By Norm Elrod
Coming into the season, the Jacksonville Jaguars looked poised to challenge for an AFC title. The Kansas City Chiefs, starting a rookie quarterback, carried a little more uncertainty. With four weeks of football behind us, expectations so far have been met and exceeded, respectively. The Jaguars at 3-1 and the Chiefs at 4-0, look to be the class of the Conference. Their matchup in Kansas City this Sunday could very easily be a preview of the AFC Championship in January.
The Jaguars aren’t known for their offense, but the unit has put up some points this season, including 31 against the Patriots in Week 2 and 31 more against the Jets in Week 4. Still, they remain inconsistent and far from elite. That starts with quarterback Blake Bortles, who has had to do more with his arm and legs than head coach Doug Marrone would probably like.
The Jaguars generally look to establish the running game to set up the play action. But RB Leonard Fournette has been slowed by hamstring issues all season, and backup T.J. Yeldon, while solid, hasn’t proved enough of the threat. Bortles, who is also the team’s second-leading rusher so far, has had to pick up the slack with his arm. Sometimes that works out, like when he scorched the Pats for 376 yards and 4 touchdowns, and sometimes it doesn’t, like when he managed just 155 yards and 0 touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans. Lucky for him the K.C. pass defense isn’t very good.
On the other hand, the Jags pass defense — and, frankly, their defense in general — is probably the best in the NFL. They certainly give up the fewest yards, allowing just 164 passing yards per game and 259 yards overall, and the fewest points, at just 14 per game. Their one shortcoming so far has been causing turnovers; the Jaguars have only picked off one pass and recovered two fumbles.
The dearth of turnovers won’t last, not with their history (33 takeaways in 2017) and the talent in this unit. The defensive line and secondary both feature multiple Pro Bowlers, including pass rusher extraordinaire DE Calais Campbell, run-stuffer DT Malik Jackson and lockdown CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouley. And these units make each other better, as pressure often leads to interceptions and tight coverage often results in sacks.
The Jaguars’ strength will have to contain the Chiefs’ strength, which is the NFL’s leading offense helmed by second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. After learning the ropes behind Alex Smith for a season, Mahomes is now lighting up the NFL. His 1200 passing yards, along with 14 TD passes and 0 INT show him to be anything but the game-manager his predecessor was.
Mahomes has a whole arsenal of weapons, and he’s not afraid to use them. While 12 Chiefs have caught passes this season — nine for touchdowns — his favorite targets seem be Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Hill started off the season strong, with 12 catches for 259 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games. While he added 11 more catches in Weeks 3 and 4, totals of 105 yards and 0 TDs are a significant drop. Kelce’s production so far — 23 catches for 307 yards and 3 TDs — has been a little more consistent, at least after Week 1.
Kareem Hunt is the league’s fifth-leading rusher, with 289 yards and 3 TDs. A little quiet the first two games, he’s come on of late. And his performance against the Denver Broncos last week — with 175 total yards — was easily his best this season.
While the Chiefs’ balanced attack comes at opponents from many angles, its defense seems to just sit back and take it. They’re giving up a league-worst 451+ yards per game, along with 28+ points per game. The unit is also among the NFL’s most penalized. One factor in the poor performance is opponents trying to keep up with the Chiefs’ offense, but that doesn’t explain it away.
The defense lost some key contributors in the offseason, including stellar CB Marcus Peters, who was traded to the Rams for draft picks. Nobody has stepped up in the secondary, and given the talent back there, it’s likely no one will. Safety Eric Berry was supposed to provide a boost after missing most of last season with a torn Achilles, but he has yet to step on the field. The pass rush has also proved lacking, despite the return of Dee Ford after an injury-plagued 2017.
The Jaguars-Chiefs matchup comes down to strength vs. strength. Can the stout Jags defense contain the high-flying Chiefs offense? That is the question this game hinges on.
The Jacksonville D, which is pacing far behind its 2017 totals for sacks and turnovers, hasn’t reached it’s full potential. And they will be tested this week by Mahomes, who will be facing his stiffest competition to date as well.
Look for Mahomes to seem a little more mortal this week. The Jags defense will contain him, even if they don’t sack him, and, dare I say it, they will pick him off too. Nobody stays this hot forever. KC will put up points despite some struggles, but they won’t be able to stay ahead of their awful defense. Look for Jacksonville to win this one.
SportsLine analyst Galin Dragiev sees the end result a little differently:
This will be an extremely fun matchup to watch this weekend, as the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs host the Jaguars. Despite the Chiefs’ offensive explosion so far this season, I expect them to struggle some against a tough Jaguars defense. The Chiefs have enough to win this game, and the points spread seems fair, but there is value to be had in the total. This game stays low scoring and I’m taking the Under.