The Kansas City Chiefs are a better football team than the Houston Texans. Full stop. This is a game they should win. Full stop.
But victory is by no means guaranteed. The Texans are a playoff-caliber team with an incredible defense. They are riding a hot streak rivaling that of Kansas City's. Over the last nine weeks, they've held the Titans, Bengals, Saints, Titans (again), and Jaguars to six points. SIX!
At the low point of their season, they were 2-5, just like the Chiefs. But since giving up 44 points in a road loss to Miami, the Houston defense has earned its reputation as one of the toughest in the league. Over the last nine games, no team in the NFL, not even Kansas City, has given up less points in the second half than Houston. The Texans also possess the best average yards allowed per play mark over that span, acquiescing only 4.4 yards per play to opposing offenses. They are also giving up the least total points in football after Week 7.
Football Outsiders offers a weighted version of their DVOA stat, which adds emphasis to more recent games and lessens the weight of older ones. The Houston defense is ranked fourth. This is a unit that has received little help from its offense, but has still trudged its way forward to a 7-2 record to end the season and earn a home playoff game against Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs.
But I will go ahead and say it: the Houston defense has not faced an offense as good as Kansas City's all season. In the same weighted DVOA metric, the Chiefs' offense ranks third -- yes, third. The Houston offense, meanwhile, ranks 24th. The Kansas City defense? Second.
The Chiefs, who have scored the third most first-half points in the NFL over the last nine games, are a team that gets out to early leads and then holds on for dear life. In Houston they can get out to an early lead and then take advantage of a desperate Brian Hoyer to extend that lead further. Of the last six interceptions Hoyer has thrown, four were made when his team was trailing.
I present below more detailed stats on two key factors which I think will dictate today's game. If the Chiefs can win in both these metrics, they will ensure themselves a comfortable victory. Falter in either, however, and this Houston defense is, in fact, good enough to make Kansas City's playoff curse extend another year.
It feels only right that playoff victories over Houston should bookend the curse. Just like Marcus Peters interceptions should bookend Houston's season.
Over the past nine weeks, the Houston and Kansas City defenses lead the league in sacks, with 32 each. The Texans, who have sacked the quarterback on nine percent of passing snaps, slightly beat out the Chiefs, who are accruing sacks on 8.3 percent of passing snaps (neither number includes scrambles). Both sack rates are top two in the league over this span -- and, of course, much of this has come without the Chiefs' best pass rusher, Justin Houston, who is set to return this Saturday after missing the last five weeks. Houston has 7.5 sacks in 11 games with Kansas City this year.
Comparing the sack percentage to both teams' quarterbacks, we get similarly high numbers. Alex Smith has been sacked on 7.9 percent of dropbacks over the last nine weeks, again not including scrambles. Brian Hoyer has been sacked on seven percent. The bigger differences here are (1) yards lost on sacks, and (2) scrambles. Both are simultaneously good and bad for the Chiefs.
The good news on sacks is that, by my count, Smith loses fewer yards per sack than any quarterback in the league. The 20 sacks he has suffered over the last nine games have resulted in only 93 yards lost. Compare this to Hoyer, who has been sacked 22 times -- only two more than Smith -- but those sacks have cost Houston 168 yards.
The bad news on sacks is that Smith is being sacked at a higher rate than almost any quarterback in the league. Only Aaron Rodgers and Blake Bortles have been sacked more this season, but Smith is dropping back to pass less frequently than either of them, meaning he is getting sacked at a higher rate. Smith's sack rate on the year is a ridiculous 8.7 percent.
The good news on scrambles is that Smith does it effectively. Even if the scramble isn't always picking up a first down, it's avoiding a negative play and turning it into something positive. Over the last nine games, Smith has 53 rush attempts for 374 yards. That's 7.06 yards per attempt, good for second in the league over this span, behind only Marcus Mariota, who of course had one 87 yard run a few weeks ago against Jacksonville.
The bad news on scrambles is that Smith is scrambling a lot. Judging by how often Smith scrambles and how little Hoyer does, we know Smith is under pressure on a significantly higher percentage of his snaps, even if all those pressures aren't turning into sacks. The Texans, boasting the league's most productive pass rush over the last nine games, are facing an offensive line yielding tons of pressure. Even with all the misdirection, screens, and read option runs and passes, Andy Reid can only scheme his way so far out of this hole.
