Fortunately, it's about results, and the Chiefs earned their fifth win in twelve tries in 2011, and thus keep hope alive of a miraculous AFC West comeback in the season's final quarter.
It'll take more than just the Chiefs stringing together wins to earn the AFC West crown, as the Broncos and Raiders lead the way at 7-5 and will need to stumble for the Chiefs to turn the improbable into reality.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, as the Chiefs will travel to the Big Apple this Sunday and take on a Jets squad that most football fans know aplenty about, mostly through the brash and bold statements made by their camera-loving head coach, Rex Ryan. Ryan's never been short on confidence, but the Jets enter Sunday winners of two straight football games and finally feeling like they are hitting their stride. Count the recent play of QB Mark Sanchez as the primary reason for the change in results, as after a disastrously slow start to 2011, Sanchez has been good for five touchdowns and just one pick over this two week stretch. Most notably, Sanchez starred in the fourth quarter of the Jets' Week 12 victory over the Bills, a game in which he threw four scores.
The Jets are a team that incorporates a complex defensive scheme and an offensive scheme that is at times complex to understand (as in why they call the plays they do), but their efforts can be boiled down to a single factor: the play of Sanchez. Sanchez has yet to prove he is good enough to constantly win big games for the Jets (their defense has carried them to back-to-back AFC Championship games), but he's made it abundantly clear he's capable of losing the Jets games almost single-handedly. Whether its the microscope of playing in New York City, or the pressure of being a top five draft pick for a team so close to contending, Sanchez has proven to be as polarizing to root for as any other Jet in recent memory. One day up, others down.
The Chiefs defense needs to build a plan to make sure Sanchez is down this coming Sunday. Seven sacks would be a nice start, but banking on consecutive weeks of such production is naive. Rather, the Chiefs need to force Sanchez to make quick decisions, and if opportunities present themselves to make Sanchez pay, the Chiefs need to capitalize.
How can they do this? We'll dive into that and more in this week's 5 Keys to a Kansas City Chief's victory:
1. Minimize passing lanes: Sanchez isn't the NFL's most accurate passer; in fact, he's not even close. Sanchez isn't particulary adept at throwing short, medium or long distances in comparison to his NFL QB brethren, but he has three receiving targets (Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Dustin Keller) who he relies heavily upon and who can make something out of poor throws. Sanchez has some mobility, but isn't spot-on when throwing on the run (obviously few QB's are), and the Chiefs need to do their best to disrupt his reads on Sunday, and that starts by minimizing the passing lanes. This involves pressure from the front seven and linemen getting their arms up when they sense a pending release. A 3-4 isn't predicated upon disruptive defensive linemen who can track down the QB on every down, but it calls for disciplined rushers, and that requires being ready to go hands-up when needed. Additionally, defensive backs and linebackers need to be physical with Sanchez's favorite trio. Burress is a minimal speed threat and a rigid route runner, but he has unique size and length to make plays. Forcing him laterally at the line of scrimmage can slow down his route, and that will trace back to Sanchez and his ability to deliver on point. Holmes and Keller are both atheltic enough to get separation, but neither is a particulary contact-heavy receiver. Jamming and pestering them at the line goes a long way, and ruffling the feathers of Sanchez is a must.
2. Know their strengths: Let's stick with the aforementioned receivers for a moment, because when it comes down to it, if you can stop these three you'll have a chance to largely deter the Jets' passing game. Knowing your opponent is paramount to any good football player's preparation, and when it comes to the Jets, these three receivers present different challenges. You know Plaxico Burress isn't going to beat you on short distance routes or out breaking-sideline routes within 10-15 yards, but where he will make his money is running linear and against single coverage (and he's a terror in the red area). Keller is a space eater in the middle of the field who loves to carve up zone coverage, and he's a reliable catcher. Holmes is the best of the bunch, and he's a very good route runner with speed and wiggle to make you miss in the open field. So what does this all mean? Play to your strengths, know their strengths, and try to expose their weaknesses. Don't allow Plaxico to free release in man coverage, carry Keller in zone coverage until it's safe to pass him off, and disrupt Holmes early in his route. It's a tall task no doubt, but the Jets are a sporatic passing team and the Chiefs have a chance to force a poor day from Sanchez once again.
3. Identify pressure: We've heard continuously about Tyler Palko's capability from the shoulders up (in fact, I've said myself he's a cerebral guy), but that will be put to the test this Sunday against a Jets defense that looks like it was drawn up by a mad scientist (a smart mad scientist at that). The Jets don't have a dominant pass rusher, but they bring pressure from a bevy of angles and make it hard for any quarterback to identify what's happening pre-snap. The Jets will rely heavily on a linebacker in a down alignment, and they'll stunt, twist and rush you in any way they can draw up. Palko needs to display some prescience on Sunday, and be ready to get rid of the ball quickly. The sooner he can diagnose what's heading his way, the better he'll be able to execute the offense. Time is of the essence when you play against the Jets' defense, and Palko must be decisive.
4. Slow down Joe McKnight: A week ago, I stated the importance (ad nauseum) about not kicking to Devin Hester against Chicago. Well, believe it or not, by the numbers, Joe McKnight is far and away the best kick returner in the NFL this season. (Although McKnight continues to battle an elbow injury, let's assume he'll play). McKnight is sporting a terrific average on returns that exceeds 32 yards per try, and he's already taken a kickoff all the way back for a 107-yard touchdown. McKnight has been known for his athleticism dating all the way back to his prep days, and what has impressed me most is the aggressiveness he's shown as a returner in 2011. There's little doubt McKnight wants to return every kick he gets his hands on, regardless of how deep he is in his own end zone, so the Chiefs must be ready to cover kicks, regardless off whether they come up five yards short of the goal line or nearly reach the field goal uprights. Keeping McKnight as a non-factor is an absolute must for the Chiefs to take down the Jets on Sunday.
5. Attack Darrelle Revis: No, you didn't read that wrong. The Chiefs must attack Revis in the passing game, and it must start from the very first drive. It's well known that Revis is the best corner in football, and for my money he's the best defensive player, period. Revis has the size, strength, quickness, speed, physicality, savvy, instincts, ball skills and just about ever other desirable quality you want in a top corner. That being said, you can't resign yourself to the fact that he's going to lock down a receiver and simply stay away. Two weeks ago, the Bills went right at Revis with WR Stevie Johnson, and the results were favorable (minus Johnson's knucklehead touchdown celebration). It's no guarantee that the Chiefs will see the same success if they try to employ Dwayne Bowe similarly to how Buffalo used Johnson, but challenging Revis has a ripple effect that can be felt throughout the rest of the Jets' secondary. Anything the Chiefs can do to make the Jets' safeties keep an extra eye towards Revis' side, as opposed to letting him operate on his own, is a win and can open up the passing game for a team that surely needs it.