Normally, the 9-1 Chiefs at the 9-1 Rams would be the game of the year—it probably still is—and we’d be celebrating it breathlessly. And we still may, in the hours before the game; I’ll help in a moment. But two things have overshadowed it.
Moving the game out of Mexico City makes the NFL look like a bunch of slightly progressive pikers. “Pikers” because how can the league take a game that we’ve all known would be hugely attractive since it was announced on Jan. 31—two defending division champs with brainy offensive minds—and not properly supervise field conditions in the weeks leading up to the game 10 months later? It’s inexcusable. If the field was in trouble a month ago, which apparently it was, why didn’t the NFL throw its weight around then and insist on a new surface or tell officials there the game wouldn’t stay in Mexico? “Slightly progressive” because they did the right thing after all and moved the game instead of trying to force the players to play there—which, I am told by a player leader from one of the teams, they would not have done. And what a scene that would have been, players boycotting the Game of the Year.
The Rams are playing for a wide swath of southern California. They will remember tonight the families of those murdered in the Nov. 7 massacre at the nightclub four miles from their facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and for the police officer murdered in that tragedy, and also the first responders and those impacted by the fires that got as close to three miles from their facility and forced 90 Rams employees and family to evacuate their homes. Tonight, coaches and staff from both teams, instead of wearing Rams and Chiefs hates on the sidelines, will wear hats from local fire and rescue departments; all jerseys from the game, plus the hats, will be auctioned off to raise money for the victims. ESPN will show the anthem and the emotional pregame observances. The Rams have given away about 4,000 tickets to public servants and victims of the tragedies, and their players have gone the extra mile. Andrew Whitworth of the Rams gave his suite to the game to first responders, one of several donations made by players to reach out.
It’s going to be emotional night at the Coliseum. And there will be fans. Because this game was not on the team’s home schedule, they began selling tickets late Tuesday night, and in just a few days, they sold about 71,000 tickets. So along with the 4,000 donated ones, there should be roughly the same crowd as attended the red-hot Packers-Rams game at the Coliseum three weeks ago (75,822).
Now for the game. This is just a hunch, because nothing will surprise me in this game, not even a little defense being played. But in a game of tremendous offensive weapons—for both teams at quarterback, for both teams at running back, for both teams at wide receiver—the one player who I think has the best chance to be the game-breaker is Tyreek Hill. There is simply no player like him in football right now. I was in Kansas City last Sunday, and it took Hill (and Patrick Mahomes) 52 seconds to produce a touchdown against a secondary flailing to keep up with this freak of nature. Patrick Mahomes to Hill down the left side for 38 yards on the first play of the game. Mahomes incomplete to Hill. Then Mahomes to Hill, who ran past his man and had the corner pointing at the late safety, for a 37-yard touchdown. By the end of this game, my gut feeling is Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will really be missing Aqib Talib.
On Saturday, talking to Sean Payton during my time with the Saints, I mentioned to him that I’d been in Kansas City last Sunday, and I didn’t think there was a player like Hill in football. Payton smiled and nodded, and looked around to find Drew Brees.
“Hey Drew, tell Peter who’s the most dangerous player in football right now,” Payton said.
“Tyreek Hill,” Brees said.
Payton beamed and nodded.
It’s dangerous to predict which of the intergalactic talents will most influence this game. Todd Gurley is such a touchdown machine that he could more than make up for the loss of Cooper Kupp in offensive production. Patrick Mahomes could get on fire, and with the way Andy Reid spreads the field (his widest-split receivers line up so close to the white-striped boundary that I swear one time they’re going to start a play with a foot out of bounds), an accurate Mahomes could strafe the Rams for 350 yards or more. I’m just excited that it’s going to be a game played on a good field, on a 60-degreee evening with just a puff of wind, and we can judge two superb teams going head to head on fairly equal footing, with each missing a good receiver, Sammy Watkins (Chiefs) and Cooper Kupp (Rams). Bring on the spectacle, and the game.