So here we are again.
It took five weeks for the Chiefs to convince me that they might be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. It then took me another 6-7 weeks for the Chiefs to convince me that they had absolutely no shot to win a playoff game and might even miss the playoffs. Now, they’ve dragged me back to “man, I don’t know, are they peaking at the right time?”
I’ll do a lot of analyzing of both the offense and the defense this week (particularly the offensive line and the secondary, as both seemed to show up big), but right now I’m stuck on one thought in particular as I contemplate what the rest of this absolutely crazy season might look like: turnovers and big plays win games in the NFL, and playmakers create both.
There are a lot of things that go into winning and losing in the NFL, of course. Coaching, execution, talent, and luck are all required in some combination if you want to win more than you lose. There’s no one way to win games (passing, running, offense, defense, special teams, whatever). However, there are two things that are absolutely tied to winning: turnovers and big plays.
If your team forces more turnovers than the other team and has more big plays than the other team, you are going to win the vast majority of the time. That is an absolute fact.
For weeks, the Chiefs didn’t do much in the way of big plays or turnovers, which is astonishing when you look at the personnel they have. However, in the last two weeks they’ve gone back to producing both. And like any other team, when they do that they are quite likely to walk away the winner.
What sets Kansas City apart from many other teams is the fact that, on the surface, they appear to be tailor-made to both have more big plays than opponents AND win the turnover battle. And that starts with the playmakers they have at the top of their roster.
I’m still not entirely sure about the Chiefs’ depth in certain spots (or some of their role players), but the top of the roster is loaded with playmaking talent. And that’s why, as the playoffs loom and the Chiefs appear to be getting back to playing their best football (actually their best all season if you’re talking about the defense), it’s hard to fight the “they’ve got a good shot against anyone” feeling.
The first thing that stands out about the Chiefs in the big play/turnover area is the best home run threat in the NFL.
Tyreek Hill made Hayward look legitimately slow here. This is why "just press him" isn't a viable solution: you risk getting torched. And that was a great throw by Smith. Air under it, just let Hill outrun the defender right to the ball. pic.twitter.com/gpgraOPl1B— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
Is Tyreek Hill an elite receiver? That’s up for debate. However, we’re not talking about overall impact here (though I think a strong argument can be made for Hill given his other traits as a receiver, but that’s for another day), we’re talking about the ability to make big plays.
And no one in the NFL makes big plays like Tyreek Hill. He’s turned Alex Smith into a deep ball artist. He gets the kind of separation from NFL corners that you normally only see in a college game. Every single time teams play single-high against the Chiefs they are taking a bigger risk than they are against any other team in the NFL.
Of course, Tyreek isn’t alone out there. He’s actually not even the best player on the offense. This guy is.
Look at the move Kelce puts on 31 here. Jukes him out of his soul. He's impossible to cover, a genuine freak. pic.twitter.com/PuVrhryrvA— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the NFL. He runs a route tree that only a few others can run, and he blocks significantly better than that select group. Gronk is the only one who can make an argument, and he’s once again missing time due to injury (all while being less important in his scheme than Kelce is in his). Kelce is the king of the mountain.
He’s also a manufacturer of yards and big plays. Any time he catches the ball he’s a threat to go 20 yards, or 60 yards. The Chiefs have an advantage over every team in the league because they have Travis Kelce, and the rest of those teams do not. It really is that simple sometimes.
Of course, two playmakers on offense alone cannot always carry the day. It’s when you add a third that things get interesting.
Hunt has improved his vision/patience since the start of the year (OL has blocked much better the last 2 weeks as well). But my favorite thing about him remains that he ALWAYS gets a few more yards than you think he should. Always. Stops and waves the S right by. pic.twitter.com/8p2IAvEeVw— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Kareem Hunt over the last couple of months: if he slowed down, what he didn’t “look as good,” and all kinds of other questions. My answer never varied: Hunt himself looked fine, the run blocking was generally abysmal. Hunt had to be a miracle worker just to gain a few positive yards.
Over the last two weeks, the Chiefs have simplified their run scheme (possibly due to Mitch Morse getting hurt and Zach Fulton sliding into his spot) and basically said “we’re going to start running outside zone until you fools show you can stop it.” And no one can, as Fulton appears to be playing the best ball of his life and the entire line has stepped up with fewer “cute” (to quote Geoff Schwartz) blocking schemes.
Which lets us enjoy watching one of the more remarkable runners in the NFL. Hunt does not have elite speed, but the entire NFL is aware of his big play capability. It was on display throughout the Chiefs’ hot start, and was apparent again against the Chargers. His vision, burst, and utterly abnormal ability to gain five (or more) yards where any other running back would gain two make him completely unique.
