CARDINALS // CHIEFS OVERVIEW
This is a matchup of two teams moving in opposite directions, with the no-hope Cardinals sitting at 2-6, and with the Chiefs topping the AFC West at 8-1. This week I watched film of the Falcons immediately after watching film of the Chiefs, and it looked like the Falcons (5th in the NFL in yards per game; 8th in points per game) were moving in slow-motion compared to what I had just been watching. This Chiefs team develops plays so quickly, and Patrick Mahomes gets the ball into tight windows with so much zip, it is absolutely incredible. I was surprised this week to discover that only the Jaguars, Ravens, Browns, and Colts have more dropped passes as a team than the Chiefs have…and then I realized this isn’t so surprising at all. Mahomes gets the ball in so quickly, it’s almost impossible for there to not be a few drops along the way. This team ranks third in the NFL in yards per game, first in points per game, second in drive success rate, second in points per drive, and second in yards per drive.
The Cardinals, on the (far) other hand, rank 32nd in yards per game and 31st in points per game. The Bills are the only team that ranks worse than Arizona in drive success rate. Watching the Cardinals on film is like watching a team stuck in mud. In Week 8, new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich tried to jumpstart this offense with a creative and consistent screen game, but until the game-winning 4th quarter drive against the poor 49ers’ pass defense, this was all the Cardinals were really able to get going, as Rosen consistently crumbled in the face of pressure and regularly failed to fit passes into tight windows. It is probably worth mentioning that most of Rosen’s success against the 49ers in Week 8 (outside of screen passes) came when San Francisco was in zone coverage. Kansas City runs one of the man-heaviest coverage schemes in the league.
With all of this, it is unsurprising that the Chiefs have been awarded a Vegas-implied total double their opponent’s, with an early line of Chiefs -16.5, and with Vegas-implied totals of Cardinals :: 16.5 // Chiefs :: 33.0.
When people see “Chiefs’ defense,” their eyes tend to light up, as the widespread narrative is how awful the Chiefs’ defense is. And when you break things down by yards allowed per pass attempt (KC ranks 31st) or by passing yards allowed per game (KC ranks 30th), it seems clear that this is a team to attack with pass catchers. Because of the way the Chiefs’ aggressive man coverage forces offenses to spread the ball around, however, the Chiefs have somewhat surprisingly allowed only three wide receivers all year to top 78 receiving yards: Keenan Allen did it in Week 1 (8-108-1) on 11 targets; JuJu Smith-Schuster did it in Week 2 (13-121-1) on 19 targets; and A.J. Green did it in Week 7 (7-117-0) on 14 targets. Christian Kirk has yet to top eight targets on the year, and he has maxed out at 85 yards. Larry Fitzgerald has topped eight targets only twice, and he has topped 76 yards only once. With Arizona ranking dead last in the NFL in time of possession and dead last in plays per game, a bet on players from this side of the ball is a bet on Josh Rosen playing well in one of the toughest road environments in football, against a defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks and plays an aggressive man coverage scheme. If you want to make that bet, realize that Chad Williams has yet to top 34 yards this season, and has caught only 11 of 31 targets in his direction, while Ricky Seals-Jones has recent target counts of 3 // 4 // 5 // 6 // 4 // 4, and has hauled in only 50% of the targets that have come his way. To put that another way: Kirk and Fitz are the only guys who are worthy of consideration outside making pure Hail Mary plays.
The Cardinals disappointingly failed to stretch the field on their run plays in Week 8, which left David Johnson running into the backs of his linemen all day, to the tune of 16 carries for 59 yards. DJ saw four targets, which was right in line with what he was seeing under Mike McCoy — and while one of these came on a wide receiver screen and a couple others came on plays designed to get him into the open field, he will need more than four or five targets to justify his price tag on DraftKings (13.6% of the cap) and FantasyDraft (12.7% of the cap). He’s cheaper on FanDuel (11.5%), but the low touchdown upside in this offense makes him less valuable there. Ultimately, a bet on DJ at his price is a bet on him getting more involved through the air. If you want to make that bet, you can lean on the fact that Duke Johnson and the Browns provided a blueprint for the Cardinals of how to use DJ this week, in the likely event that the Cardinals fall behind. It wouldn’t be crazy to bet that DJ does, in fact, see seven to nine targets (the bye week certainly will have given the Cardinals some time to incorporate more elements in DJ’s favor) — but this would obviously be a guesswork-driven play.
CHIEFS PASS OFFENSE
The starting point on the Chiefs’ offense should be acknowledgement of the fact that matchup has legitimately not mattered for Patrick Mahomes this year, as he has topped 300 yards in eight consecutive games now and has recent touchdown totals through the air of 4 // 4 // 4 // 3. He has only two games all year under three touchdowns passes (zero at home against Jacksonville; one on the road at Denver), and in each of those games he added a touchdown on the ground. The Jacksonville game was the only one all year in which he did not post an elite score, and that game still produced a perfectly acceptable score.
