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Five things to watch as the Chiefs look to “break the cycle” on Saturday

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A big matchup of quarterbacks and tight ends is on the table — plus great pass rushers against a tough offensive line

The Kansas City Chiefs will attempt to advance to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1993 when they open their 2018 postseason run against the Indianapolis Colts at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. The quarterback show

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Here’s something you already knew: two really good quarterbacks will be facing off in this game. As I pointed out on Tuesday, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has had an incredible season — and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is arguably having the best season of his career.

In that article, I gave you a statistical comparison between the two quarterbacks. Let’s revisit that, but this time we’ll use my favorite statistical trick: converting the values to standard deviations from average and showing those to letter grades, so we can see how the numbers really compare to each other. If that makes no sense, read this explanation.

Mahomes vs. Luck
Player CmpPct TDPct IntPct Rate SackPct Y/A RshAtt RshY/Att
Patrick Mahomes 66.0 (C) 8.6 (A) 2.1 (C) 113.8 (B+) 4.3 (B-) 8.8 (B+) 60 (C+) 4.5 (C+)
Andrew Luck 67.3 (C+) 6.1 (C+) 2.3 (C) 98.7 (C+) 2.7 (B+) 7.2 (C-) 46 (C) 3.2 (C)

As you can see, the statistical differences between Mahomes and Luck are insignificant — except in touchdown pass percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. Since the components of passer rating are completion, touchdown and interception percentage — plus yards per attempt — we can see how the statistical differences between Mahomes and Luck affect their respective passer ratings.

As the AP Nerd Squad’s Craig Stout noted in his preview to the game, the Colts have wisely made Luck a dink-and-dunk passer.

His average depth of target is in the bottom third of the league — squarely between Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota — and his average time to throw is in the top ten in the league. When he does hang on to the ball, he’s continued to show the ability to avoid taking sacks by staying mobile and escaping the pocket.

While I won’t disparage the Colts offensive line, this combination of factors might have much to do with the Colts leading the league in sacks allowed — and the target depth Craig mentioned could easily explain the statistical difference between Mahomes and Luck in yards per attempt. That’s one of the problems with passing statistics — sometimes they have as much to do with the offensive approach as they do with the quality of the quarterback.

If Luck has a weakness, it’s a slight one: he can be rendered a little less effective when he is under pressure — but if you try and bring it by blitzing, you’d better get to him fast. With his six years of NFL experience, he’s an expert at diagnosing the blitz and finding the resulting mismatch in the secondary.

Mahomes, on the other hand, doesn’t share that weakness; he’s remarkably consistent regardless of what the pass rush throws at him. As long as he’s on his feet, he can hurt you.

This could easily be the best quarterback matchup of the whole postseason. We will have two top-flight quarterbacks that can move their teams very well. Luck has more experience, but Mahomes is... well, Mahomes. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, just about anything could happen.

2. The tight end show

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

We already know that with his stellar 2018 season, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce now as a solid case to be counted among the best to ever play the game. But Colts tight end Eric Ebron is no slouch, either — gaining 750 yards (and scoring 13 touchdowns) on 66 catches in 2018, which ranked him fifth among tight ends this season.

I became interested in looking at the tight ends in this game when I started seeing an Internet narrative floating around — that the Colts are terrible at defending against tight ends. So I did some research, and it’s true: the Colts did give up more receptions (and yards) to tight ends than any other team this season.

Oh, boy... Kelce’s gonna feast!

There’s just one teentsy little problem with this narrative: The Chiefs are pretty bad at defending against tight ends, too — ranking 28th in catches and 30th in yards.

But the rankings are a bit deceptive. The Colts allowed 106 receptions compared to 87 for the Chiefs. That’s the difference between an F and a D+ after you’ve converted these values to standard deviations from average. The Colts allowed 1,234 yards to tight ends, and the Chiefs allowed 1,067. That gives the Colts an F+ and the Chiefs a D+. So while both teams are bad at defending against tight ends, the Chiefs are significantly better.

The gulf between the two tight ends themselves is even more substantial. Kelce gets an AA grade (better than A+) for his 103 catches, and Ebron gets a B for his 66. In yards gained, Kelce gets another AA for his 1163 yards, and Ebron gets a B for his 750.

