What makes this AFC wild card team a true threat to hold the Lombardi trophy in February?
After a 1-5 start to the season, it was supposed to be all over. Jamaal Charles went down for the season. The Denver Broncos were riding a six game winning streak to start the year. The Chiefs were five games back in the AFC West. The fans were scouting out QB Jared Goff and QB Christian Hackenburg in hopes of eventually bringing a winning team to Kansas City. They were ready for 2015 to be over.
Then something crazy happened. The Chiefs won a game. With Big Ben still dealing with a sprained MCL, Kansas City feasted on backup quarterback Landry Jones en route to their second victory of the year. The Chiefs haven’t experienced a loss since. Now they have their eyes on a bigger prize: Super Bowl 50.
Despite not winning a championship since 1970, the Chiefs always dominated headlines locally. That was until November this year when the Chiefs saw their crosstown siblings do this:
The Chiefs started going alright. The win in Pittsburgh would spark a 10-game winning streak (longest active streak in NFL). From dominating the Lions in London to embarrassing Peyton Manning in Denver, the Chiefs were cruising. The Chiefs didn’t want the Royals to be the only team celebrating in Kansas City this year.
Concluding the season at 11-5, the Chiefs just missed being crowned AFC champs. They still managed a wild-card berth along with a trip to Houston to battle the Texans in the first round of the playoffs.
The Chiefs already defeated the Texans earlier this season 27-20. Both teams look very different now than the teams that took the field in Week 1. For starters, injuries have taken their toll on both squads.
The Chiefs had RB Jamaal Charles, CB Phillip Gaines, WR/KR De’Anthony Thomas, TE James O’Shaughnessy, G Ben Grubbs, and RT Jah Reid all suit up for their Week 1 matchup. All six players will be inactive on Saturday. Likewise, starting LG Jeff Adams and LT Duane Brown played 100% of the snaps for the Texans in Week 1. Both players are unavailable for the rest of the year.
While it appears the Texans have the advantage in the injury department, the Chiefs were without star CB Sean Smith, as well as productive starting offensive linemen Jeff Allen and Eric Fisher in their Week 1 matchup. All three players will be active this Saturday and will be major keys for the Chiefs to reach more success.
Since the Chiefs have rushed for more yards per game (136 vs. 110 yards), the Chiefs running game should be fine as well. Because of improved offensive line play, the Chiefs are running the ball just as efficiently without their star playmaker.
The Chiefs know it’s been 22 years since the team has last won a playoff game. To put things into perspective, that was with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana under center. Their last playoff win also came against a Houston football team. In 1993, it was the Houston Oilers on the losing side of things.
As with the 1993 Chiefs, this 2015-16 Chiefs team will have to rely on their defense to win playoff games. The 2016 Chiefs have ambitions of winning more than just one playoff game this time around.
After colliding with the lowly Texans, they’ll go on to face either the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots. Without Andy Dalton, it’s doubtful the Bengals end their own playoff win drought that dates back to 1991 (also against the Oilers). If Big Ben and company defeat Cincinnati, the Chiefs will get the New England Patriots in the divisional round.
The New England Patriots are seen as the favorites to win the AFC and repeat as Super Bowl champions. Led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots have enjoyed a first round bye for an NFL record six consecutive years going back to 2010.
Despite New England’s historic success, the last time these two teams played each other, the Patriots suffered their worst loss in the Belichick-Brady era. In Week 4 last season, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the New England Patriots 41-14.
A sold-out crowd created a very unique atmosphere in Arrowhead Stadium as the Chiefs routed the eventual Super Bowl victor. In fact, the Chiefs set the Guinness World Record for the loudest crowd noise in history during this primetime Monday Night showdown.
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This time in the 2016 playoffs, the Chiefs won’t have the luxury of home field advantage. Instead, they’ll have to go through Foxborough in order to reach Super Bowl L. The Patriots have won a staggering 14 out of 17 games (82%) at home in the playoffs during the Belichick/Brady era. Their last home loss in the playoffs was to Baltimore in 2012 who would go on to win the Super Bowl.
These 2016 Patriots aren’t the same as the Patriots of old though. Injuries have ruined the seasons of many starters for New England. All of Brady’s weapons have missed significant time. Not one offensive lineman has managed to stay healthy enough for even 77% of the Patriots offensive snaps. After suffering a high ankle sprain, even Tom Brady is making an appearance on the injury report.
As great as the Patriots are, this is the weakest they have ever been. As Denver columnist Mark Kiszla put it, “they’re too soft to win the Super Bowl.” Belichick is forced to put in backups all over the field. Even for the greatest coach/quarterback combination in NFL history, overcoming this many injuries may be close to impossible.