In this writer’s opinion, you can stack up Kelce/Hill/Hunt against literally any trio of playmakers in the league and it’s quite favorable. Compare them in terms of big play potential and I’m not sure there’s another group in the league I’d take, as Kelce and Hill are simply unmatched at their positions in their ability to rip off huge gains, and Hunt’s ability is close to the top of the league as well.
But it doesn’t end there. Turnovers are part of the equation as well, as are big plays defensively. And despite a lot of struggles this season, the Chiefs DO have the top-end players on the defensive side of the ball to generate both. Starting with the Kansas City Thief.
What makes teams sweat when they play Marcus Peters is that any mistake against him (by QB or WR) is much, much, MUCH more likely to be a turnover than it is against any other corner. His awareness is off the charts. pic.twitter.com/njeBgquebQ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
Marcus Peters has become much more controversial than I think he ever wanted. He spent his first game back from suspension (a suspension which he apologized to his teammates for, according to reports) proving what makes him special among corners: an unnatural ability to take the football away from the offense.
As I state in the tweet above, Peters has an uncanny ability to make offenses pay for mistakes. And every offense in the NFL makes multiple mistakes per game. Those mistakes often go unnoticed because teams get away with them. No harm no foul. Errant throw? It happens. Receiver ran the wrong route? We’ll get ‘em next time. Runner didn’t secure the ball all the way? Eh, we’ll talk about it during the film session.
But against Peters, if you do ANY of these things, you’re almost more likely to pay for it than NOT pay for it. His awareness of the field and where the ball is at all times is genuinely ... weird. And because of that, he takes the ball away from opposing teams better than anyone else in the NFL.
And make no mistake, turnovers are THE biggest play in the league. Those are the game changers. And that is why Marcus Peters is a human cheat code for the Chiefs: he’s better than anyone else in the league at creating the biggest possible kind of play.
There are two other guys on the defense, though, who have a knack (often unnoticed) of creating big plays on their own, generally directed at the quarterback.
I can't get a good view on broadcast of what exactly the RT did here, but Justin Houston just blew RIGHT past him to force the pick that started the blowout. pic.twitter.com/duagzrU63I— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
I can’t get into another argument with people about Justin Houston this year. He’s been far and away the best player on an underachieving defense and has often been the sole barrier between the Chiefs being “meh” defensively and being absolutely horrendous.
That said, it’s plays like this one, where nothing happens on the stat sheet, where Houston often makes an impact (in addition to picking up sacks at an oddly high rate for a guy who is forced to play in coverage a quarter of the time). His ability to take quarterbacks down, chase them into other rushers, or force them to make stupid throws provides opportunities for the rest of the defense to capitalize and make big plays. Additionally, his work as a run defender (yes, a stuffed run is a big play, though not as big as a turnover) is unparalleled.
For much of the season, though, Houston felt like a one-man band, and it wasn’t enough. Enter Chris Jones.
Oh my goodness, someone call that LG and make sure he's OK. Chris Jones has that grown man strength.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
(side note: I feel bad for that RT. One of the few good reps he had against Houston all night and it didn't even matter) pic.twitter.com/8jK9nezwm1
Jones, for the second game in a row, played like we had all hoped he would coming into this season. He was a force against both the run and the pass, but in particular made Rivers’s life miserable (something that will always endear a player to Chiefs’ fans).
The Chiefs’ defense has made tremendous strides forward in multiple areas over the last few weeks, but the play of Houston and Jones was the key to taking a pair of offenses that had been playing solidly and making them look terribly overmatched.
In all, the core of Kelce/Hill/Hunt on offense and Houston/Peters/Jones on defense should be, with enough support, a pair of groups that can create enough big plays and turnovers to give the Chiefs a good chance to beat anyone.
There are a lot of X-factors for the Chiefs down the stretch. How well will Alex Smith play? Will Andy Reid and Matt Nagy continue to co-exist well? Will the offensive line keep it up? Can Reggie Ragland continue to keep the run defense competent? Is Darrelle Revis seriously playing this well, and can the rest of the secondary hold up its now less-heavy burden? Can Tamba and Kpassagnon hold down the other side and help with the pass rush? And on and on it goes.
But the most important factor over the next month is going to be those two trios of players. They are the Chiefs’ playmakers. And if they continue to be put in a position to make things happen the way they have recently, well... there are a lot of things that can happen in the NFL when your playmakers are making plays.