What does this mean? You can expect both teams to consider passing to their tight ends as an advantage against the other; you can expect to see both tight ends being featured prominently. The Chiefs — and Kelce — should have the edge over most of the field. But when the Colts are in the red zone, the Chiefs will have to pay close attention to Ebron. Of his 13 touchdown catches this season, 11 have been on passes of 20 yards or less.

3. The pass rush show

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Everywhere you look, people are singing the praises of the Colts offensive line, which has allowed an NFL-leading 18 sacks this season. I’m not going to tell you the Colts offensive linemen aren’t as good as advertised — they are that good — but once again, Craig Stout’s analysis shows that part of the reason for their success is that when they intend to stretch the field vertically, the Colts have a tendency to bring in an extra offensive lineman, and/or keep running back Marlon Mack in to pass-block. This gives Luck more time for longer-developing routes to develop, and for his receivers to exploit the seams in zone coverage.

You can hardly blame the Colts for this. Over the last three years, Andrew Luck has been out with injuries in two seasons’ worth of games, and keeping him on the field is paramount to their potential for success. But it does open up a couple of possibilities for the Chiefs defense.

One is that the Chiefs may be able to see what’s coming based on the personnel package that’s on the field. As long as the Colts don’t have too many tricks up their sleeve, that’s an advantage.

The other is that it could ring the dinner bell for the Chiefs’ interior pass rush — particularly Chris Jones.

Craig noted that an extra offensive lineman or a pass-blocking running back are primarily focused on reducing the effectiveness of edge rushers. In Jones, however, the Chiefs have a pass-rushing threat on the interior of the defensive line. He’ll have a big job in front of him — the interior of the Colts offensive line is very good — but Jones has the talent to get it done. Otherwise, Dee Ford and Justin Houston are just going to make the best of their opportunities when the Colts don’t bring in extra blocking help — or figure out a way to make plays when they do.

However they might happen, sacks (or turnovers) by the Chiefs at critical moments would very likely be huge factors in this game. No matter how good the Colts’ pass protection is against the Chiefs, I wouldn’t bet against the pass rush getting home a few times. And that could be all that it takes.

4. The 14-point show

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

For both teams, it’s going to be a race to get to a 14-point lead; it wouldn’t be all that surprising for the team that wins the opening coin toss to go old-school and take the ball to start the game.

For the Colts, a two-touchdown lead means they can depend on their preferred offensive approach: a low-risk short passing game and a strong running game. For the Chiefs, being two scores up keeps Arrowhead rocking, and forces the Colts into a more one-dimensional offensive approach that will be easier for the Chiefs to defend.

I know that given what has happened in recent Chiefs playoff history — and even recent games — Chiefs fans might shudder at the thought of a 14-point lead in a must-win game.

If you are worried that with a big lead, the Chiefs might “take their foot off the gas,” then I direct your attention to something Patrick Mahomes said on Tuesday, when he was asked what he learned watching last year’s playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.

“You can’t just rely on something that you’ve done earlier in the game to win the game,” he said. “We were up early, and we probably should have handled the game early, but at the same time, it’s the playoffs — it’s a game of momentum. You have to find ways to keep battling on — to keep pushing on, and not try to just get through the game. To stay on the attack, to stay aggressive and find ways to win football games.”

When the team’s offensive leader responds to such a question, what he says — at least to some extent — probably reflects the thinking of his coaches. So I would be surprised if the Chiefs “take their foot off the gas” in this game.

Of course, the other issue with a 14-point lead has to do with the Chiefs defense. If you frequently use words such as “Bob,” “collapse” and “epic” when you talk about the Chiefs, you know exactly what I mean.

Let’s try to forget the number of yards the Chiefs gave up in 2018. It’s a certainly a bad number — 6488, to be exact — and nobody likes it. It’s a number that is almost the worst in the league, but it’s also a number that is almost devoid of context. I won’t say it’s meaningless... but it’s close.

It’s true: the Chiefs have been giving up a lot of yards this season, but it’s primarily because the Chiefs rushing defense has been so poor. Meanwhile, the Chiefs passing defense — all things considered, a more important piece of the puzzle — remains about average.

