The triumph of the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense to overcome an injury to quarterback Patrick Mahomes — and winning 27-20 regardless — overshadowed one thing about the game: the defense playing almost exactly how it needed to, especially for a postseason game.
It was not perfect — particularly when the Jacksonville Jaguars forced a mismatch in coverage and took advantage of Chiefs’ rookie defensive end George Karlaftis for a touchdown in the first quarter or the 80-yard touchdown drive given up in the early stages of the fourth quarter.
But it didn’t need to be pretty the whole time. The offense just required the defense to make a few stops and create a turnover or two — specifically down the stretch of the game.
It started with a statement-making opening drive.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sent a blitzer on each of the first three snaps, forcing a hurried incompletion on first down. What followed was a throw out of the pocket almost intercepted by Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton on third down.
“We focused throughout the week on maybe punching the ball a little bit more or hop on the ball or just catching the ones that they give us,” - Nick Bolton in post game— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 22, 2023
Spags wanted to be aggressive early & often. Sent blitz on 1st 3 plays. The 3rd nearly resulted in an INT pic.twitter.com/dMPigPrx96
The near turnover was expected by the unit, and it foreshadowed a few more plays they would make down the stretch. After the game, Bolton expressed the strategized urgency to get around the ball more.
“We focused throughout the week, especially on the week we had off, focused on maybe punching the ball a little bit more or hop on the ball or just catching the ones that they give us,” he shared. “I dropped one early, but it’s one of those things you kind of have to keep going on, and in playoffs, you understand that they count times two when you get them.”
Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. came off the left edge to disrupt Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence from throwing on time, preventing him from getting to the easy completion for a first down. By the time he could reset, he only had tight window throws.
“I knew we had a pressure, and I knew the ball had to come out quick,” Bolton reflected. “He pump-faked Willie and kept going, threw the ball across his shoulder. I saw the dude come across my face, so I just tried to plaster in coverage, but I dropped it, so it doesn’t really matter when you drop it.”
Then, in the second quarter, one of the NFL’s all-time postseason sack artists came alive to mess up a promising Jaguars drive. After making a crucial open-field tackle on a screen, defensive end Frank Clark had two consecutive pass rushes that caused negative plays for the offense.
Frank "The Shark" Clark absolutely smelled blood in the water on this 2nd Quarter drive.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 22, 2023
- Tkl on screen
- Draws tripping flag for bull rushing LT to grass
- Sack, tracking Lawrence & striking inside (like a Shark!)
Leads to punt in KC territory pic.twitter.com/tC61sp6VjX
On the first, Clark bull rushed left tackle Walker Little to the Arrowhead grass, and so quickly that Little tripped Clark and received a penalty. Clark plays another rush patiently, tracking Lawrence’s movement in the pocket before cutting inside and swallowing up the passer. The stretch of dominance by Clark led to a punt.
The three-play sequence was indeed that shark smelling blood in the water, a confident shark at that. Before the game, Clark had hinted to NFL Network reporter James Palmer that he was ready to turn it on.
#chiefs pass rusher Frank Clark has been dealing with a groin injury, but he's good to go today. He told me he's feeling so good "it's scary".— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) January 21, 2023
"This is my time. The people around here know this is my time. I’m about to put on a show. A show is coming."
Safety Justin Reid praised the veteran edge rusher in the locker room after the game.
“His work ethic, he really brings it out to play,” Reid said. “The guy is dangerous, he has all the energy in the world and makes plays happen. Especially when you have two all-star caliber players in him and Chris Jones, it’s tough for opposing offenses to try and stop both of them.”
After Kansas City established a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars appeared to be driving for their second straight touchdown drive. They entered the red zone, then found offensive weapon Jamal Agnew in space inside the 10-yard line. The ball popped free, and Bolton didn’t waste a nanosecond getting on top of it.
“I kind of saw,” Bolton remembered. “[Agnew] caught the ball and kind of lost it trying to make a move and cut back against (cornerback) [L’Jarius Sneed], so I knew the ball was fumbled and I just had to get on it.
“Had a couple guys around me, punching at the football. I think it was me, Willie, Juan (Thornhill), LJ. There were like four or five of us down there man, so when you have those numbers punching at the ball, good things are going to happen.”
With another shot at getting their deficit to one score, Jacksonville looked for a big play down the sideline on the following possession — but the outstretched right arm of Chiefs rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson nabbed it before it could reach the receiver — and the one-handed interception was the final nail in the Jaguars’ coffin.
“I really couldn’t get both hands,” Watson told reporters in the locker room post-game. “I only really had time to get one, but I’m pretty confident in my one hand, so it just happened, and I caught it.”
The second turnover of the night, a few sacks sprinkled in there and a couple forced punts added up to a postseason win in Kansas City. With the explosive offenses that make up the AFC, it’s hard to expect much more than what the unit did on Saturday.
From Spagnuolo’s game plan to player execution, it was exactly the kind of game the Chiefs want from their defense moving forward as they look towards winning the AFC for the third time in four seasons.