Chiefs vs. Falcons: Five Things to Watch

A few storylines to follow on Sunday

The Kansas City Chiefs (8-3) travel to take on the Atlanta Falcons (7-4) on Sunday in a game with playoff implications for both teams. 

The Falcons currently lead a fairly tight NFC South division with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5), New Orleans Saints (5-6) and Carolina Panthers (4-7) all within striking distance with just five regular-season games left to play.

The Chiefs, who have won 19 of their last 23 games, trail the division-leading Oakland Raiders (9-2) by just one game.

The Chiefs host the Raiders next Thursday at Arrowhead Stadium on a short week, but there's no time to look ahead, as there's plenty on the line for the Chiefs on Sunday, including guaranteeing a fourth straight winning season to begin the Andy Reid era in Kansas City.

And while that's far from the end goal for this team and more like a checkpoint in the process—the Chiefs won 23 games combined in the four previous seasons before Reid and company took over, so it's sometimes important to step back and see the success that's taken place over the past few years.

Reid, who has a record of 39-20 with the Chiefs, is looking to pick up his ninth career win in 12 games against the Falcons on Sunday. 

Here are five things to watch during Chiefs-Falcons:

1.       Can the Chiefs avoid a hangover after a big win? In what was deemed by some as the best game of the season thus far, the Chiefs are coming off a thrilling 30-27 overtime victory against the division rival and defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos last Sunday night.

The game ended with a 34-yard field goal bouncing off the left goal post and through from Cairo Santos, who was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month after converting all 11 field goal opportunities in the month of November.

It was a game that had everything, and as quarterback Alex Smith told the media earlier this week, sometimes those kind of games can be difficult to move on from.

"There's times when a big win can more dangerous than a tough loss to rebound off of," Smith explained. "Especially a big game in the division on national TV with everyone talking about it. Can we be mentally tough enough to handle the success and can we focus down and do all the little things this week? We got back late Monday morning. Can we handle that with going on the road again?

"It's a big challenge and we'll find out. It's absolutely a test."

When asked about that same thing, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said the guys understand how close they are to achieving some of their goals.

"I think this time of the year, the player – you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and if you're in position to strike, I don't think you can afford to take games off," Reid explained. "Not that I believe in that anyway, but surely at this time – that can't even be an issue. Every game is so important right now. It doesn't matter if it's NFC, AFC – it doesn't matter. All the games are important.

"So, to maintain our focus, our intensity, our health and all those things are important this time of the year." 2.       Can the Chiefs contain the NFL's most explosive receiver?

The Chiefs have faced their fair share of elite receivers this year, but Sunday might be the toughest task to date—going up against the Falcons' Julio Jones, who leads the NFL with 1,140 yards receiving and 21 receptions of 20-plus yards this season.

The NFL's top receivers in 2016

Rank

Player

TEAM

REC

YDS

TDs

20

vs. KC

1

Julio Jones

ATL

65

1,140

5

21

Sunday, 12/4

2

Mike Evans

TB

73

1,020

10

12

6 REC, 105 YDS

3

Antonio Brown

PIT

82

998

10

16

4 REC, 64 YDS, 2 TDs

4

A.J. Green

CIN

66

964

4

15

N/A

5

T.Y. Hilton

IND

60

942

5

20

1 REC, 20 YDS

6

Amari Cooper

OAK

66

922

3

16

10 REC, 129 YDS

 Jones is a bona fide superstar for quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense, which leads the league in most explosive offensive categories, including points per game (32.5), 10-plus yard plays (175) and 20-plus yard plays (56).

When asked this week about how to stop Jones, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was honest.

"I don't know if you can," Sutton explained. "We just have to slow [Jones] down. He's a dynamic guy. He has all the physical tools: he has height, he has size where he can body you, he has great speed and jumping ability and he's a great competitor. That makes for a big task for every defense in our league. He's just a really good football player and one of the things I appreciate about him is from what I've read and hearing him talk is all he wants to do is win. He doesn't care about touches and this and that.

"Obviously, he's had those games where had 300 yards receiving or whatever it was, so he could get the ball every play, but one of the strengths of their offense is they have a lot of weapons and they use them all. They're not afraid to shy away. But they know where No. 11 is and if they have to get something, he usually delivers."

Some good news for the Chiefs is that cornerbacks Phillip Gaines, Marcus Peters and Steve Nelson all appear to be healthy for the first time in a couple of weeks.

120216-Peters.jpg

Earlier this week, Ryan spoke about what he sees from second-year standout cornerback, Marcus Peters.

"He's a great player, obviously has done some really good things in his first two years," Ryan noted. "Very aggressive, great ball skills and he has a great knack for timing up when to be aggressive. We're certainly going to have to be aware of where he's at and show him the respect that he deserves because he's done a great job."

