It’s projected to be the third-most exciting game in NFL Week 2, according to SmartRatings. Two AFC teams who figure to be in the playoff conversation clash in Florida. And we’re breaking down the matchup and revealing our model’s Chiefs vs. Jaguars prediction.
If there’s one thing the first game of the 2023 NFL season revealed, it’s that the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t a one-man team.
With the incomparable Travis Kelce sidelined by a knee injury and All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones watching Thursday Night Football from a suite above Arrowhead Stadium due to a contract impasse, the Chiefs clearly weren’t in top form while being handed a surprising 21-20 loss by the upstart Detroit Lions a few short hours after last season’s Super Bowl winners raised their championship banner.
After being narrowly done in by an overabundance of dropped passes and ill-timed penalties from its depleted cast, the Chiefs now must regroup against another improving and highly motivated opponent capable of making them pay for such mistakes.
A trip to TIAA Bank Field used to be a reliable remedy for any team’s ills, but the Jacksonville Jaguars that Kansas City will be facing this Sunday are anything but the pushovers of the past. The reigning AFC South champions are 9-3 since Week 9 of last season and haven’t lost in five home games during that stretch, which includes an epic playoff victory over the Los Angeles Chargers back in January.
The Jags appear to be the class of a suspect AFC South once again, as our NFL projection model has tabbed them as the league’s most likely division winner.
They’re also a team that still needs to prove it can beat the conference’s upper crust, most notably the one it’s about to take on. Two of Jacksonville’s three losses during that aforementioned 12-game run have come at the hands of the Chiefs, who ended the Jaguars’ storybook 2022 season with a 27-20 win in the AFC divisional round despite all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes hobbled by an in-game ankle injury.
Mahomes will be perfectly healthy for this matchup, which our SmartRatings system pegs as the third-most intriguing game on the Week 2 docket. And Jones should be ready to resume his pass-rushing prowess in some capacity after agreeing to a reworked, incentive-laden one-year contract earlier this week.
Kelce seems on track to be back as well, though it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be at the very least somewhat limited by an injury he sustained less than two weeks ago. His availability and effectiveness may be the single biggest factor in determining Sunday’s outcome, which we’ll examine in more detail below.
KC: The Kelce Factor
There’s no reason for Chiefs Kingdom to panic. KC was without two of its three best players for the opener and still probably would have won if not for an egregious Kadarius Toney drop that resulted in a fluky Pick 6 by Lions rookie Brian Branch, a miscue that loomed massively large in a one-point loss.
There should be cause for concern, however, over a pass-catching corps that was undeniably inadequate with Kelce unavailable for the Detroit game and the ultra-reliable former Pittsburgh Steelers great JuJu Smith-Schuster now a New England Patriot.
Chiefs receivers led the NFL in both burn rate (68.2) and open percentage (81.7) last season, primarily because Smith-Schuster and Kelce ranked in the league’s top three at creating burns among those targeted 75 or more times during the regular season.
BURN RATE LEADERS, 2022 SEASON (min. 75 targets)
- JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kansas City Chiefs (73.7)
- Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills (73.2)
- Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (73.0)
- Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (72.6)
- Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks (72.4)
With neither on the field against the Lions, Kansas City receivers had a combined open rate of 75.7% that ranked 24th of the 32 teams in Week 1.
The Chiefs are banking on 2022 second-round pick Skyy Moore as the guy to replace Smith-Schuster as the team’s next impact slot receiver, but he no-showed against Detroit with zero catches on three targets. The talented but enigmatic Toney dropped three of his five targets on a night Mahomes’ receivers mishandled five of his throws, resulting in an uncharacteristically low 53.8 completion percentage for the two-time NFL MVP.
Rookie Rashee Rice showed promise by hauling in three of his five targets and snaring Mahomes’ first touchdown pass of the season, but the second-round pick also wasn’t the most surehanded of receivers as a collegian. Rice had eight drops on 121 targets during his final season at SMU, a 6.6% drop rate that’s a bit of a red flag.