NFL Coach of the Year candidate Andy Reid will be well aware of all the injuries the Patriots are dealing with. Expect him and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to dial up disguised blitzes in an effort to get to Brady early and often. With New England’s 31st ranked pass blocking unit, it’s easy to see pro bowlers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali having a field day against these backup caliber offensive linemen.
Kansas City will really miss CB Phillip Gaines (torn ACL) in this matchup because of his ability to blanket receivers on the inside. WR Julian Edelman will be a prime target for Brady as he’ll be looking to get rid of the ball quickly. TE Rob Gronkowski is always a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses as well.
Luckily for Kansas City, they have the perfect remedy to counter both of New England’s biggest contributors. With a top-5 secondary intact, Sean Smith, Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, Husain Abdullah, and Ron Parker will be zoning in on these two superstars and they’ll do what they do best: shut down the passing game.
It also helps having one of the best pass coverage linebackers in the game, Derrick Johnson (+9.1 PFF pass coverage grade). He’ll be out there assisting the secondary in containing opposing tight ends and slot receivers on the inside. Johnson’s return to the Chiefs has aided them in restricting tight ends to the least fantasy points in the NFL (5.2/game).
The advantage New England has over most teams with their route running specialists will be matched by Kansas City’s elite depth in the secondary. Meanwhile, New England’s glaring weaknesses in the offensive line will get exposed by Kansas City’s dominant pass rush (4th most sacks). New England won’t have the weapons to make up the difference.
After overcoming Foxborough’s finest, the Chiefs will travel to Denver or host the Steelers. The most likely outcome pegs the Chiefs traveling to Mile High Stadium in the Sheriff’s back yard.
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After starting 0-5 against the Manning-led Broncos, Andy Reid’s Chiefs finally got over the hump this year. After a heartbreaking loss to their division rivals in Week 2, the Chiefs pulled out all the stops to give them their biggest triumph of the season.
The same game Manning broke the all-time passing yards record, the Chiefs forced almost as many interceptions (4) as completions (5) out of him. Head coach Gary Kubiak benched the future Hall-of-Famer after the undisputed worst game of his career.
According to the public, he sat the next few games because of a “foot injury.” However, Manning had been dealing with the injury all season, and the Broncos wanted to see what they had in Brock Osweiler with Manning proving to be ineffective. This blowout made it evident the end of the tunnel was quickly approaching for the 14-time pro bowler.
Fast forward to Week 17, and the Broncos brought Manning in the game for the first time since that Week 10 embarrassment. While he completed five of his nine attempts and came out victorious against the inferior Chargers, Manning was still throwing with the same dead, fatigued arm we’ve seen all year.
Almost 40 years old, Manning doesn’t impose the same fear in opponents as he used to. Manning had 530 career touchdowns and 234 interceptions coming into this season. His nine touchdowns to 17 Interceptions ratio during the 2015 season epitomizes his severe deterioration.
Despite Manning’s shaky performance, the Broncos earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC thanks to the best defense in the league (283 yards/game allowed). That being said, Kansas City’s defense has actually allowed less points per game than Denver’s (17.9 to 18.5).
Having arguably the best two defenses in the NFL squaring off will put more scrutiny on the offensive side of the ball. Since neither rushing tandem of Ronnie Hillman/C.J. Anderson nor Charcandrick West/Spencer Ware is likely to get much done against these top-tier run defenses, the spotlight turns to the quarterback position once again.
In the playoffs here in 2016, I’d take Alex Smith over Peyton Manning. You read that right, I’ll take the ”game manager” over the legend. With legacies on the line and temperatures reaching below freezing, here’s how these two quarterbacks stack up.
Alex Smith’s Playoff Log
Peyton Manning’s Playoff Log
For relevancy purposes, only the last five years are included (which includes all of Smith’s career playoff games while Manning also started 19 playoff games for the Colts). Manning certainly has more experience than Smith, but after looking at the numbers, Smith is much more efficient. Smith has yet to throw an interception in the postseason, yet is averaging a whopping three touchdown passes a game.
Time and again when the season is on the line, Alex Smith steps up and plays his best football. In 2011, Smith capped off a closely contested dogfight with a memorable game winning drive to defeat Drew Brees‘ Saints. It wasn’t until a muffed punt by backup returner Kyle Williams in overtime against the Giants that ultimately prevented Smith from reaching the Super Bowl with the 49ers.
With the spotlight on Smith once again in 2014, he shined even brighter throwing for 378 yards and four touchdowns, while gaining 57 more yards on the ground against the Colts. This time it took a multitude of key injuries, a 28-point comeback, and just pure Luck (pun intended) to knock Smith out of the playoffs. Smith has never been the problem in the postseason. He’s played more like the solution.
