What a feeling: The Chiefs are the AFC West Champions and the No. 2 Seed in the AFC.
It seems pointless to rehash last week’s regular season game. We also can’t really talk much about the upcoming game because the opponent is still unknown.
We can still spend some time analyzing the Chiefs. Here are some of the keys to the Chiefs postseason success, no matter who the opponent is:
Uncertainty at ILB and OLB
The Chiefs have had difficulties stopping the running game all season. Earlier in the year, I think that was due to scheme. I’ve embraced the theory that Chiefs DC Bob Sutton emphasizes stopping the pass over stopping the run, going light up front to have better pass coverage. That means giving up a bunch of four, five and even eight yard carries. With the front seven the Chiefs employ, sooner or later someone (Dontari Poe, one of the other d-linemen, Dee Ford, or a run-blitzing Derrick Johnson) would get a stuff on first or second down, bringing up third and long where the secondary can at least force a stop, or even take the ball away.
As the season progressed, Justin March, Allen Bailey, Jaye Howard, and Derrick Johnson all got hurt. Ramik Wilson, who was cut from the team earlier, came back. Terrance Smith has only been on the active roster for half the season. Other attempts to fill the spot (Sio Moore and Sam Barrington) led to nothing. That has led to Sutton making a virtue of necessity, and depending on that big-play capability of the front seven.
It helps that Chris Jones spends much more time in opponents’ backfields than they would prefer. It helps that Ford emerged as more disruptive even in the run game. It helps that a rotation of Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Kendall Reyes, Jarvis Jenkins, and TJ Barnes is providing some production. It helps that Ramik Wilson does have the speed and instincts at times to play like Derrick Johnson to blow up runs and even plays behind the LOS. It also helps that Justin Houston played extremely well against the run ... when he’s on the field.
Speaking of Houston, I think he will play again, and at a high level. The only reason to hold a slot for Houston is if you think he can still contribute.
When he plays, if he plays at the same level he did against Denver the first time around, he adds a disruptive element against both the passing and running games that, combined with the Chiefs’ other strengths, is very, very tough to stop. The thing is, if the Chiefs get one game out of him, there’s no way to know if the cost of that performance will be his availability for another game or the rest of the season (if the Chiefs advance that is).
The can win without Houston, obviously. I’m convinced, at this point with the other injuries, they can’t win without either Wilson or March making some big plays from the ILB position. If teams line up and run it, they will be able to do it again and again. If the Chiefs bulk up in the box, they play to the strengths of the other playoff teams, all of which feature top-notch WRs. That forces the secondary to put more of their effort into coverage and preventing big plays than into making big plays themselves. The Chiefs need someone in the front seven to make a play in the running game and short passing game with enough regularity to force punts. The ILBs will be key.
The Chiefs will go as far in the playoffs as Ramik Wilson takes them. As long as he plays well and everyone else plays like they normally do, the Chiefs will win. If he has a bad game and the Chiefs run into a team that can run like the Titans, they will lose.
Marcus Peters has nearly shut down his side of the field. Last week, Philip Rivers decided to try going his way anyway, which gave us a good reminder why teams aren’t doing that very much anymore.
Terrance Mitchell has been playing like a Pro Bowler there the last few weeks. Eric Berry is suddenly a ball hawk. Daniel Sorensen is surprisingly a playmaker. Ron Parker has grabbed the one-handed the ones. All the safeties have forced fumbles.
Steven Nelson is a solid No. 3 cornerback. Kenneth Acker has avoided embarrassing himself in short stretches Philip Gaines may finally be healthy (maybe).
The Chiefs have some good things going on in the secondary but there is a counter argument.
The Falcons thew for 297 yards, the Titans threw for 241 yards, the Chargers still threw for 269 yards. That’s a lot of completions and yards, isn’t it? Where are those going?
A good chunk of those yards come when the Chiefs have a lead which they’ve had a lot of this year. If you’re behind and want to catch up, if you want to score quickly, if you want to get on top of the Chiefs, you have to throw to your WRs. Not only are Peters and Mitchell just not allowing much of that these days, Berry, Sorensen, or Parker are making teams pay by taking the ball away when they try.
Ball-control defense, indeed. If they can avoid any breakdowns, keep plays in front them, slow down any fast attacks, and exploit any mistake to take the ball away, the Chiefs will win.
Multiple weapons for Alex Smith
This just in from Captain Obvious: “You can’t win just by making the other team score more slowly. You have to score points.”
We know what the Chiefs call themselves a West Coast offense and all that entails but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill have added a new dimension.
Kelce has fixed most of the weaknesses in his game, and is a better route-runner than ever before. That’s dangerous enough but now Tyreek Hill has emerged as a player that can score from anywhere on the field. The scheme necessary to stop Kelce makes it more likely Hill will make a big play down the field. The defense necessary to stop Hill leaves defenses vulnerable to Kelce.
Let’s say you manage to shut down both. The Chiefs can go one more deep in Jeremy Maclin, who transformed the Chiefs offense just a year ago. Or you lose contain on Alex Smith and he gashes you for yards you can’t afford to give up. From there it’s Chris Conley making key third down catches to extend drives as he did last week or Spencer Ware taking a pass out of the backfield (which he needs to do more of).
The Chiefs have the playmakers for a deep playoff run.
Andy Reid seems to trust his scheme more than the personnel and Alex Smith trusts his receivers more than his own arm talent. I think those two are a function of the Chiefs being patient, meaning they know they can score using that system at some point, so a possession earlier or later doesn’t matter early in the game. And that, in turn, is because Andy Reid seems to play the percentages.
Unfortunately, that also led to Andy Reid being predictable. Being predictable leads to stalled drives and three-and-outs.
The good news is that both Andy Reid and Alex Smith seem to go into a new mode during the playoffs. It is easy to forget how well Alex Smith threw the ball in the playoff losses to the Colts and to the Patriots and even before that in San Francisco. It is easy to dismiss as aberrations that even this season, Alex Smith was a true gunslinger in come-from-behind wins over the Chargers and the Broncos. With the emergence of Kelce and Hill, the Chiefs have stretched the field more often.
One can only imagine the wrinkles Andy Reid has planned to effectively use misdirection based on what he’s set up with earlier.
Playcalling will be a huge key in winning playoff games, making it to the Super Bowl, and winning it all. I don’t know if Andy Reid has ever had a better overall team as a head coach. If he uses it well, the Chiefs can beat anyone.
Overall good health
As long as the Chiefs stay healthy.
Andy Reid said this week that he thought last year’s team was Championship-caliber. Considering what they did to the Broncos in the second game, it is difficult to disagree. But untimely injuries derailed their bid. In last year’s playoffs, Morse, LDT, Ware, Maclin, and Houston’s re-injury were too much for the Chiefs to overcome, and they fell to the Patriots on the road by one score.
Health can change quickly. The Chiefs could go from healthy to decimated in just a quarter or two (like Houston, Flowers, Charles and Davis but I digress). So staying healthy from game to game will be extremely important. As long as the Chiefs make it out of games in good health, they can win. With injuries to the wrong players, all these keys to the game collapse.
If the Chiefs do stay healthy, they are the most balanced, and possibly the most talented, and among the two best-coached teams in the NFL.