There’s no denying that Kelce can help fix what looks like a legitimate problem area, and the Jaguars are all too familiar with his capabilities. He set an NFL playoff record for a tight end with 14 receptions on a whopping 17 targets to go along with two touchdowns when these teams last met in January.
Though Kelce’s mere presence on the field should help give Kansas City’s other receivers more space to operate, it’s far from a guarantee he will be at or even close to his usual game-changing level considering the recency of his injury. It’s therefore crucial for the Chiefs to get more from their supporting cast to allow one of the NFL’s most potent offenses to reach its full potential.
JAX: Protect Trevor Lawrence
The Jaguars seemed headed for another forgettable season before the light bulb went on for quarterback Trevor Lawrence midway through the 2022 campaign, and it’s no coincidence that the team began taking off once the 2021 No. 1 overall pick started living up to his lofty pedigree.
Lawrence indeed took his expected place among the upper echelon of NFL signal-callers in the second half of 2022, as his 69.7% completion rate and 104.6 passer rating over the season’s final 10 weeks each ranked second among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts over that time frame.
The 23-year-old also posted a stellar 15-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that stretch, while his pickable pass percentage of 1.36 from Weeks 9-18 was bettered by only Joe Burrow among those with 100 or more attempts.
While undoubtedly an ascending player, there is evidence to suggest Lawrence isn’t a completely finished product just yet, as his well-thrown rate of 68.9 and pickable pass percentage of 6.21 when under pressure last season both ranked in the lower half of quarterbacks with at least 50 pressured attempts.
Lawrence has been unequivocally elite since Week 9 of last year in the seven games in which Jacksonville’s offensive line allowed a pressure rate under 35%. That includes last season’s playoffs as well as the Jags’ 31-21 win over the Indianapolis Colts last week when he finished a crisp 24-of-32 passing for 241 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
Here are his combined totals in those games, along with the flip side. Lawrence’s numbers were more akin to Baker Mayfield’s than Peyton Manning’s when comparing former No. 1 overall picks in games in which the Jaguars yielded a pressure rate of 37% or above last season:
One of those games was the Jags’ playoff loss to Kansas City, in which the Chiefs generated a 39.5% pressure rate and Lawrence was charted with five pickable passes on 38 adjusted attempts.
Jacksonville’s offensive line has undergone some big changes at the tackle spots due to left tackle Cam Robinson’s four-game PED suspension and right-sider Jawaan Taylor set for a reunion after signing a big contract with the Chiefs in March. And although Lawrence was barely touched in the opener as the unit surrendered pressures a scant 19.4% of the time, keep in mind that the Colts were 26th in pressure rate last season.
Kansas City produced a solid 41.0% pressure rate against the Lions, though some of it was manufactured as the Chiefs blitzed on nearly 54% of Jared Goff’s dropbacks.
They should be able to tone down that frequency if Jones isn’t adversely affected too much by his prolonged holdout. The four-time Pro Bowler’s pressure rate of 21.0% ranked fourth among interior defensive linemen with 200 or more pass-rush attempts last season, and he’s still fully capable of making a notable impact even if Andy Reid rations his snaps.
The Jaguars can be very dangerous if Lawrence can get a clean pocket to distribute to perhaps the most underappreciated group of receivers in the NFL – a group that’s become more formidable with the addition of former Atlanta Falcons standout Calvin Ridley.
Ridley displayed not a hint of rust last week in his first NFL game in nearly two years, registering eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown as a quality complement to Zay Jones and Christian Kirk – two of the league’s best at getting open last season.
HIGHEST OPEN% AMONG RECEIVERS, 2022 SEASON (min. 100 targets)
- Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks (83.6)
- Zay Jones, Jacksonville Jaguars (82.5)
- Christian Kirk, Jacksonville Jaguars (82.4)
- Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (81.4)
- Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins (80.5)
Running back Travis Etienne has also shown to be a factor in the passing game after finishing with a career-high five catches in the season opener.
Most sports betting sites’ point spread lists the Chiefs as the best bets by around three points, and we have them with a 58.1% win probability to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2014. They went on to go 9-7 that year – the last time they’ve posted fewer than 10 wins in a season.
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