On Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs dominated the Indianapolis Colts 31-13 at Arrowhead Stadium, advancing the Chiefs to the AFC Championship for the first time since the 1993 season.
Here are five hot takes from the game.
1. History be damned — or at least parts of it
During the week before this game, it was stunning how many pundits — national and otherwise — gravitated toward thinking the Colts would win this game.
It made no sense at all.
All of the data-based models favored the Chiefs to win. They were playing at home — where they have consistently played better this season — with a basketful of offensive weapons led by the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player for 2018. That’s a combination of factors that will usually cause pundit-type humans to swoon.
But many of them chose to swoon over Andrew Luck, a Colts defense they saw as significantly better than the Chiefs... and history.
As for Andrew Luck... I have no reason to criticize the man. He’s a very, very good quarterback. But whether he has justified the praise heaped upon him when he was drafted in 2012 — that he is a generational talent at the position — remains open to question. In all fairness, that’s an open question for Patrick Mahomes, too. He hasn’t yet played enough games that we can really say that he is a generational talent, either. But smart money says that Mahomes has a better shot than Luck — and we didn’t need to see the result of this game to know that.
As for the Colts defense... pffft. On Friday, I pointed out that the Chiefs 2018 defense — while it has given up more points and yards than any of us would like to see — had gradually become a defense that could make big plays when they needed to make them. More sophisticated statistical models like DVOA ratings — which take that into consideration — show the Chiefs defense ended the season 6.8 percent below average, which was ranked 26th in the league. In contrast, the Colts defense finished the season 3.4 percent above average, which was good for 10th. Even pundits who pay attention to DVOA looked at those rankings and thought the Colts defense is much better than the Chiefs defense.
But it really isn’t. As I showed you on Friday, when those DVOA numbers are compared fairly, the Chiefs defense graded out as a C- in 2018. The Colts defense got at a C+ grade. So while the Colts defense unit was measurably better than the Chiefs in DVOA, it wasn’t significantly better.
As for history... well, I’m never going to tell you to ignore history. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, etc. But especially as Chiefs fans, perhaps we need to start learning to pay attention to history that matters.
Separating the important from the unimportant is actually the hardest part of studying history. Does the historical trend of the Chiefs defense under a particular coordinator matter? Of course it does. But does a rough similarity in the statistics between the 2018 Chiefs and the 2003 Chiefs — and the fact that they played the same opponent in the same stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs — matter? Of course not.
As fans, it’s entirely OK for us to be frustrated when our team goes a long time without much to show for it. Unlike the team we love, we are the exactly the same for season after season. But maybe we should stop thinking that just because something has happened for a long time, that’s the way it always has to happen. If you needed a home divisional round win against the Colts and an appearance in the AFC Championship to convince you that’s true... well, that’s just fine. You’ve richly earned the right to need that evidence to prove things are really different.
As for the pundits who are obsessed with unimportant history... let’s not bother pointing out the error of their ways. It’s actually quite a bit of fun to see them be so incredibly wrong... when you’re finally on the right side of it.
2. An unexpected defense
How many of these statistics would you have expected to see in this game?
- Colts third down conversions: 0-9 (0%)
- Marlon Mack rushing yards: 46
- Colts: one offensive touchdown
I’ll guess that you said none. Yet all of these things happened.
The Chiefs defense played like champions on Saturday. They dominated the Colts from their first offensive snap and never eased up. Some of the numbers in the box score might not look impressive — they Chiefs allowed 6.2 yards a carry on the ground — but because they dominated the game so thoroughly in the first half, it didn’t matter.
And they continued to make key plays in important moments. Chris Jones didn’t get a sack but batted down three passes. Dee Ford had only one sack, but it was a huge play in a critical moment. His strip-sack of Luck in the third quarter on the Kansas City 29-yard line (that Justin Houston recovered) ended the last realistic chance the Colts had to get back in the game, as it came two plays after the Chiefs had turned the ball over on their own 20-yard line.
3. An unexpected offense
Which of these facts would you have expected see as a part of a 31-13 Chiefs victory?
- Patrick Mahomes: no touchdown passes, 278 yards and a passer rating of 85.2
- Chiefs fail to score on five consecutive possessions
- Chiefs third down conversions: 4-14 (29%)
I bet you said none. And yet all of these happened in the game.
On paper, Patrick Mahomes didn’t have an impressive day. He was less accurate than usual on his deep passes — the prime reason there isn’t a passing touchdown or two in his stat line — but in his first playoff appearance, the young man played with poise and confidence well beyond his years. He executed the offense very well, played smart and even managed a couple of his incredible how did he do that? throws.
Even with all that, the Chiefs still managed to score 31 points and cruise to a victory that was never seriously in doubt. It’s just another example of how the box score can’t always tell the whole story.
4. Justin and Sammy
In the view of many fans, Justin Houston and Sammy Watkins are two players who are overpaid for what they bring to the team. And their arguments are hard to dismiss when you look at the numbers.
But it’s also hard to deny that Houston’s leadership is part of what drives the Chiefs defense — and his Saturday performance with two sacks, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery — helps remind us that Houston is still capable of playing at a high level. Lest we forget, Saturday’s game at Arrowhead might not have been played there if it wasn’t for Houston’s late-game heroics against the Baltimore Ravens.
Watkins has missed too much of the season for anyone’s comfort, and his 62 yards on six catches on Saturday — not to mention his 590 yards on 40 receptions in the regular season — aren’t lighting up anybody’s fantasy team. He’s getting a lot of money for what might seem like very little in return.
With either of these players, it’s hard to justify the money they are being paid strictly on the basis of their measurable statistical contributions. But what’s harder to quantify is how they contribute to the whole team.
Houston is clearly able to inspire the defense — and if you didn’t see inspiration in the play of the Chiefs defense on Saturday, you might not have been paying enough attention.
Watkins turns the offense into a machine that no defense can handle. There are just too many weapons for which they must account. Nothing against players like Chris Conley or Demarcus Robinson, but they just don’t seem to add this dimension to the team.
So my point isn’t to argue against those who doubt the relative cost of these two players. But maybe we should consider reserving judgment until the postseason is concluded. Perhaps their salaries might seem better-justified if they are among the players hoisting a Lombardi trophy in February.
5. House money
Back in September, I personally thought the Chiefs would go 10-6 on the season. With all the new faces on defense, I thought it would take a little time for them to play up to their potential. I wasn’t particularly worried about the offense since it had been pretty effective even with Alex Smith at the helm. Still, Mahomes would be in his first season as a starter, and the schedule for the opening weeks of the season looked pretty rough.
So my calculation was that the Chiefs would start 4-4. As Mahomes started getting used to being an NFL starter — and the defense started to gel — the team would finish strong at 6-2, winning the AFC West over weaker Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos teams.
I also predicted the Chiefs would win the Super Bowl. I’ll be honest: there was quite a bit of homerism in that prediction.
Obviously, I got a lot of that wrong. The defense never did gel the way I thought it would, but the offense has been spectacular — enough so to make up the difference. And while I absolutely believed Mahomes would someday be one of the league’s best quarterbacks, I never thought he’d be so good so fast.
So here we are. Despite all the missed opportunities to wrap it up in the closing weeks of the season, the Chiefs are at the top of the AFC, and are one victory away from the Super Bowl.
The ultimate goal hasn’t changed, and it never will: the first and foremost goal every season is to win the championship. But with the biggest game in recent franchise history now just days away, I’m not developing an ulcer. I am at peace.
It’s almost as if we’re playing with house money.