On the other hand, Manning’s postseason struggles have been well documented. Now in the worst physical shape of his playing career, it’s unlikely for him to turn things around. Alex Smith is currently playing the best football of his career while Manning is playing his worst. Even at home in the playoffs, the odds are stacked against Manning reversing the trend.
If the Chiefs don’t face a washed up Manning in the AFC Championship, it will most likely mean that Big Ben Roethlisberger has his Steelers rolling once again. Despite being the No. 6 seed, the Steelers impose the biggest threat to Kansas City’s throne.
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Fortunately for the Chiefs, if they were to face the Steelers in the AFC Championship, they would have the benefit of playing at home. Kansas City hasn’t hosted a playoff game since 2010. Known as one of the loudest stadiums in the league, that would be a big advantage.
While the aforementioned victory Kansas City earned against Pittsburgh counts in the record books, this playoff matchup with Big Ben under center will be a much different game. Some can point to their game last season in Week 16 as a better reference point.
On December 21, 2014, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 20-12 to clinch a postseason birth. Of course, those are two different teams than the Chiefs and Steelers are today.
For starters, the Steelers will be without starting LT Kelvin Beachum, C Maurkice Pouncey, and RB Le’Veon Bell who all contributed heavily to their 2014 victory over Kansas City. Bell’s absence combined with DeAngelo Williams‘ own injury problems could be causes of concern for Pittsburgh’s offense.
Other than the improved play of DE Stephen Tuitt and FS Mike Mitchell, there is nothing about this Steelers team that is better than the team that barely escaped that Week 14 matchup victorious. Combine that with the sudden decline of starting LB’s Lawrence Timmons (-22.6 PFF rating) and Ryan Shazier (-11.9), and the defense isn’t any better either.
On the Chiefs side of things, they have completely revamped their offensive line that was among the worst units in the league. Playing without Charles is tough, but like the Steelers without Bell, the Chiefs have been able to still find production from their backup running backs.
The biggest weaknesses of the 2014 Chiefs that kept them from reaching the postseason was their horrid offensive line, abysmal run defense, and a lack of legitimate receivers. If OL Mitch Morse passes the concussion protocol, the problems of the offensive line will remain a thing of the past.
Now that LB Derrick Johnson, DE Mike DeVito, and S Eric Berry have made full recoveries from their 2014 issues, this run defense looks nothing like the one above. Now, the Chiefs own one of the best run defenses in the league (98.2 rush yards allowed per game; eighth in NFL).
The Chiefs dished out $55MM to Jeremy Maclin this past offseason to end their receiving woes. Maclin’s eight touchdowns on the year are already eight more than any Chiefs receiver had last season. General Manager John Dorsey‘s ability to understand the Chiefs’ weaknesses and make moves to improve them have unquestionably attributed to their successful 2015 campaign.
Former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley is coordinating one of the best offenses in the league over in Pittsburgh. However, Pittsburgh’s defense leaves much to be desired. The Steelers owned the 30th ranked pass defense and the 21st ranked defense overall during the regular season.
Despite the Chiefs’ fierce defense matching up against a premier offense, the Chiefs have built a reputation of taking advantage of lackluster defenses during their win streak (see Week 8 vs. Lions, Week 11 vs. Chargers, Week 13 vs. Raiders). While the Chiefs are capable of containing Pittsburgh’s powerhouse offense to 20 or so points, this gives reason to believe it’s offense could explode for 30 or more if this game becomes a shootout.
The Chiefs have the most complete all-around team in the AFC. They’ll benefit from a wide-open AFC that houses multiple teams with major flaws. The Chiefs have been in “playoff mode” since Week 6 knowing one loss could potentially eliminate them from the postseason. They responded by winning 10 straight games, a franchise record.
This team will go as far as Alex Smith takes them. During these past 10 games with their backs against the wall, Smith stepped up by playing the best football of his career. He even came 46 passes short of Tom Brady’s incredible record of 358 consecutive passes without an interception.
With Andy Reid being the first head coach to orchestrate back-to-back winning seasons in Kansas City since Marty Schottenheimer in ‘96-‘97, players had a ‘special feeling’ that 2015 was the year. Super Bowl aspirations were tempered after a 1-5 start to the season. Now, with momentum on their side after a 10-game winning streak, that feeling is more prominent than ever.
Comeback player of the year candidate Eric Berry might be the final piece to the puzzle. Berry’s heroics, which included surviving cancer and returning within less than a year, have inspired this Kansas City Chiefs team. The 2010 fifth overall pick is now a leader in the locker room and repeatedly talks about the Chiefs’ “bigger mission” (getting to the Super Bowl). With everything falling into place, the Chiefs are destined to make that a reality.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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