Sunday is arguably the most exciting game of the year on the 2021 schedule of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Dallas Cowboys come to town for a matchup that features two of the league’s most exciting offenses. Meanwhile, each defense has become no slouch over the course of the last month or so.
For Kansas City to complete a perfect November and enter their bye week with a four game winning streak, they must step up to the challenge of playing a top Super Bowl contender. Sure, the Packers and Raiders featured crucial games over the last two weeks. The Chiefs were not facing either of those squads at their peak, however. On the other hand, Dallas is looking to achieve a major road win and likely coast into a top NFC playoff seed, given their lighter schedule. The Cowboys have not always been able to capitalize in these high profile opportunities beforehand, however. Will that change on Sunday?
What are the top five headlines to watch for entering Sunday’s affair? We will list those, as well as keys to victory for each team. Let’s kick it off.
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Top Five Headlines
Weapons Of Explosion
The likelihood for multiple explosive plays on Sunday is very high. Moreover, this game may feature the league’s best wide receiving corps (Dallas), as well as a top five wide receiver (Tyreek Hill) and top tight end (Travis Kelce) for Kansas City. The consistency has been there more often this season for the Cowboys. In fact, Dallas is tied for the second highest explosive play rate (12 percent) in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Analysis.
The Chiefs have certainly had their offensive struggles this season. Yet, the ability to work through contact and register yards after the catch more often recently has Patrick Mahomes’ unit looking like their old selves. Will Kansas City hit on as many explosive plays as quickly as Dallas could? Or, will CeeDee Lamb and others be forced to be patient and wait for their home run plays to hit?
A late update, Amari Cooper has been placed on the COVID list and will miss the game for the Cowboys.
Mahomes Vs Dak
We get to see many tremendous quarterback matchups week after week around the NFL. However, Mahomes facing off with Dak Prescott is something we have yet to see. These two are two of the league’s most consistent quarterbacks when it comes to winning football games. In just the regular season since the start of 2016, Prescott is tied for the third most wins (48) and Mahomes is tied for the fourth most wins (44).
There are other areas where you could point to similarities between both passers. First off, they are each impeccable with their ball placement when they are right. That is the top attribute that makes Mahomes dangerous, in my mind. But with Prescott, he has been largely pinpoint with his accuracy since his Mississippi State days. And Dak does so well against tight coverage. Right around 40 percent of his throws 20+ yards downfield have been into tight coverage. Prescott has done remarkably in that regard.
Finally, the ability to work off platform, out of structure and quickly in the short to intermediate part of the field make each passer tricky to defend. Mahomes has begun to take those underneath throws that are afforded to him more often. At the same time, Prescott’s anticipation and timing allows the Cowboys to play at a heightened pace.
Slowing Down The Pass
When looking at the defensive resurgence the Chiefs have shown in the last month, a lot of factors can be pointed towards. But, Kansas City’s secondary is the part that is the most exciting for me to watch right now. They are forcing quarterbacks to throw perfect passes against tight coverage. Guys like L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton are frustrating pass catchers so much that they do not have much motivation to do battle with them. Meanwhile, Tyrann Mathieu is back to playing multiple roles and is making quarterbacks play more careful. This has also allowed Juan Thornhill to use his range, while keeping plays in front of him.
Sunday will surely be the most challenging game of the season for this group, given the depth of the Dallas pass catchers. Can the Chiefs continue to communicate and play cohesively on the backend? It may seem impossible to slow down the Cowboys passing attack. Nonetheless, the Broncos just held Prescott and Co. to a miserable game, just a mere two games ago.
Disguising and mixing coverages like that is something that Steve Spagnuolo knows how to do very well. He also has much more speed at his disposal with this current Chiefs defense. Will Kansas City continually drop seven back into coverage? Additionally, can this defense prove that they are the same opportunistic group we have seen in crucial games over the last couple of years?
Does Dan Quinn Alter Game Plan?
Props are much deserved for Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. It takes a great deal for a coach to change up his scheme after many years involved in the NFL game. After years of running a 4-3 scheme with Seattle and Atlanta, Quinn switched to a 3-4 scheme with Dallas. This has helped the Cowboys get more speed on all three levels of the defense. To boot, Quinn’s group has been physical and feisty, leading to more takeaways and less points allowed. This was a tremendous turnaround for a defense who was historically awful last season.
There is a defensive look that has given the Chiefs offense more frustration than any other this season. That would involve two high safeties with the Cover 2 look. Certainly, there is not necessarily enough dominance to suggest the Chiefs were never able to beat that look. Some of their worst offensive performances this season came against that defense, though.
