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NFL Playoff Preview: Kansas City Chiefs

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City poses the greatest threat to unseat the Patriots in the AFC, but the Chiefs will have to get by the Steelers first.

The Kansas City Chiefs have been poised to make a deep playoff run ever since Andy Reid took over as head coach in 2013. Last season, the Chiefs rattled off 11 consecutive victories before falling to the Patriots in the divisional round. This year, Kansas City won ten of its final 12 games en route to a first-round bye and a matchup at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Chiefs don’t boast the star power of the Steelers or even the Patriots, but they do have a well-rounded, balanced team that can move the ball methodically on offense and frustrate opposing offenses with their ballhawking defense. Kansas City doesn’t have a particularly easy road to the Super Bowl, but it certainly has the talent to unseat the Patriots as kings of the AFC and win its first title since 1969.

Key Players

Offense: Tyreek Hill, WR; Travis Kelce, TE; Spencer Ware, RB

When you think of the Kansas City Chiefs, you probably don’t think about offense. With Jamaal Charles sidelined, the Chiefs have no real stars on offense. Despite that, the Chiefs’ offense functions effectively as a unit due to its efficiency. The Chiefs ranked 20th in total yards per game during the regular season, but were 13th in offense DVOA and 13th in scoring offense.

Quarterback Alex Smith is the leader on paper, but he tends to not be the difference maker when it comes to the Chiefs offense this season. First and foremost, Kansas City needs a running game to get its offense moving. Since losing Jamaal Charles for the season, Spencer Ware has stepped up to bear the load.

Ware led the team with 214 carries and 914 rushing yards, and on the days that he performs particularly well, the Chiefs have their best overall offensive performances. The running game is what this offense is built around, and its success is paramount to the Chiefs’ playoff hopes, but it’s the other two players on this list that make Kansas City’s offense dangerous.

Travis Kelce led all tight ends in receiving yards this season and was 12th overall in that category. He led the the Chiefs in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and yards after the catch. He is Smith’s favorite target and he provides a level of consistency in the passing game and an amount of explosiveness and vertical range that very few tight ends possess in this league.

Tyreek Hill adds another explosive dimension to the offense, but he also brings plenty of controversy because of a domestic violence incident that occurred while he was in college. As football fans grapple with their feelings for Hill, objectively he has been a fine addition to the Chiefs’ offense.

Hill has six receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, and three return touchdowns, making him a legitimate threat to score in several ways. He possesses great speed (he ran a 4.25 40-yard dash at his pro day), and gives this offense the deep threat that it lacked for so many years under Reid.

These three players will be essential to the Chiefs playoff hopes going forward. If all three can consistently get going during the postseason, Kansas City’s offense will be more than strong enough to make a run.

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Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Defense: Justin Houston, OLB; Eric Berry S; Marcus Peters, CB

Kansas City’s defense is its greatest strength. The defense gives up plenty of yards (24th in yards allowed per game), but those yards rarely result in points. The Chiefs allowed just 19.4 points per game during the regular season — seventh-best in the league — led the league in takeaways, and had the fifth-best red zone scoring defense.

Justin Houston hasn’t even been on the field for most of the season. After returning from a two-and-a-half month absence due to injury, Houston played in five games before re-injuring himself and missing the final two games of the regular season. When he was on the field, though, he was dominant. Week 12 against Denver he recorded 10 tackles, three sacks, and a safety en route to an overtime victory.

Thanks to the bye week that Kansas City earned, Houston should be healthy enough to play and that will be critical since fellow linebacker Derrick Johnson is lost for the year. Houston plays on the outside whereas Johnson plays on the inside, but Houston’s presence on the field should provide a tremendous boost in the front seven.

However, it’s Eric Berry and Marcus Peters who are the most important players on this defense right now. The Chiefs were tied for the league lead with 18 interceptions, with Berry and Peters accounting for 10 of them.

The pair are great in coverage, are not afraid to come up and support the running game, and are looking not just to bat the ball down, but to pick it off and take it to the house. Their ability to snag the ball over will play an enormous role in their first game against the Steelers, and an even larger role if they reach the AFC championship game and face the Patriots. Roethlisberger has a tendency to get reckless with the ball at times, which plays into the Chiefs’ hands, but Tom Brady has thrown just two interceptions all year. If Kansas City wants to get past the Patriots and reach the Super Bowl, Berry and Peters will need to force Brady to make a mistake, as difficult as that may be.

This is a very good defense that makes it incredibly difficult for opponents to put points on the board. If the Chiefs stick to the formula they’ve used defensively in the the latter half of this season, they should be in every game they play this postseason.

