AFC Divisional Playoffs Preview: Don’t Sleep on the Chiefs

 (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

– Jim Bearor

The Chiefs, fresh off their first playoff victory in my lifetime, are in New England to face the champs.  Kansas City is on an absolute tear, but that doesn’t make this game any less daunting. The sentence “Andy Reid and Alex Smith beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at home in the playoffs” sounds preposterous no many how many times I say it to myself. Yet, it isn’t hard for me to imagine a scenario where the Chiefs win, especially when you factor in the injury troubles of the Patriots and that they stumbled into the playoffs, losing four of their last six games.

The offensive line is the root of New England’s concern.  Chandler Jones and Dunta Hightower are supposedly healthy, Gronk and Edelman are limited in practice but expected to be fine by Saturday, and even though there isn’t quite a stable of healthy running backs to pull from, I doubt that James White or Steven Jackson are going to be the reason the Pats lose.   If the Chiefs are going to win this game, it starts with getting Brady off his spot, and making it uncomfortable for him to step up into the pocket.  The deck is stacked heavily in Kansas City’s favor here.  They’ve racked up 47 sacks throughout the year, and I have difficulty believing that they won’t be disruptive against a New England offensive line that has trotted out 13 different starting lineups over 16 games.  Andy Reid’s team has been a model of consistency all year, and Patriots fans are hoping Belichicks team can find the stability that they lost during the last stretch of the season.

All the players coming back from injury certainly help – especially Gronk and Edelman, since Brady will most likely be forced to get the ball out very quickly.  The playoff bye should help the team collect themselves as well.  I assume the Patriots will come out and look like the champs, because it‘s foolish to expect anything less of a Brady-Belichick team in the postseason, and this team has shown signs of greatness, beginning the season with a 10-0 record.

When the Chiefs beat the Texans last week, a lot of people – including myself – figured the game would be closer than it was, that Houston and Kansas City were not so different. It ended up being one of the most one-sided playoff games in NFL history, and by the end of it, everybody was looking at the Chiefs like:

It’s easy to slight the Chiefs, despite the success they’ve had in recent seasons.  Andy Reid has a mixed reputation as head coach, and former first overall pick Alex Smith still doesn’t get the respect he deserves because “he’s just a game manager”. Jamaal Charles isn’t in the picture right now, and Jeremy Maclin is hurt.  If you’re a casual NFL fan watching this game, you look at this matchup and think “that’s gonna be a blowout”, but the film and analytics say otherwise.

According to Football Outsiders, Kansas City has the second best defense in the league right now (weighted DVOA).  Their offense is the third most efficient, according to the same metric.  These numbers are heavily influenced by their opponents, and the Chiefs have had a cakewalk of a schedule leading up to the playoffs, but at least they’ve been taking care of business.

Alex Smith has five turnovers in his last five games, but outside of that, he’s had another fantastic year in terms of efficiency.  He takes care of the football, and he’s one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league if you give him a chance to run. He’ll take what you give him, and he won’t put the ball in harm’s way unless he has no other option.

Travis Kelce, or “Baby Gronk”, had another fine season, and the Chiefs have gotten more and more creative with how to use him.  As of late, he’s liable to line up in a few different positions pre-snap and go in motion – whatever it takes to get him open.  This graphic, courtesy of Football by Football, shows what I mean:

(credit: footballbyfootball.com)

(credit: footballbyfootball.com)

These types of looks can cause problems for primarily man-to-man team like the Patriots, and it will be interesting to see how they cover Kelce.  Another thing worth watching is whether or not Belichick elects to put a mirror or spy on Alex Smith to contain him (who am I kidding, of course Belichick will want to spy!). Then there’s the matter of stopping the best running tandem in the league, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis (not kidding).  We don’t think of the Chiefs as a particularly explosive offense, but upon closer inspection, there is a lot to be wary of.  They’ll take what they’re given. They run the ball well, they convert third downs, and they take care of the football. We’ll see if two missing linemen and a  injured Jeremy Maclin changes things, but their strategy shouldn’t change much. It isn’t a glamorous way to play football, and Alex Smith isn’t Tom Brady, but he probably won’t need to be.

On the other hand, Tom Brady might need to be vintage Tom Brady if New England is going to advance.  The likes of Dontari Poe, Justin Houston (who is on the injury report, but should play), and Tamba Hali are going to be coming for him, aiming to blow up that sweet spot and throw him off his game.  Such a thing is not unheard of, it is about as close as you’ll get to a formula for beating him.  His counter to this will most likely be quick passes, either in the form of Julian Edelman running short crossing patterns or screens and flares to White or Jackson out of the backfield.  I’m sure Rob Gronkowski will get his fair share of looks over the middle of the field, but I doubt New England will try to force the ball downfield too often. In fact, Brady’s approach might not be all too different from Smith’s. It might be tougher for him, given the line he’s working with, but I expect him to find a way to dink and dunk his team down the field. There’s no shame in managing the game.

I’m picking New England to win this game, but I’m not too confident about it.  The Chiefs are as hot as any team in the league, and they finally have that playoff monkey off their back.  A result similar to last year’s matchup where the Chiefs embarrassed the Pats wouldn’t shock me, and neither would the inverse.  It’s easy to be dismissive of Kansas City, based on the organization’s history and the history of Reid and Smith, but the numbers say this team is for real and I believe them.

Chiefs play them close, but Pats pull away late: 31-20

JimBearor– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)

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