With Dallas, Dan Quinn has implemented a great deal of Cover 1 and Cover 3 this season. The Chiefs just saw a similar defense to this last week in Vegas. Mahomes and Co. torched that to the tune of five touchdown passes and over 400 passing yards. With a physically dominant secondary that includes Trevon Diggs, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse, Dallas works to undercut plenty of routes.
Is that style too risky to trust in a game of this magnitude? Or, will Quinn and the Cowboys trust that the impact defensive plays will continue to come? Dallas may not completely change their entire looks. Kansas City could change that real quick if they are able to hit on chunk plays as early as they did last week.
Red Zone Reiteration
The red zone defensive struggles have been much less drastic for the Chiefs in recent weeks. Despite that, they still rank 26th in red zone defense this season. Keeping opponents out of the end zone is one thing. The Chiefs not forcing enough longer downs and distances on second or third down is another thing, altogether.
On the flip side, Dallas enters this week ranked 23rd in red zone defense. Suffice it to say, one red zone stop by either team or at least forcing more field goals will be something to monitor all day long. It may feel cliche to look at, as that should be the goal of many defenses every week. You want to keep the opponent out of the end zone as much as possible. Nevertheless, a stronger backbone with your back against the wall will be a major goal for each unit, especially in a game that has the potential to be a track meet. Which of the Chiefs or the Cowboys defenses can push the opponent back more often in the red zone?
Keys To Victory
Slow Down Parsons
Cowboys rookie first round pick Micah Parsons has done nothing but produce. And, it has come at multiple positions (defensive end, middle linebacker, off-ball linebacker). He has been mostly used as a pass rusher at defensive end recently. And even with his youth, he is a game wrecker. Protecting Mahomes from taking any free shots from Parsons should be a top priority. The offensive line has struggled with speed rushers on occasion this year. The Chiefs must be stout when blocking Parsons.
The linebacker duo of Keanu Neal and Leighton Vander Esch serve as two smart and instinctive veterans. What happens when they are tested to make plays in space is a different story. If they are unable to work downhill or in tight spaces, the Cowboys defense becomes much more vulnerable. Andy Reid should not hesitate to test Neal and Vander Esch to defend the speed and yards after catch ability of the Kansas City pass catchers. Hill and Kelce were a pain to defend over the middle last week. The Chiefs could do wonders by working at the middle of the field and the opposing linebackers once again.
Minimize Elliott And Pollard
The pass catchers that the Cowboys present may be the most dangerous part of the skill players. However, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are quietly playing the best they have all season. Each runner is averaging around five yards per carry, while also churning out large gains in the pass game. Elliott (26 receptions) and Pollard (23 receptions) have combined for a near equal amount of catches out of the backfield. Totally eliminating both of them may be too tough at this moment. The Chiefs would be able to throw Dallas off their rhythm and slow down their pace, if they slow down this duo just enough.
Get It Out Quick
We mentioned how lethal Prescott can be in the short to intermediate. When he is in rhythm and able to show off his anticipatory skills, the Cowboys offense gets humming. There may be even more incentive to throw quick, short passes in Kansas City. The Chiefs currently rank ninth best in pressure rate and third best in hurry rate. Their pass rush is getting home much more often, without registering many sacks. On the other hand, quicker passes could lead to more panic from the Chiefs secondary. That is something they have not shown in recent weeks.
This feels like an easy one to note, right? Every week you want to force more turnovers than the other team. But particularly during this week, Dallas is looking to slow down the Chiefs after they put up 41 points and are hoping to eliminate any hope of a shootout. Given their offense and what the Chiefs have done when turnovers occur, which is begin to press, the Cowboys defense is looking to make Kansas City cough the ball up. Dallas is tied for the sixth best turnover differential in the NFL (+5) and have a gaudy 17 takeaways (fourth most in the NFL). Their success rate in that regard has been so high. Will it continue on Sunday?
Eliminate Trick Plays
The Chiefs were not always flashy in the win over the Raiders. There were certainly moments where Kansas City simply took it to the Vegas defense. Meanwhile, we did see more razzle-dazzle from Coach Reid in the play action pass game and in the red zone last week. The goal for Dallas should be to eliminate the Chiefs options to use those trick plays. It is who Kansas City is as a whole. And if it does not work when it gets cute, what flow will the offense have? The Cowboys defense is aggressive and nasty. If they snuff out those tricks, things could quickly become dicey for the Chiefs.
Be on the lookout for our FPC Chiefs game reaction article after the game. For more great sports and NFL content, stay tuned to Full Press Coverage.
– Braden Holecek is the Kansas City Chiefs managing editor for Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on Follow @ebearcat9//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Follow @FPC_Chiefs//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js and Facebook.
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