What if I told you that the Chiefs offense, even after accounting for their defensive opponents, has played like the second best offense in the league over the last three weeks?
That is the conclusion Football Outsiders came to in one of their recent DVOA articles. In it, they publish a chart which splits Weeks 1 - 5 and Weeks 6 - 8, and the entire Kansas City team, both sides of the ball, looks like one of the best teams in the league over the last few weeks, as opposed to average through the first five. The defense moves from 29th to 4th, while the offense moves from 15th to 2nd. FO notes:
Somehow, the Chiefs have put up their three best games (with three single-game DVOA ratings over 40%) in the three games since Jamaal Charles was injured. The defense has improved dramatically in the last three weeks. The offense was average in that first game, against Minnesota, but has been outstanding the last two weeks.
What to expect moving forward is a good question. But that there has been improvement on both sides of the ball is without doubt. And since DVOA adjusts for opponent, we know that the improvement is not all due to playing Detroit.
The split is real. And at least the Chiefs are currently on the right side of it. Just like they're on the right side of a winning streak. Both are just in time for what looks to be the toughest game of the year.
One drastic example of this split is the Chiefs recent success on 3rd down compared to the first five weeks.
It's not a brilliant observation, but 3rd-and-short is more likely to be converted than 3rd-and-long. In Weeks 1 - 5, the Chiefs were facing a 3rd down distance, on average, of 8.87 -- highest in the league. As a result, they converted 28.3% of the time -- second worst in the league.
Over the past three weeks, however, the Chiefs are converting 3rd downs 48.8% of the time, thanks in part to facing an average 3rd down distance of only 5.85 -- lowest in the league.
From highest to lowest, the Chiefs have made things easier for themselves on 3rd down by being more successful on 1st and 2nd. This is good in and of itself, but it also means we get less bad Alex and bad Andy. By that I mean, well, take a look at this fun stat.
It's called ALEX, after you-know-who, and stands for Air less Expected. It measures the AirYards (how far the ball travels through the air) against the distance needed to convert a 3rd down. So if a 3rd-and-9 pass travels 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage on a wide receiver screen, then it was 10 yards short of the first down marker, so the ALEX score is -10.
You can see where this is going.
Alex Smith, year-after-year, ranks the lowest in ALEX. Smith earns the "Captain Checkdown" moniker here by consistently throwing well short of the sticks. Reference the link and you can see that Smith throws, on average, 3.8 yards less through the air than is needed for the 1st down. With Reid's love of screens, and Smith's tendency to play this way regardless, you have the perfect tandem to create a very YAC-dependent 3rd down system. God speed, Travis Kelce.
Surprisingly, the Chiefs 3rd-and-long conversion rate is better than one might expect, given the low ALEX score and the fact that Smith, when he drops back to pass, needs a lot of yards to convert. On 3rd down pass plays, the Chiefs need, on average, 8.8 yards for a first. That's the highest in the league.
Despite the high average yards needed to convert, and despite our wacky, not-of-this-decade-or-honestly-any-other-decade 3rd down pass attack, the Chiefs rank 23rd in conversion rate. One would expect them to rank lower given how often they face 3rd-and-long.
And it is 3rd-and-long where The Phoenix's ALEX score is the worst. On 3rd-and-short and 3rd-and-medium, he's much more reasonable. Still ranked near the bottom of the league, but not eye-poppingly so. For example, on 3rd-and-medium this year, Smith actually passes the sticks with his throws, on average. His ALEX score is a positive +0.3.
So let's avoid 3rd-and-long, set ourselves up for 3rd-and-medium or better, and not only increase our chances of converting in general, but ensure we see more throws beyond the first-down marker. 200 screens in a row against the Lions be damned.
Peyton Manning is in the middle of an 8-game interception streak, the longest stretch of his career.
The Kansas City defense is also in the middle of an impressive interception streak, having accrued at least two interceptions in three straight games.
