards, and three touchdowns. It would be a tough loss to have him sit with Edwards-Helaire debuting at running back and Mahomes adjusting to new protection without Duvernay-Tardif.
The Texans have come into this stadium and defeated the Chiefs before, knocking them onto their knees last October. But that was a very different team than the Super Bowl champions that they'll face Thursday night.
This offseason, you could argue the Chiefs held serve, even with their COVID-19 dropouts. The Texans? They got worse, in particular on offense. That's not a good mix on a night where the Chiefs will already be on an emotional high beginning their title defense.
This one won't be close.
Prediction: Kansas City 38, Houston 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.