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Kansas City Chiefs need Chris Jones at his best to lock down AFC's No. 1 seed

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Defensive lineman Chris Jones was playing his best football of the season for the Kansas City Chiefs when he was hit with COVID-19 and knocked out of the lineup for a Week 15 game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Jones said the illness and symptoms -- for him congestion and body aches -- set him back more than just during the week he was out. They affected him in last week's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers as well.

"This COVID thing is a challenging situation," Jones said. "You're forced to miss so many days. When you come back and you try to be in rhythm and it kind of takes you out of your rhythm.

"You don't really have the strength or endurance you had before. I'm trying to get better each day."

It's important for the Chiefs that he does. At 11-4 and with two games to play, the Chiefs have a narrow lead over the Tennessee Titans (10-5) in the race for the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed and the conference's first-round postseason bye. They figure to need Jones at his best to get that top spot.

The Chiefs have three games with zero sacks this season, and all have come with Jones out of the lineup. He missed two games early in the season with an elbow injury and the recent game with COVID-19.

The Chiefs' four best games in terms of pass rush win rate have come in the past five games, the outlier being the recent game against the Chargers.

That's why the Chiefs are monitoring Jones closely.

"Just watching and observing, it seems like each guy is affected a little bit differently [by COVID-19] for whatever reason," Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. "There's no broad brush to paint there. You've just kind of got to work through it.

"I did see last week when we got him back to practice as we got him integrated into it that there may be some stamina, some wind issues here. I would say that he looks like he's improved ... he looks better than particularly the first day we got him back from the COVID situation last week."

Jones played fewer snaps than he normally would have against the Steelers, about half. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Jones' diminished playing time had less to do with him coming off COVID-19 and more to do with the lopsided nature of the game. The Chiefs jumped out to a big lead early and won 36-10.

Spagnuolo said the Chiefs wouldn't limit Jones this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (1 p.m. ET, CBS) unless they believe he needs more rest.

"Hopefully we're past that now," he said.

Sunday's game could be a big one for Jones and the rest of the Chiefs' pass-rushers. Cincinnati's Joe Burrow has been sacked 47 times, most among NFL quarterbacks.

"He has his way of getting out of trouble when needed," Jones said. "We've definitely got to be correct on our angles this week and the way we collapse the pocket on this guy."

It's surprising the Chiefs haven't rushed the quarterback better when Jones is out of their lineup. They have a deep defensive line that includes Jones and three other players who at one time or another in their careers have had a 10-sack season.

"We've been able to have eight guys contributing in a significant way," Daly said. "We've been getting quality production from everybody in that group. You've got a lot of confidence in whoever you put out there on the field and it's been able to keep us fresh and allow us to play well."