Chiefs vs. Panthers: Game Preview

Alex Smith and Spencer Ware return to the lineup as Chiefs look for fifth straight

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GAMETIME: 12 p.m. CT on Sunday, November 13LOCATION: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.HOW TO WATCH:KCTV5HOW TO LISTEN:101.1 The FoxGAMCENTER: Chiefs.com

Just one year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) started the season 1-5, and the chance of making the postseason seemed unfeasible. By now, everyone knows the rest of the story.

10 straight wins, a postseason berth and a playoff victory.

As win after win came, impossible shifted to improbable, and then improbable shifted to possible.

The defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers (3-5) started their 2016 season the same way the Chiefs did last year, and after back-to-back wins, are trying to repeat history.

Now it's the Chiefs' job to stop that from happening.

"They're good," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who will return to the lineup this week, said of the Panthers. "They've got a great group up front that's physical, they play fast and across the board, they're extremely well coached. They all know what they're doing. They've got a lot of veteran guys on that side that've played a lot of football at a high level.

"I do know they played a bunch of close games early and regardless of that, they're on a two-game win streak and feeling good."

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The shift for the Panthers over the past two games has come on defense. During their first six games, Carolina gave up an average of 29.3 points per game. Against Arizona and Los Angeles, they gave up only 20 and 10, respectively.

"I think they had some issues on their back end in the secondary," Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress explained of the Panthers at the beginning of the season. "I think they were playing a little bit more man coverage early on and got beat in some of that man-to-man. You've seen that kind of come down a little bit where there front zone players are deep third players. I think they've kind of struggled with who they were. They weren't who they were last year, but they're developing that personality with new personnel."

The strength of the Panthers defense lies in its front seven, which head coach Andy Reid earlier this week said could be the best the Chiefs have seen since the season began 10 weeks ago.

Led by 2013 first-round defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the Panthers are fourth in the league in sacks with 24.0. Lotuleilei has 4.0.

"He's certainly a really, really talented and elite player inside," Smith said this week. "He's unique in some of his strengths inside there—especially when getting after the passer. Hopefully I only see him before and after the game."

Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are some of the game's best at the position.

Smith will face the Panthers without wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, but running back Spencer Ware will be back in the lineup. The addition of Ware will be key for the Chiefs, as he still leads the team in yards from scrimmage even after missing last week's game due to a concussion.

The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, Cam Newton, leads a Carolina offense that has put up an 11th-ranked 369.9 yards per game.

Newton is a challenge for the Chiefs because of his dual-threat ability. To go along with his career passing average of 235.2 yards per game, his career rushing average is 40.2 yards per game.

"He's going to make plays – we know that," Reid said of Newton this week. "He's the MVP of the league and rightfully so. It's just a matter of limiting the number of big plays that he makes. Obviously, when he runs, you have to wrap up, and when he's throwing, he does a great job of holding on to the ball and getting those guys in a position to catch it. He's got a big arm, so you have to have tight coverage on him."

Newton has two favorite targets in the offense that he seems to throw to more than most—tight end Greg Olsen and WR Kelvin Benjamin.

Olsen has 673 yards receiving on the season and three touchdowns, and Benjamin has 543 yards receiving for four.

The Panthers offensive line is worth monitoring, as both starting center Ryan Kalil (shoulder), who missed last game, and backup Gino Gradkowski (knee) are questionable. If both can't go, offensive lineman Chris Scott would be the next in line.

The Carolina injuries at center could provide vulnerability for Chiefs pass rushers, but both LB Justin Houston and defensive lineman Jaye Howard will be out for this game. LB Derrick Johnson is questionable (FULL INJURY REPORT).

The Chiefs know about the momentum it takes to storm back from a 1-5 record, and it's apparent the Panthers have it going.

But the Chiefs have momentum of their own going too, as they have won four straight games and are 16-2 in their last 18 regular-season games.

On Sunday, something will have to give.

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