The Texans have been ever-slightly more productive over the past two months in both rushing the passer and protecting their own, but the Chiefs get Justin Houston back and go against a Texans o-line missing Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown. Hoyer's blindside will be vulnerable. While J.J. Watt leads the league in sacks, Kansas City has seven -- count 'em -- seven guys with at least four sacks, more than any team in the league. That includes safety Ron Parker, who has five sacks on the year. Pressuring the quarterback is a team effort for Kansas City. Getting sack-leader Houston back is just the cherry on top of a Bob Sutton unit that knows disruption.
If Smith can utilize his legs well, he'll give Kansas City the edge in avoiding pressure, while the Chiefs work as a team to put Hoyer on his back every other series. Both quarterbacks are probably in for a grass-stained afternoon. It will come down to who can hold on to the ball...
Smith only has four fumbles this year in 16 games and 45 sacks. Hoyer has six fumbles in 11 games and 25 sacks -- meaning Tamba Hali should get the Tambahawk Chop warmed up.
The Chiefs' offense this year is second in turnovers per drive, second in interceptions per drive, and sixth in fumbles per drive (this via Football Outsiders' drive stats). Houston is ranked, respectively, ninth, 10th, and 12th.
The Chiefs are protecting the ball better than any offense in the league not run by Tom Brady. We know Alex Smith now holds the secnd best interception-free streak in NFL history (behind the same Tom Brady). I don't want to jinx him, but the last time Smith threw an interception in three straight games was 2011. He has gone 60 games without such a streak. Odds are that stretches to 61 games. Interceptions are impossible to predict, but the numbers say Smith is less likely to turn the ball over than any QB not named, again, Tom Brady.
The same cannot be said for Brian Hoyer. He's fumbling on a significantly higher percentage of sacks and, if I can be honest, getting lucky in avoiding picks. Why lucky? A few reasons.
As we here at Arrowhead Pride are very, very aware, part of what allows Smith to avoid interceptions is his average depth of target (aDOT). The further a ball travels in the air, the more likely it is to be picked off. Smith throws a lot of screens and short-to-intermediate routes -- i.e., safer throws. Hoyer, on the other hand, is ranked fifth in the league in aDOT: his average throw is over 10 yards down-field. Smith's aDOT is the lowest mark in the league, 6.6 yards.
If we take the above premise concerning depth of target and interceptions seriously, Hoyer should have thrown way more interceptions. But he hasn't. His INT rate this year is 1.9 percent, better than the league average. What gives? Hoyer's INT rate over the three previous seasons was 3.1 percent. So has Hoyer drastically altered his decision-making and accuracy in one season with a below average Houston offense? Or is he simply on an above-average run that is unlikely to continue? I think the answer is clear.
While the stat for dropped interceptions is hard to find, and I couldn't find numbers for Hoyer this season, last year he led the league with nine dropped picks. Given that, plus his career interception rate, and adding how far he is throwing the ball this year on average, I'm going to assume there are some dropped picks bolstering his 2015 rate.
Kansas City had a problem with dropped picks in 2014. It cost them a game or three. But they went and solved that problem in the 2015 draft with the selection of Marcus Peters, who leads the NFL this year with eight interceptions, two of them taken to the house. Peters also leads the league in passes defensed, with 26. Can you say Defensive Rookie of the Year? Apparently the NFL has not yet received the memo that this is a rookie corner to be avoided at all costs. On a long enough time-line, with enough pass attempts his direction, you might get yours, but he's also going to get his. Peters Peninsula is not just the name of an adult club in Tijuana, it's the moniker of an area on the field where any football, upon entering, becomes property of Marcus Peters.
And the Chiefs, as a team, lead the league over the last nine games with 16 interceptions. So I cannot tell you when Hoyer's lucky ways will end. It's entirely possible he survives another game with a high aDOT and low INT percentage. But I can tell you that Hoyer's luck will run out at some point, and Kansas City is statistically the most likely team to make that happen.
Win the turnover battle. Win the sack battle. Proceed to celebrate.
Let's win the day, Kansas City.