This of course means that the football gods will deny the Chiefs an extension of their streak while also allowing Manning to end his. Because Chiefs. One would think the Chiefs have more than settled their debt at the bad luck bank this year, and maybe some good luck should start coming their way. But no. Because Chiefs.
So let us operate under the assumption of bad luck: Smith and the offense will not benefit from a short field or a defensive touchdown. They'll have to find ways to put together long drives and score against a defense giving up only 14 points a game at home, including their most recent stand against Green Bay, where they held Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing and 10 points.
The good news is once again found in the last three weeks. Through Weeks 1 - 6, Kansas City's offense was scoring touchdowns on just 16% of its drives, bottom 8 in the league. Since then, it has risen to the top 6, at 27%.
The bad news is that those touchdowns have come as a result of the league's best starting field position over that stretch. Of course, that means the Chiefs are taking advantage of that field position, which is excellent. But it also means less favorable field position could lead to a depressing reversal in the touchdown trend. Especially against the defense that calls Mile High home.
When things go right for this offense, they are capable of playing at an elite level. But when things go wrong, they can really go wrong. This Sunday's game presents us a defense that will force the Chiefs' day to go wrong. Whether the team manages to stay cool under pressure, avoid turnovers, flip field position, and keep 3rd downs at a manageable distance, will determine if the Chiefs can do that extra bit needed to win.
Come closer.... closerrrr.....
When we gathered together some stats for a preview of the last Chiefs/Broncos game, I shared an interesting stat from Football Perspective titled Game Script. As Chase Stuart explains:
There are 3600 seconds in every game (before overtime); the Game Script is the result when you sum the score margin during each of those seconds and divide by 3600; in other words, the Game Script reveals what the average margin was throughout each second of the game.
The higher the Game Script (GS), the more dominating the victory -- or the more collapsing the defeat. Through the four games against Denver in 2013 and '14, the average GS was 6.5 in favor of the Broncos. Basically, the Chiefs have been, on average, a touchdown away.
When the last touchdown of that Week 2 disaster was recorded, there the Chiefs sat again: a touchdown away. It was a literal pronouncement of what GS told us about every other encounter. Even when you think you should have won, you're still a touchdown away. See, watch. Run. Fumble. Recovery. Touchdown.
That's the one touchdown you needed. Haha.
But one positive to come from the ruins was that for the first time in the Andy Reid era, the GS score did not favor the Broncos. In Week 2, at Arrowhead, the average score margin read: +2 Chiefs.
If you like moral victories, there you go. The Chiefs were in front the entire game. They won the game. They just didn't, you know, actually win the game. Denver did.
The Game Script score confirms to us what the Chiefs, I hope, already know to be true in their hearts: "That was our win. That was our win, not yours. You didn't beat us that day. For the first time, you were not the better team. We were. We are. That was our win. That was our win and we're going to get it back from you."
The Chiefs had their chance to earn a real-life "W" at home on a short week against their hated foe and they blew it in a way only the Chiefs could. In my few years here, I've quickly learned that no team loses games the way the Chiefs lose games. It's been a baptism by dumpster fire.
I've never been dumbfounded by a loss, but that's the word I would use to describe my feeling as a Jamaal Charles fumble was scooped up and returned for the game-winning touchdown, handing yet another win to this Denver team that I have come to hate oh so very much. Dumbfounded. No tears. No anger. Just a kind of eyebrow-raising curiosity at what had just happened and if it had really happened -- would it be reviewed and over-turned? no? okay. okay, so it did really happen. huh. -- followed by the scoffed, fatalist remark anyone here at AP could lecture the uninitiated with for weeks, especially in the middle of a losing streak. "I should have known."
Such is our curse. But that should make winning all the more awesome when it happens, right? And the Chiefs are very, very close to winning. This is a good team finally on the right side of an unfortunate first half of football.
If the Chiefs want that elusive victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos this Sunday, Andy Reid and Alex Smith will need to prove they lead one of the NFL's top offenses, and they will have to do that on the road against the league's best -- there, I said it -- the league's best defense.
We're a touchdown away.