KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First place in the AFC West lies within the grasp of the Kansas City Chiefs as they visit the Carolina Panthers for a noon kickoff Sunday, but means dispatching the defending NFC champions on their own turf, just as the Panthers start showing signs of returning to winning form.
“They look pretty good right now, and that’s how we’re preparing for a real good football team,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “The last two weeks you’ve seen that.”
The Panthers (3-5) started the season with just one win their first six games. But Carolina enters on a win-streak after reeling off back-to-back victories against Arizona and at Los Angeles. The Chiefs (6-2) own a four-game winning streak, and a win pulls the Chiefs even with the Oakland Raiders for first in the AFC West. Kansas City currently owns the tiebreaker over the Raiders by virtue of their 26-10 win in week six.
To stop the Panthers, the Chiefs must stop quarterback Cam Newton. The Panthers average nearly 370 yards per game, and Newton accounts for two-thirds of that output through the air and on the ground.
Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford played with Newton at Auburn. He says pressuring the strong, speedy quarterback and hitting him – legally – remains the only one to slow him down.
“He can hurt you outside the pocket, but you can’t let that discourage the way you rush,” Ford said. “You just have to win and treat him like any other quarterback.”
Conversely, Newton’s well aware of Ford’s dominating start to 2016, tied for third in the NFL with nine sacks so far.
“He’s always has that professional sense you have to respect,” Newton said. “I’ve seen that at Auburn, and it’s just great to see hard work pay off.”
The Chiefs offense, which mustered a season-low 231 yards last week, stands ready to rearm itself with the return of quarterback Alex Smith and running back Spencer Ware. Both players sat out last week win over Jacksonville following head injuries sustained two weeks ago in Indianapolis.
Ware’s return should revitalize a Chiefs running attack that virtually disappeared last week, picking up just 62 yards on the ground. But the team faces a tough challenge from a Carolina front seven that ranks third in the NFL in allowing just 77.5 yards rushing per game.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith described Carolina’s defensive front as fast and physical.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the Carolina defense with 56 tackles and also ranks second on the team in interceptions and passes defended.
“He’s also all over the place,” Smith said. “He makes a lot of tackles in the run game, has a great knack in the pass game. He goes wherever the ball goes.”
The passing game presents the Chiefs opportunities on offense, where the Panthers rank 29th in the league with an average of 286 yards allowed per game. The Chiefs, however, must address the absence of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. The team ruled Maclin out of Sunday’s game while he continues nursing a groin injury.
Tyreek Hill steps into Maclin’s role in the wide receiver rotation, and the rookie presents a different challenge for the Panthers. Hill’s blazing speed proves a decisive mismatch at times against pass defenses, and thus far he’s handled every new challenge the Chiefs have presented him, according to co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress.
“You’ll see him do all the stuff that Jeremy does,” Childress said. “I know it just seems like he’s down the field and behind the line, but we’re asking him to do a few other things too.”
Wide receiver Albert Wilson believes the team’s passing game remains capable of more than it displayed last week in Jacksonville. Wilson led the team’s wideouts with three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown last Sunday.
“I feel like we could done a lot of little things that we usually do,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a great week of preparation, we’re going to stick to our game plan, stick to our scheme and compete.”