The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs come to US Bank stadium for a 3:30 game, nationally televised on CBS, and with a certain musical superstar potentially in attendance as well. It’s a perfect stage for the Vikings to really change the narrative on their season so far. It’s one thing to get off the schneid by beating the winless Panthers, but it’s another thing to beat the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Doing so would create a lot of momentum for the Vikings as they enter a stretch of their schedule where they could really stack wins from now through December. Apart from the 49ers game in a couple weeks, the Vikings could emerge as favorites for every game between now and mid-December with a win over the Chiefs on Sunday.
It’s interesting that the line on the game, which started with the Vikings as 5.5-point underdogs at home, has now narrowed to 3.5 points. Not a lot of injury news to justify that big a move, so apparently the betting community is thinking this may be a closer game than expected.
The Chiefs, apart from blowing out the hapless Bears, haven’t been particularly dominant in their three other games. They lost their home opener- without Travis Kelce and Chris Jones- narrowly to the Lions and had tough tests against both the Jags and Jets. In those three non-Bears games, the Chiefs’ normally high-flying offense has been held to 23 points or less. This is also a bit more difficult stretch in the Chiefs schedule, as they play three games in ten days- two of them on the road. The Chiefs are coming off a Monday night game, so a bit of a short week for them before traveling to Minneapolis and follow it up with a Thursday night game at home. Given all that, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Chiefs didn’t have their A-game on Sunday. On the other hand, Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes, and the Chiefs have plenty of offensive weapons and an excellent coach in Andy Reid.
How to Stop Patrick Mahomes
It’s no secret that to beat the Chiefs, you need to stop Patrick Mahomes. The problem is that he’s difficult to nearly impossible to stop. But mitigating the damage he can do, along with a good performance from a talented Vikings’ offense, could be enough to beat the world champions.
From a defensive perspective, Mahomes can beat you no matter your approach. In his last game against Brian Flores’ defense, Mahomes didn’t have his best game, but was also able to counter Flores’ blitzes with the short passing game and quick passes outside. But so far this season, Mahomes has been average against the blitz. On 24 blitzes so far this season, Mahomes is 13/23 for 167 yards, one TD and one sack. Defenses haven’t blitzed him much- just 15% of his drop backs- fearing the consequences if the blitz doesn’t get home.
Mahomes is a bit of a moving target, both literally and figuratively, when it comes to defending him, however. He’s proven to be pretty self-aware, and if he isn’t doing well in a certain aspect of the game for a period of time, he’ll likely make the necessary corrections. He’s also a savvy scrambler who can both avoid the rush and pick up first downs on his feet.
But one thing that’s been different so far this season for Mahomes and the Chiefs is that pass protection is a bit more suspect- particularly at the tackle positions- and so far Mahomes hasn’t really clicked with any of his starting receivers yet. No Chiefs’ receiver has more than 163 receiving yards so far this season, but six have over 100 yards. Obviously tight end Travis Kelce is a key weapon for Mahomes, and so keeping that connection from happening much will also likely be a focus for the Vikings’ defense.
Brian Flores said in his weekly press conference that he’ll vary his blitzing frequency- probably more like the Carolina game where he’ll blitz more selectively but also play coverage to try to keep Mahomes guessing. Keeping Mahomes in the pocket is also key, as Mahomes can be deadly when extending plays outside the pocket.
One matchup to watch is Danielle Hunter against Chiefs new right tackle Jawaan Taylor. Taylor has struggled at times in pass protection and facing Hunter could be a big challenge. At the other tackle spot, Donovan Smith has allowed as many pressures as Ed Ingram (14) so far this season. That could be a good matchup for Marcus Davenport on Sunday.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings used Jordan Hicks as a spy on Mahomes at times during the game. They appeared to do so on occasion last week against Bryce Young to limit his production on the ground.
When the Vikings Have the Ball
For all the defensive approaches the Vikings may employ to stop or slow down Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense, keeping him off the field is the most effective. Offensively, that means the Vikings need to make the most of their offensive possessions- including avoiding the turnovers that have plagued them so far this season, and effective use of clock management, especially around the end of halves, to limit or eliminate Mahomes’ opportunities.
Defensively, the Chiefs’ defense collectively has been more than the sum of their players’ talents. They have top defensive tackle Chris Jones, and a lot of good, not great defensive backs. The Chiefs defense has done well so far by having a stronger weakest link than by having multiple star players defensively, which they can’t afford given their top-heavy salary cap situation. Mahomes is a $37 million cap hit this year, but that will increase to $60 million/year for the next several years under his new contract.
Be that as it may, the Vikings should be able to run the ball effectively against the Chiefs, who rank 22nd in rushing yards per carry allowed. That should, in turn, help the passing game. The Chiefs don’t have good linebackers in coverage, so that should give the Vikings’ TEs some advantages, and Justin Jefferson will get his against the Chiefs secondary. The key will be to give Cousins a clean pocket to throw from against Jones and selective blitzes from Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Hopefully Kevin O’Connell will keep a running back in to help against those blitzes, which can come from both linebackers and defensive backs.
The Vikings’ offense may be the best one the Chiefs have faced so far this season in terms of yards per play productivity, and if they can keep their hands on the ball, they could put up the most points against the Chiefs defense this season. The Chiefs defense looks a bit better on paper so far than may be the case in reality, given that three of the four teams they’ve played have bottom half offenses.
The key for the Vikings will be to double Chris Jones as necessary and keep a running back in to help against the blitz in key passing situations. And yes, of course, not turnover the ball. Who knows, maybe the Vikings could even win the turnover battle for once. Stranger things have happened.
As deadly as Patrick Mahomes is, this is a winnable game for the Vikings if they can stop the turnovers. The Chiefs have struggled- for them- offensively so far this season and defensively they’re not as strong as their defensive stats would suggest- certainly not as strong as the Eagles or even the Bucs defensively.
Coming away with a win against the reigning Super Bowl champions could prove to be a season-changing event for the Vikings and cause the narrative on their season to change. In that sense, this is something of a must-win game for the Vikings to get back on track in a meaningful way and show they can not only contend but also beat playoff teams. The positive momentum that comes with a win on Sunday could help put the wind at their back for the next couple months, barring injuries, as they head into a long stretch of very winnable games through their bye week and well into December.
The Vikings are 3.5-point underdogs on Sunday against the Chiefs. They will:
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Lose but beat the spread
Lose and not beat the spread