I remember when postseason football felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, it’s commonplace; the team has made the playoffs for the seventh-consecutive season — and they’re looking to advance to their third-straight Super Bowl.
They’ll have to play on Wild Card weekend for the first time in quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ starting career — meaning it will take four victories to earn a championship, rather than three.
It’s a challenge, especially for a team that has played more football than anyone else over the last two or three seasons. Yet, no team is better equipped to overcome it — whether it’s because of Mahomes, head coach Andy Reid or the other stars on the Chiefs’ roster.
The team is taking it one game at a time — but I’m looking at the playoffs as a whole. I have five things to watch for in the Chiefs’ latest run at a title:
1. Which secondary pass catcher steps up?
On offense, the most significant difference between this postseason and previous ones is the absence of a truly-talented playmaker as the third pass catcher behind tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
The Chiefs entered previous playoffs with wide receiver Sammy Watkins — who led the team in receptions and receiving yards in both the 2018 playoffs and the 2019 run. He was hurt last year — and while the Chiefs overcame it to get to the Super Bowl, his limitations contributed to the egg-laying performance on offense.
Without Watkins, defenses are more willing to ultimately sell out on stopping Hill and Kelce. It has been done many times this season, with mixed offensive results:
- Week 2 at Baltimore Ravens: With Hill being limited to 14 yards, wide receivers Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson combined for 164 yards and two scores on 10 catches. The Chiefs scored 35 points.
- Week 13 vs. Denver Broncos: Hill and Kelce were held to 49 yards total. Pringle, Hardman and Robinson combined for 47 yards on four catches — including two drops. The offense only mustered 16 points.
Hardman’s career game in Week 18 gives him momentum into the postseason; watch to see how the Chiefs’ deploy his talents. Outside of him, it may be the running back-conglomerate that turns into the third-most reliable receiver — but don’t be surprised if the main culprit of an upset this postseason comes from not having a better talent as the third pass-catching option.
2. How dominant can the pass rush be?
This might be the most impactful a Chiefs’ pass-rush unit will be in any postseason with Mahomes.
It may not be the best, considering the 2018 team had pass rushers Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston combine for 37.5 sacks during the regular season — but with this year’s team having a much more formidable back end of the unit, the pass rush has a chance to make more of a difference.
In 2019, Jones played hurt for the first two games. Last season, Jones and defensive end Frank Clark were together, but the third option was Tanoh Kpassagnon. Now, it’s Melvin Ingram — who has come on strong since being traded to the Chiefs prior to Week 9.
There are some shaky offensive lines on potential AFC opponents, including this week’s: the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Chiefs’ pass-rush depth looking better, they can take over these games depending on the opponent.
3. Getting more explosive plays from the run game
It’s no secret that the Chiefs’ offensive line has become one of the most physically imposing in the NFL. Yet, it doesn’t appear that Kansas City always factors that into their play calling.
Instead of horizontally-designed zone runs, the Chiefs should be using gap runs with pulling linemen more often; these designs are more likely to give the ball carrier an open lane to fly through. The issue? Not every Chiefs’ running back takes advantage of the open lanes — but that’s where the game plan is important.
With four running backs all ready to make a play, the staff needs to use each players’ best skill set with the appropriate play call. To get more explosive gains from the downhill-run game, Darrel Williams might be the best option. He will get his opportunity to shine in the Chiefs’ first game, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, likely the shiftier of the two, having been ruled out.
4. What position the Chiefs put their cornerbacks in
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has always been aggressive with blitzing — but a lot of the time, blitzes will leave coverage players on an island. Depending on the matchup, it can be a disaster — just like it was in Cincinnati in Week 17.
The Bengals are just one of multiple AFC contenders with a talented receiving corps — like A.J. Brown and Julio Jones with the Tennessee Titans, or Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley with the Buffalo Bills. It won’t be an easy task for any Chiefs cornerback to cover those players individually, so there needs to be a plan to limit those situations as much as possible.
It’s not about trusting or distrusting the cornerbacks to get the job done, it’s just how volatile those situations can be; the offense has all the advantages, including the possibility of a touchy flag being thrown.
If the pass rush can prove to wreak havoc itself against a team with elite receivers, I’d like to see Spags lay off the blitzing a little more than usual.
5. Which young players elevate their game
In the postseason, lesser-known players can etch their name in the minds of fans for life — no matter if it’s the beginning or end of their career with the team.
The Chiefs have many players that could fit that qualification — but I believe one defender will elevate his reputation from an exciting, young player to one of the premier playmakers at his position: linebacker Willie Gay Jr.
You can tell Gay is young and still a little raw at times. Still, his instincts and feel for the game have translated to big plays this season — especially in the passing game: Only four NFL linebackers have more interceptions than the two he nabbed this season, and he had two other pass breakups that nearly turned into turnovers.
His athleticism will provide a skill that Chiefs linebackers simply haven’t had over the last three playoff runs; I believe that will translate to him manufacturing difference-making plays.