Here it is, finally, the 104th NFL Season opener begins Thursday, and it signals the beginning of the Super Bowl LVIII quest for the Kansas City Chiefs. As far as previews, the first week is a tough one to gauge because we didn’t see much from either team in the preseason. So this game comes down to who is available on the roster, and who can step up for Kansas City with potentially two key players not available against the Detroit Lions.
Patrick Mahomes, who is considered the top player in the game today, will not disappoint in the opener. He currently sits at 5-0 as an opening-day starter. Last season, Mahomes went 30-39 passing for 360 yards, five touchdowns, and a 144.2 passer rating against the woeful Arizona Cardinals. Do I think he’ll play a similar game on Thursday?
He could because he’s facing a defense that was ranked 29th last season. The Lions gave up an average of 392.4 yards per game in the air and 146.5 yards on the ground. Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn will be pushing his team to make an immediate difference. With second-year pass rusher DE Aidan Hutchinson leading the line play and safety, and CJ Gardner-Johnson leading the secondary, this defense could be dangerous in week one.
Notwithstanding the superior offensive line play of the Chiefs new revamped line, Lions Head Coach Dan Campbell will likely put an emphasis on stopping the air attack that Head Coach Andy Reid and Offensive Coordinator Matt Nagy will implement.
Although the typical first 15 scripted plays Reid utilizes will feature a heavy dose of RB Isaiah Pacheco and Jerrick McKinnon, don’t be surprised if we see some early looks featuring a couple of the new receivers like Justyn Ross and Rashee Rice. The Lions may not have their hands full in trying to cover the new, unknown commodities and constantly double-teaming Travis Kelce. He hyper-extended his knee in practice on Tuesday, and he’s a big question mark for Thursday.
If Kelce defies the odds, he opened last year with 121 yards, eight catches with a touchdown against the Cardinals. He will be a force, as usual. Even at the tender age of 33, future Hall of Famer Kelce is still the best tight end in the game and will be the best tight end to ever play.
Speaking of the air game, I’m going to predict that Mahomes will throw between 350 – 400 yards for the game. That number could shrink if the offensive line has troubles with Hutchinson and the Lions blitz game.
Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be playing without Chris Jones on the line for this game. This puts pressure on the defensive line led by George Karlaftis, Mike Danna on the outside, and Turk Wharton and Derrick Nnadi inside. Fortunately, the Chiefs aren’t facing a Tom Brady offense. Instead, it’s QB Jared Goff. On opening day a year ago, Goff had a solid game against the Super Bowl loser the Philadelphia Eagles. On that day, Goff went 21-37 for 215 yards, two touchdowns with one interception and a passer rating of 80.3. Throughout the season, Goff did get better at managing the game as the Lions went on a 9-2 tear to finish their season. He adjusted to being a game manager and that nearly pushed his team into the playoffs.
To negate the Jones, drop-off, the Chiefs must get a heavy push by the entire defensive line. I expect the big bodies in Nnadi, rookie DT Keondre Coburn, and the new addition, DT Neil Farrell to get that pressure on Goff. Turk Wharton coming off an injury is a wild card for the Chiefs.
In the middle of the defense led by MLB Nick Bolton with OLBs Willie Gay and Leo Chenal, Steve Spagnuolo will have a few blitz packages ready that should put the Lions on notice early. I expect good things from the linebackers this year with the addition of LB Drue Tranquill and second-year man LB Jack Cochrane.
The defensive looks are designed to disrupt the offensive flow and bring heat from all directions while the defensive secondary will likely use a combination of zone and man coverages. Although last year the Chiefs were burned when employing zone coverage several times, expect a little more cohesive player transition from zone to zone this year.
The preseason did not give us enough of an idea of exactly where Spagnuolo is going with this year’s defensive scheme, I expect we’ll see the secondary step up and play tighter coverage on the outside. Between CBs L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie to safeties, Justin Reid, and Bryan Cook, we’ll see some ball-hawking from this secondary that may surprise everybody.
ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
One thing is always certain, Special Teams Coordinator Dave Toub will have his unit ready. Richie James is likely to return punts and kick-offs. I doubt we see Super Bowl Hero; Kadarius Toney play any special teams. Kicker, Harrison Butker is concerned is reliability and consistency. He struggled a few times last season but was booting the ball with authority in the preseason.
Punter, Tommy Townsend has a lot riding on the season. He hired a new agent, Dew Rosenhaus, and is primed for a big payday. Like Butker, Townsend had a solid preseason. We’ve yet to see him have any jitters, so I suspect he’ll be as solid as ever.
I’m anxious to see if he can get that punter swagger that former punter Dustin Colquitt had as he progressed in his career with the Chiefs. You know, consistently dropping punts behind the 10-yard line, great sideline punts put the opposing offense on the hashmark rather than the middle of the field. That’s where Townsend needs to concentrate. Really working those directional punts gives the Chiefs defense positional strategy and can turn the game their way.
I think this game will end up in the win column. Even without Kelce, KC’s starting offense is unlike anything else in the NFL. The combination of Reid, Mahomes, and the loud confines of GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, is a winning combination.
Kansas City Chiefs 35 – Detroit Lions 17