Best Win and Worst Loss

Best Win: 29-28 over Atlanta Falcons (Week 13)

Kansas City had several great wins this season, but this victory on the road against Atlanta is its best because it took every ounce of grit and ingenuity this team possesses to pull it out. The Chiefs held the Falcons offense — the best offense in football by DVOA and points per game — to just 28 points. The defense came away with the two most important plays of the game, and both came thanks to safety Eric Berry. With the score tied and the first half coming to a close, Berry intercepted Matt Ryan at the Falcons’ 37-yard line and returned it for a touchdown to give the Chiefs the lead.

Then, after the Falcons had just retaken the lead late in the fourth quarter, Berry one-upped himself by intercepting Ryan again, this time on a two-point conversion attempt. Berry jumped in front of the would-be receiver at the goal line, and sprinted 100 yards to the opposite end zone, giving Kansas City two points and the lead back. The offense took the field with just more than four minutes remaining and was able to convert two first downs to square away the game. The Chiefs showed a level of ability and mental toughness in this game that will be critical in the postseason, and it could be what puts them over the top.

Worst Loss: 43-14 to Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 4)

Things got out of hand quickly for Kansas City in this one. Le’Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards on just 18 carries in his first game back from suspension. Antonio Brown caught two touchdowns in the first quarter, and Ben Roethlisberger threw for five touchdowns total. By the end of the first quarter, the game was 22-0 and the Chiefs didn’t put up a point until the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach. The offense was surprisingly stagnant, and the defense was uncharacteristically porous.

Now, the Chiefs get a shot at redemption. Houston will play after missing the first go-around Week 4. The offense has found a new level of explosiveness that it didn’t have earlier in the season thanks to Hill. But if Bell and Roethlisberger excel like they did three months ago, the Chiefs won’t stand a chance.

Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams

Week 2: 19-12 Loss at (4) Houston Texans

Week 4: 43-14 Loss at (3) Pittsburgh Steelers

Week 6: 26-10 Win at (5) Oakland Raiders

Week 13: 29-28 Win at (2) Atlanta Falcons

Week 14: 21-13 Win vs. (5) Oakland Raiders

Positive: The Chiefs won their final three matchups against playoff teams, including a sweep of the Derek Carr-led Raiders, and finished with a 3-2 record. After stumbling a bit out of the game, Kansas City showed over the final half of the season that it can contend with the best teams in the league.

Negative: Although much stronger during the back half of the season, the Chiefs showed some vulnerability earlier in the year. Kansas City dropped a game against the Texans, a team that might have reached the postseason and beaten the Connor Cook-lead Raiders, but one that was also ranked 29th this season in overall DVOA. The Chiefs were also smacked by the Steelers, their opponent this week, and will have to find answers for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, or their playoff run will be cut very short.

Performance Leading Up to Postseason

Since November, the Chiefs have shown the proper combination of dominance and resilience to label them a top contender. Kansas City went 7-2 in its final nine games and secured several come-from-behind victories and several beat downs. The Chiefs registered an unbelievable comeback against the Panthers, beat the Broncos on the road in overtime and the Falcons on the road in the final minutes. They also dominated the Raiders and Broncos at home, which, coincidentally, is where they will play their first playoff game.

It is worth considering their two losses. They came by a combined four points against Tampa Bay and Tennessee, two talented teams who just missed out on the playoffs, but they do give cause for concern, particularly the loss to Tennessee. After taking a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter, the Chiefs allowed 12 unanswered points, including a game-winning field goal as time expired. Kansas City has some momentum going into the postseason, particularly because it was able to steal the No. 2 seed from the Raiders, but there is a small level of concern about which version of Kansas City will show up in January: the team that crushed the Broncos Week 16, or the team that choked away a game to the Titans Week 15.

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Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Level of Contender: Legitimate Threat

Everybody is ready to anoint the Patriots the champions of the AFC, and they certainly have a great shot at reaching the Super Bowl yet again. They get an easy opponent in the divisional round, and they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They are the New England Patriots. They should be the favorites.

But don’t overlook Kansas City.

No, the offense typically isn’t as exciting as other teams in the league, but Smith is experienced and rarely turns the ball over, the running game is top-10 in the league in DVOA, and Kelce and Hill provide some versatility and explosiveness.

The defense gets after the ball and can control a game by getting it back to the offense and keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone, even if it lets them get inside the red zone. There are plenty of players on the defensive side of the ball that can make plays and can frustrate offenses as talented as those of the Patriots, Steelers, and whoever else comes out of the NFC.

The Chiefs are a legitimate threat to win the Super Bowl and at the very least, expect them to be ultra-competitive in every game they play this postseason.

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer, Vincent Choy.

How many Super Bowls has the Chiefs franchise won?
Created 1/9/17
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