While some teams have avoided throwing in Peters' direction for the most part, Ryan doesn't seem to buy into that philosophy. 

"We have some pretty good players on our end too and I feel like every week we have to trust our guys and know that they're going to make plays," Ryan explained. "They've done that for us all year. We have a lot of respect for [Peters] for sure, but we'll go through our plan and throw to where we think is the right spot." 3.       Chiefs offense vs. Falcons defense: Watching yards after the catch

While statistics only tell part of the story, there's one area of the Chiefs offense that might be a good fit against this Falcons defense.

The Falcons rank last in the NFL by allowing 282 yards passing per game—that's an easy to stat to point to heading into Sunday, but to take it one step further, they also rank second-to-last in yards after the catch allowed.

Through 11 games, the Falcons have allowed 1,529 yards after the catch.

On the flip side, the Chiefs have 53.3 percent of their passing yardage coming via after the catch, which ranks as the third-highest percentage in the league.

What the Chiefs passing offense is built around—short, well-timed routes that often attempt to stretch the defense horizontally, oftentimes with offensive linemen getting out in space and blocking down the field with the intricate screen game, has been effective.

According to Pro Football Focus, quarterback Alex Smith has the fourth-highest "adjusted completion percentage" in the NFL this season at 78 percent, a stat they use to determine how accurate a quarterback has been.

It's also important to note that these numbers for the Falcons defense could be skewed for any number of reasons, including scheme, fact that the Falcons offense has put up plenty of points and could be giving up yards in prevent-type defenses late in games, or it's that their defensive backs have struggled with angles or tackling. Whatever the reason, the Chiefs offense is going to do what it does, which is putting pressure on defensive players to make tackles in space. 

Over the past three games, tight end Travis Kelce and rookie Tyreek Hill have averaged 14 touches for 145 yards per game, and each of them is pretty difficult to deal with in space. 4.       Can Justin Houston do it again?

Last week against the Denver Broncos, veteran linebacker Justin Houston reminded us why he's been considered one of the league's elite defensive players over the past few seasons.

Houston finished the game with 10 tackles, including five for loss, three sacks, a pass defensed and a forced fumble that led to a safety.

He was virtually unable to be blocked in that game and even had the Broncos' starting right tackle, Ty Sambrailo, benched for former Chief Donald Stephenson.

Even when Houston didn't get "home," there was good cause for a holding penalty to be called.

"I thought he did a great job," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of Houston's performance. "I thought he played with a great level of intensity and kind of what we were talking about a week ago, I think he was quicker.

"Again, I don't really think this has anything to do with his injury, I think he's back from his injury. I think it's just lack of playing. He got a chance to play and did an outstanding job—not just on the sacks, but on the other pressures as well. Obviously he gives us a guy that you have to deal with all of the time. We're excited to have him back and excited to see him getting back to (being) Justin Houston.

"I think he's just going to get better and better the more reps he's out there."

It's also worth noting that Houston, along with 10 of his teammates, either grew up in Georgia or played college football there.

Houston played collegiately at the University of Georgia, along with linebacker Ramik Wilson and receiver Chris Conley. Rookie cornerback D.J. White played at Georgia Tech and receiver Albert Wilson played at Georgia State.

The other six teammates with ties to Georgia are receiver Tyreek Hill (Pearson, GA), cornerback Steve Nelson (Warner Robins, GA), receiver Demarcus Robinson (Fort Valley, GA), linebacker Terrance Smith (Decatur, GA), receiver *Seantavius Jones (Tucker, GA) and defensive lineman *Allen Bailey (Sapelo Island, GA).

Practice squad or injured reserve* **5.       Who makes the game-changing play this week?

Over the past three weeks, the Chiefs have picked up two key road wins against the defending NFC and AFC champions, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, which is a feat that only three other teams in NFL history can say they accomplished (1993 Miami Dolphins, 1999 Minnesota Vikings, 2003 Green Bay Packers).

What we saw in both of those wins were key game-changing plays by the defense and special teams. Against the Panthers, it was Eric Berry's pick-six and Marcus Peters' forced fumble and takeaway with less than a minute remaining.

Against the Broncos, it was Tyreek Hill's return touchdown and Justin Houston's sack and safety in the end zone.

As the Chiefs go on the road against another one of the NFL's best teams on Sunday, the Falcons, the question becomes, who might be making that game-changing play this week?

The Chiefs have had a knack of pulling off miraculous wins this season, as they've had less than a 2 percent chance of winning games three different times this season—only to pull off the improbable.

It's a team that can't ever be counted out.

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