Furthermore, as the season has progressed, the Chiefs defense has steadily improved at making big plays at critical points. And one statistic that specifically takes that into account — Football Outsiders DVOA ratings — has reflected that trend. In their final DVOA report of the regular season, the Chiefs defense ranked 26th at 6.8 percent — meaning the unit was 6.8 percent below average.

Most people would look at that 26th ranking and think it’s bad. But rankings often lie. They tell you which values are more (or less) than others, but not by how much. That’s the whole point of converting statistical values to letter grades, as I’ve done in this article.

When we do that, the Chiefs get a C- for their 6.8 percent. Great? No. But not terrible, either. It’s measurably — but not significantly — below average.

For most of the season, Chiefs fans have been asking this question: “What could the Chiefs do in the playoffs with even an average defense?”

Well... we’re about to find out.

5. The history show

Kurt Warner #13...

No... this isn’t about the how long it’s been since the Chiefs have won a home playoff game. You’ve heard enough about that — and with any karma at all, you’ll never have to hear about it again.

This week, there’s been a push in the national media to highlight that this will be Patrick Mahomes’ first playoff game. As Chiefs fans, we’ll tend to dismiss this as nothing more than typical coastal bias against flyover country — never mind that the Colts are also in flyover country — but there’s a legitimate basis to be concerned.

For example, in this week’s edition of Scramble For The Ball on FootballOutsiders.com — home of the well-regarded DVOA statistic — Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter had a conversation about it. Potter noted that four first-time playoff quarterbacks entered the postseason in 2018, and three of them — Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky — lost in their postseason debuts during the wild card round. Only Patrick Mahomes is left.

Knowles expanded on the theme.

First-time starters are 46-60 since 1990 in the playoffs, though it should be noted that some of those instances saw first-timers play each other. Perhaps interestingly, quarterbacks that lost their first start have a better ensuing record than quarterbacks who won their first start, though some of that is due to the fact that winning a game in the postseason just gives you the chance to lose one the next week. But plenty of successful quarterbacks have gotten their playoff careers off on the wrong foot -- both Mannings, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees top among them. Matt Ryan, Matt Hasselbeck, Cam Newton, Drew Bledsoe, and Neil O’Donnell all turned first playoff losses into eventual Super Bowl appearances, and both Nick Foles and Brad Johnson eventually won one despite failing in their first attempt.

So does this mean Andrew Luck’s experience will allow him to win the day on Saturday?

Normally, I’d say it could be a significant factor... but this is hardly a normal situation.

Earlier in the season, I often used this space to highlight how Mahomes’ season was comparing to the most blistering start ever recorded by an NFL quarterback — that of Kurt Warner in 1998 and 1999. Like Mahomes, he played in one game in his rookie season and became the starter in his second. Here is how they compare to each other at the end of their second seasons:

Two Blazing Hot Quarterback Starts
Player Yrs G Yds CmpPct TDPct IntPct Rate Y/A AY/A NY/A ANY/A RAtt RYds RTD
Mahomes 2017-18 17 5381 65.9 8.1 2.1 111.7 8.7 9.42 8.08 8.72 67 282 2
Warner 1998-99 17 4392 64.5 8.0 2.5 107.9 8.6 9.07 7.78 8.21 23 92 1

Some of the differences between these two stat lines are too small to be significant. And yes... these two seasons are almost two decades apart, so era-adjustment ought to be considered. But just the same, Mahomes exceeded Warner in every single category through his first 17 games.

So yeah... this isn’t exactly a normal situation for a first-time playoff starter. Perhaps the history we should be examining is what Warner did at the end of that 1999 season. You might not even need for me to tell you that he led his team to three straight wins — including Super Bowl XXXIV.

It’s true that The Greatest Show On Turf had a better defense than the Chiefs have now. It’s true that the Chiefs were 2-4 against other 2018 playoff teams during the regular season. It’s even true that Eric Berry are Sammy Watkins are still... you know... day-to-day.

I can’t promise you that Mahomes will make the difference in this game. But what I can promise you is that if he is unable to do it, it just couldn’t have been done — by anyone.