No Aaron Rodgers for the Packers. Possibly no Kyler Murray for the Cardinals. But it’s alright. Their teams are both facing opponents with four losses. Oh… it’s the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.
The Chiefs are always threatening, no matter what their record is — and the 49ers are getting healthier. It’s likely that key offensive pieces Trent Williams and George Kittle both return to action this week. All of a sudden, losing an MVP frontrunner and the reigning MVP seems much, much bigger than it already did.
To be fair, it’s not like either of these teams really needs to win this weekend. At the season’s halfway point, the Cardinals would be the NFC’s fifth-seed (assuming the Rams win), with a half-game lead over the 6-seed (assuming the Saints win), a two-game lead over the 7-seed (assuming the Panthers win), and a two-and-a-half game cushion over the 49ers for the final playoff spot. The Packers, even with a loss and a Vikings win, would still have a two-and-a-half game lead in their own division. So, both teams can afford to take a loss. However, neither team wants to take a loss, obviously, so how likely is it that each team emerges victorious?
For the Packers, it’s going to come down to Jordan Love, but that’s obvious. The former first-round draft pick is getting his first start, and gets a soft Kansas City defense. With Davante Adams returning to the team after missing a week under COVID protocol, the star receiver should be fresh and ready to dominate the Chiefs’ weak secondary. That will be an enormous help to Love. While it may take a big effort to keep up with the Chiefs’ high-ceiling offense, it could also very easily not require much at all. It’s been well-documented already how devastating turnovers have been for the Chiefs this season, and while about half of Mahomes’ interceptions certainly haven’t been his fault, he still seems much looser with the ball than he’s been in years past and teams are taking advantage.
The Packers have the third-best turnover differential in the NFL, and a good percentage of those turnovers have been via the fumble — a difficult turnover to predict — the Chiefs have fumbled the ball NINE TIMES this season. The next-closest team has only lost six fumbles. Mahomes has put the ball on the ground five times. Most of those have come from being pressured in the backfield. The Packers have been pretty mediocre at applying pressure though. Through eight games, the Pack has just the 15th-highest knockdown percentage and the 15th-highest pressure rate. However, the Packers have been able to record these pressure numbers while only blitzing 20.3 percent of the time (25th-highest mark in the NFL).
That’s the key to beating the Chiefs: being able to put pressure on Mahomes without blitzing. If you can force Mahomes into uncomfortable situations without sacrificing coverage on Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce, the Chiefs struggle to move the ball upfield. That’s how they’ve been taken down this season, and I don’t see why the Packers would play it any differently. Given how poor the Chiefs’ O-line has played this season, it shouldn’t be difficult for Rashan Gary or Kenny Clark to get into the backfield, even without Za’Darius Smith.
Basically, if Jordan Love can just move the ball, manage the clock, and let Aaron Jones lead the offense, Love should be able to secure his first career victory. Love will still have several opportunities to ball out, but if the Packers are put in a situation where they need Love to carry the offense, that’s where the Chiefs can sneak up on you.
As for the Cardinals, the 49ers were no easy opponent even with Kyler Murray at home. In their last meeting, the 49ers didn’t have Kittle or Williams and lost by only seven points. Now, two of their best players return, the game is in San Francisco, and Kyler Murray might sit out? That sounds like a perfect storm of bad news for Cards fans.
The bright side is that with Murray’s status still in question, the 49ers will be unsure of which quarterback to prepare for: the dual-threat explosiveness of Kyler Murray or the reserved game management of Colt McCoy. I would think that the 49ers would opt to prep for the first option and play a little less prepared for McCoy rather than split time equally prepping for both. So, if McCoy does get the starting nod, can he take down an unprepared Niners team?
McCoy is 0-4 in his career when he’s had to make emergency starts for teams midseason while having not played the week prior. His average margin of defeat in those four games? 17 points. In fact, three of those games ended in losses of 18 points or more. One game (2010: Wk 15 @ CIN) was a two-point loss. McCoy has made some solid emergency starts in the past, but none of those have come in situations where it was unclear whether or not McCoy was going to be the starter, like the situation we’re seeing now.
Not to mention, the 49ers defense, while pretty inconsistent against the run, has been stingy against the pass (third-lowest pass yards per game allowed). The Cardinals will likely adjust their game plan accordingly to whoever is under center, but either way, the Niners are sure to get a heavy dose of Chase Edmonds. Edmonds has shown that he can be one of the most efficient ball-carriers in the league when given the chance (5.7 yards per carry this season — third among qualified running backs). Edmonds carried the ball only six times in the team’s first game against San Francisco, so I would expect the Cardinals to lean more heavily on their lead back on Sunday, regardless of who’s throwing the passes.
Obviously, the Cardinals will have a tougher time winning with Colt McCoy than the Packers will have winning with Jordan Love. Not only is there barely any professional film on Love to help game prep with, but he’s also spent the last year and a half learning from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. Players who spend time under the tutelage of another great quarterback tend to do well. Russell Wilson, Joe Burrow, and Kyler Murray aside, almost every good quarterback in the league spent some time on the bench before becoming the starter. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, etc. all spent at least half a season on the bench. Even Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield had to wait a week each before taking over for an injured Tyrod Taylor. While Love probably won’t see the same levels of immediate success as the people I named, his time spent under Rodgers, learning LaFleur’s system will only help him in his first career start.
The 49ers have lost seven straight home games — the second-longest active streak in the NFL (Detroit: 8). Facing Colt McCoy will certainly help their chances, but even with Murray’s status more and more doubtful every day, the 49ers are only a 1.5-point favorite over Arizona. That’s not a good sign.