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Football Outsiders talks 2017 Kansas City Chiefs and whether they can get over the hump

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Every year we celebrate the release of the Football Outsiders Almanac by doing a Q&A with one of their writers on the Kansas City Chiefs. This year, it’s Scott Kacsmar from Football Outsiders who answered a few Chiefs questions for me. If you like what you see here, there’s a ton more in the Chiefs section of the 2017 FO Almanac. Thanks again to Scott for sprinkling in so many good tidbits in here.

AP: We have the same question about the Chiefs as we have had the past few years: Can the Chiefs beat New England or Pittsburgh to advance in the playoffs?

FO: I tend to answer any “can” question with “yes,” but if “will they beat” those teams is the question, I probably have to say no. Winning the Super Bowl often is a process in this league, and sometimes a team needs a full five-year plan to get there. The Colts won a title in the fifth year that Tony Dungy was the head coach (2006), and the Ravens completed their journey in the fifth year (2012) for John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco. This is Year 5 for Andy Reid and Alex Smith in Kansas City, and no QB/HC duo has ever won their first title together after more than five years together. So this is really the last stand I think before the team makes an inevitable move to Patrick Mahomes in 2018.

In specifically beating the Patriots and Steelers, the Chiefs either have to play outstanding defense for two playoff games, or the offense must step up to deliver a big score on one of those teams, because neither is what I would consider scary on defense. The Chiefs have a better defense than both teams when everyone is healthy, most notably Justin Houston. So with Houston, Eric Berry, Marcus Peters, Chris Jones, and Dee Ford, there is considerable talent here. I just think when push comes to shove, you’ll see the offense stagnate against one of those teams and another season will end for the Chiefs in January.

As talented as the defense is, I don’t think they can go on a 2000 Ravens / 2002 Buccaneers / 2015 Broncos type run in the playoffs and shut everyone down. And 13 seasons into his career, I don’t see Smith suddenly having the light turn on and stay on for a three or four-game run in the playoffs.

AP: What kind of difference can Bennie Logan make over Dontari Poe when it comes to the Chiefs run defense?

FO: We had an interesting table in the book detailing the last three years of production for these players. While Poe is a superior pass rusher, Logan has stopped the run better every season. He has an 85 percent run stop rate compared to 70 percent for Poe. Logan also produced 115 stops and 36 defeats to Poe’s 83 stops and 19 defeats while playing 834 fewer snaps than Poe. Stops and defeats are plays where the defender helped prevent a successful play for the offense. The fact that Poe was such an ironman and played so many snaps every year is something that remains to be seen with Logan, but when in the game, he’s a better run stopper. The Chiefs still have other guys capable of rushing the passer.

AP: Who is the Chiefs best cornerback option behind Marcus Peters?

FO: The options aren’t great, but our coverage metrics definitely favor anyone not named Phillip Gaines. He ranked 77th in adjusted success rate and 87th in adjusted yards per pass allowed according to Sports Info Solutions’ charting for cornerbacks. Terrance Mitchell had way better numbers in limited playing time, and Steven Nelson also fared better. Gaines was a third-round pick in 2014, but so was Nelson in 2015. I don’t think the Chiefs owe Gaines anything and this should be a pretty open competition. It’s also pretty important to have three quality corners in today’s NFL given the way offenses spread the field with multiple receivers.

AP: Derrick Johnson is coming off his second ruptured Achilles in three years. How unusual would it be for him to come back as a productive player after that?

FO: That is tough, but we have seen Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith, and Cameron Wake return from a similar injury in 2016 in their thirties. They were still productive last year, but obviously Johnson’s days as the Chiefs’ leader at inside linebacker are very limited. I was surprised they didn’t try to find a legitimate replacement this offseason, but it’s not a make-or-break position for this team. I would expect to see something to be done next offseason however.

AP: What kind of season would Alex Smith need to stick around after 2017?

FO: I really think it would have to be a career-best season, or one where he has his best playoff run yet and the team loses a heartbreaker in a fashion that shouldn’t be laid at his feet by anyone thinking rationally. But finding a quarterback who peaked in his 13th season is awfully hard. The best examples I see are Randall Cunningham in 1998 and Steve DeBerg in 1990. That was actually the DeBerg season where he had 23 touchdowns and four interceptions for the Chiefs, but it was the first tough playoff loss of the Marty Schottenheimer era. As for Cunningham, well, I don’t think Smith was ever on his level to begin with, and it’s not like the Chiefs have added Randy Moss to this weaponry.