If the Vikings are to make a playoff run this year, no team is going to be a better test of where they stand than the Kansas City Chiefs. Boasting the NFL's best record all season, the Chiefs can beat teams with offense or defense and may be the most complete team in the league. With a mid-afternoon matinee on Saturday, the Kansas City will be an important yardstick to measuring how good the Vikings can be against the elite teams of the league come January.
The Chiefs are led by quarterback Trent Green, who was one of coach Dick Vermeil's first acquisitions when he became head coach two years ago. A former player under Vermeil in St. Louis, he was slated to start in 1999 when the Rams won the Super Bowl. Instead, he blew his knee out in the preseason, and Kurt Warner became the man. Green is a perfect fit in Vermeil's offense — among the league leaders in completion percentage and a player capable of winning through the air if needed.
Green's arm hasn't been required to carry the Chiefs offense because it has Priest Holmes lined up behind him. Holmes, whom many thought might be hobbled this year after a serious hip injury, has shown no ill-effects of the injury. Despite having his touches monitored and controlled, heading into last weekend's game with Detroit, he had averaged almost 100 yards a game rushing and had scored 19 touchdowns in 13 games. Also the team's leading receiver, Holmes is a danger as a runner and receiver and will draw a lot of attention from the Vikings' defenders. While FB Tony Richardson and backups Derrick Blaylock and rookie Larry Johnson may see some touches of their own, Holmes is clearly the focal point of the offense.
One of the anomalies of the Chiefs offense is that their primary receiver targets are not their wideouts. Aside from Holmes, the biggest receiving threat is tight end Tony Gonzalez. A huge target, Gonzo can't be single-covered by a safety or linebacker. If so, he'll burn a defense often. While the Chiefs wide receivers won't be going to the Pro Bowl (well, one will, but not as a WR), they all have speed and the ability to make big plays. Starters Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison are no strangers to the Vikings, having played for Detroit and Chicago, respectively. Third receiver Dante Hall has emerged as the new go-to guy after making a name for himself in the return game. Speedy Marc Boerigter rounds out the receiver corps — giving the Chiefs several options to attack the Vikings with slant passes and a few bombs mixed in.
The unsung heroes of the Chiefs offense are up front, where three or more of their offensive linemen may be heading to the Pro Bowl. At the tackles, Willie Roaf and John Tait are veterans who have perfected their blocking techniques in run and pass coverage. Guards Will Shields and Brian Waters and center Casey Wiegman are all veterans who haven't missed a game together in the last two years. For fans unfamiliar with the Chiefs, pay special attention to this group. Perhaps no O-line in the league works as well as a unit as this group.
If the Chiefs have a weakness, it is on defense, where Denver was the first to truly exploit it in a blowout win two weeks ago. Although the Chiefs have allowed more than 24 points just twice all season, the belief of many coaches is that the defense is vulnerable. K.C. spent money in the offseason to improve what was the league's worst defense from a year ago. That started with signing DE Vonnie Holliday, who joins second-year man Ryan Sims, eight-year vet John Browning and sixth-year DE Eric Hicks to form a solid front four adept at all aspects of defensive line play. This group will be called on to penetrate the Vikings' offensive front and put pressure on Daunte Culpepper.
The linebacker corps got a big boost with the first free-agent signings of the offseason when the Chiefs took Shawn Barber away from the Eagles. He joins underrated Scott Fujita and MLB Mike Maslowski, who may miss a fourth straight game with a knee injury, to give the Chiefs an aggressive trio of linebackers that chase down running plays and drop into coverage like oversized safeties. The Vikings will find the middle passing game difficult with these guys patrolling the center of the field, but Maslowski's absence would be good news for the Vikings' ball-control running game.
The secondary has been up and down this season. CBs Dexter McCleon and Eric Warfield are adept at man-on-man coverage but may abandon that philosophy against Randy Moss and try to neutralize him with double coverage. They may be able to get away with it because of impressive safeties Greg Wesley and Jerome Woods. They have been the missing ingredients in the secondary and both have made big strides to helping the Chiefs defense show consistent improvement.
The Vikings will likely be a home underdog against the Chiefs because they can beat teams in so many ways — offense, defense and special teams with Hall on returns and Morten Andersen kicking field goals. To win, the Vikes may have to play a perfect game, but, if they want to advance in the playoffs, they may have to start getting used to playing a perfect game to keep moving on.
Priest Holmes vs. Outside Linebackers — In a typical game, it is the job of the middle linebacker to be the catalyst to stopping the running game. But Kansas City is no ordinary team, and Priest Holmes is no ordinary back, which is why his matchup with outside linebackers Chris Claiborne (or Henri Crockett if Claiborne is still hurting too much) and Nick Rogers will be focal point.
What makes Holmes so dangerous as both a runner and a receiver is the apparent ease with which the athletic offensive linemen of the Chiefs are able to move laterally on sweeps and swing passes to make blocks in space. Of the 19 touchdowns Holmes had on the ground heading into last weekend's game with Detroit, almost all of them came on sweeps to the right or left.
This strength smacks with one of the Vikings' primary defensive weaknesses — stopping the perimeter run. That is one of the reasons why the Vikings have put Rogers into the starting lineup and allowed rookies E.J. Henderson and Mike Nattiel to see much more playing time in recent weeks. The Vikings needed to combat their deficiency in running-down plays with an infusion of speed on defense. With Rogers in the starting lineup and Nattiel and Henderson seeing more time, the Vikings hope they won't be worn down by Holmes' attacking running style.
With the Chiefs still needing wins to secure home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, they know their meal ticket is a steady diet of Holmes — attacking the edges with the running game and the short passing game. By getting the defense keyed to stop Holmes, it will open up the deep middle for tight end Tony Gonzalez and the deep sidelines for the wide receiver corps.
But for the Vikings to have a chance to win Saturday, they will have to contain Holmes. Because of the numerous weapons the Chiefs have, that still may not be enough, but stopping Holmes has to be the defensive priority.
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