With that cleared out of the way: this is a below-average quarterback matchup, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the Cardinals force the lowest average depth of target in the league. Along with this, they allow an average catch rate and are below-average at preventing YAC, leading to a middling yards allowed per pass attempt of 7.5 (17th in the NFL). But secondly (and more importantly): the Cardinals are bad on offense, and they are bad against the run. This has led to teams regularly taking a lead and deciding, “Hey, instead of facing this stout pass rush and throwing short passes all day, why don’t we just run the ball?” Only six teams have faced fewer pass attempts than the Cardinals, and only one team is allowing fewer fantasy points per game to the quarterback position. On the other hand: no team has faced more running back rush attempts than the Cardinals (an incredible 29.5 per game), and while the Cardinals have allowed the fewest QB passing touchdowns in the league (eight, through eight games), they rank behind only the Browns, Bucs, and Chiefs for most touchdowns allowed to the running back position.
From a “likeliest scenario” standpoint, we should note that Kareem Hunt ranks third in the NFL in carries inside the 10-yard-line (behind only Gurley and Kamara), and he ranks second in the NFL in carries inside the five (behind only Gurley). Hunt also has the same number of red zone receiving touchdowns (three) as Gurley, and his 13 touchdowns on the year are not far off the blistering pace Gurley is setting with 16 touchdowns through nine games. Hunt has reached 20 carries only once this year, and he has two games in his last five with only a single catch — but he also has three games in his last five with five receptions, and he is steadily seeing 16 to 18 carries. On a per-carry basis, the Cardinals have been more “below average” (4.48 YPC allowed to running backs) than “awful,” so it would be preferable for volume to pile up for Hunt (which is unlikely to happen, as Andy Reid will be happy to spell Hunt with Spencer Ware if the running back workload begins to climb for this team), but he still has a solid shot at a multi-score game, and he’ll be involved early and often.
Recent target counts among the Chiefs’ three primary pass catchers look like this:
:: Travis Kelce — 9 // 5 // 10 // 9
:: Tyreek Hill — 12 // 10 // 4 // 5
:: Sammy Watkins — 4 // 7 // 9 // 5
Kelce has fallen shy of eight targets only twice all year, and he has fallen shy of 78 receiving yards only twice. The Cardinals have been solid against tight ends, but this is Mahomes and the Chiefs at home; there is no reason to expect anything but Kelce’s typical range of production.
As always: Hill has scary low floor for his price (six games already this year of 70 or fewer receiving yards, and four games of four or fewer catches — with five games this year in which he has scored zero touchdowns), but he also carries slate-winning ceiling (two games of seven catches, 140+ yards, and multiple touchdowns). Hill’s biggest games came in back-and-forth affairs against high-powered offenses (the Chargers in Week 1; the Patriots in Week 6), but the Cardinals have gotten beat deep for big plays by Emmanuel Sanders and Brandin Cooks, and there is nothing in the matchup that says this is a spot in which Hill can’t hit.
Watkins will primarily occupy the short crossing routes that are best suited to beating this defense for consistent catches and YAC-driven gains — a lower-upside role without a broken play or a touchdown, but one that should lead to nice floor if there are enough pass attempts on the Chiefs for a volume-driven play like Watkins to matter. In a vacuum, Watkins is simply a “floor” play in this spot; but as we have seen a few times already from this offense: this group is explosive enough that a talented “floor” play can produce a big stat line.
I don’t expect to have any pieces of the Cardinals’ passing attack (Kirk // Fitz // RSJ), as this offense is just not good enough for me to want to bet on garbage time points in one of the toughest road environments in football. With that said: I see these guys as guesswork-driven upside plays, and I don’t hate the idea of chasing if you want to go there. I’ll be hoping to find higher-certainty plays myself, but that’s a “style of play” thing that may differ from the risk you feel comfortable taking on.
On the other hand, I could see myself taking some shots on David Johnson, with a “Main Team” shot even in the conversation. At this point, it almost seems like we are betting on name more than game with DJ, but there is a case to be made that the bye week and the matchup will provide an opportunity for this man to finally get involved with the seven to nine targets he should be seeing. If he gets that type of work, he could really come alive; and even with as bad as this offense has been, DJ’s floor has been solid (only two games below 13.9 DK points; only two games below 12.0 FanDuel points) — creating a scenario in which he won’t kill your team if the workload remains what it has been, and he’ll have a chance to carry you deep into the leaderboards if the usage through the air spikes. The matchup is certainly appealing.
On the Chiefs’ side, Mahomes is in the tourney discussion for me, as always — though the volume concerns in this matchup will likely take him out of Main Team consideration for me, especially at his elevated price. Like Todd Gurley last week: Mahomes’ chances of failing are slim, but his chances of hitting a week-winning score are lower than normal.
I’ll have interest in Hunt, Kelce, and Watkins on Main Builds, with interest in Hill in large-field tourneys. If pricing were lower on all these guys, they would be lock-button — but given how tremendous this offense has been throughout the year, all of these guys are priced accordingly, and this makes them “part of the conversation” early in my research of this slate, rather than making them truly jump off the page.
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