When playoff football rolls around, you’ll hear one particular cliché over and over from your local writer or the loudest of national pundits: defense wins championships.
Well allow me to be that local writer — and talk about a phrase that feels outdated in the current landscape of the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs won their title because of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, executing head coach Andy Reid’s superior offensive scheme when it mattered most. If they win again, it will largely be because of that same reason.
Yet, it’s exactly that style of football that makes defense so crucial to winning a Super Bowl title. Every AFC contender remaining can put up points in bunches — so the defense that can limit that firepower the most could be the reason their team is playing for a ring.
Kansas City wants to have that unit, starting with one of the team’s two defensive captains for the postseason: linebacker Nick Bolton. The second-year leader is starting his first playoff game as the green dot but knows the increased intensity of the playoffs from the three games he played in last year.
“Our team, we feel that. Just the intensity and focus level in order to compete and win football games in the playoffs,” Bolton told reporters in a press conference on Tuesday. “We saw the games last week, up and down. Just try to keep your emotions in check and play all 60 minutes.
“We’re excited for it as well. Mostly the feeling I feel, personally, is excitement. I’m ready to play. Took a week off (and) it felt like forever so I’m ready to get back out there.”
The bye week will have the NFL’s second-place tackler for the regular season ready to roll. When asked about what accomplishing that meant, he just reiterated his main focus.
“We got a first-round bye,” Bolton said bluntly. “We’re ready to play.”
That attitude is part of why the Chiefs and Andy Reid have put so much trust in Bolton. For the first three playoff runs under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, they trusted veterans to call the defense.
This time around, the 22-year-old Bolton has the reins. Reid knows that puts that side of the ball in capable hands. He praised Bolton on Tuesday.
“I think he’s done a great job of understanding and leading the defense,” Reid shared with reporters. “He’s got to make all the calls; he’s the transmitter between the front and the back end (of the defense). He’s done a great job with communicating that and still being – with that load – still being the player and making the tackles that he’s made. He’s as sure a tackler that you have in this league.”
The linebacker position is young — but not as young as the cornerback group, with three of the four rotating players being rookies. While Bolton will try to be a difference-maker, he just naturally won’t be in as significant of a position as cornerbacks are to make game-changing plays, good or bad.
That’s where a lack of playoff experience could show up, but Reid believes the position group gained momentum as they went into the playoffs.
“I thought that they progressively got better throughout the year, in particular kind of down the stretch there,” Reid noted. “They started getting their hands on balls, [they] were not always interceptions but they were in position to make the play. I thought their tackling improved... I look at that, and I go, ‘All right, [that’s the] speed of the game. They’re getting a better feel for that,’ and this will be faster than the other ones, that’s how it works in the playoffs, so they’ll have to take another step here.”
To back up those young cornerbacks, the Chiefs have veteran safeties — relative to the rookie inexperience. Safety Justin Reid is 25 years old, and Juan Thornhill is on the final year of his rookie deal as a 27-year-old.
It is Reid’s third playoff appearance — but first in Kansas City. Playing for the Houston Texans forced a two-year hiatus from postseason play, but this scenario is precisely why Reid came here in the first place.
“They didn’t have to sell it,” the safety told reporters in the locker room on Tuesday. “It comes with the territory; you play for the Kansas City Chiefs, you’re going to have opportunities to play in big games like this. I wanted to be a part of that, and do my part to help us win.”
Reid’s job will be partly aiding his young, rookie cornerbacks — but it will also be creating difference-making plays. The Chiefs have gotten that from their top safety the past three seasons, and Reid finished the last four games of the season with two tackles for loss, one sack, and five defended passes.
Reid and Bolton are two of the most experienced leaders in the back end, and both are in their athletic prime. It’s a representation of the defense’s reliance on youth in general.
They attempted to trade the experience for talent on defense, even if that superior talent is young. So it’s up to those same young players to prove they make enough plays to complement the Chiefs’ offense and win a Super Bowl.