Depending on what Chiefs team you watched this season, another playoff appearance would either be completely expected, or taken as the result of luck or horrific conference. The Chiefs started the season with five straight wins and ended the season with four in a row. They beat both No. 1 seed’s – New England and Philly. They also went 1-6 in between, including losses at the Jets and Giants.
Tomorrow’s bout against the Tennessee Titans is another chance for Kansas City to rise above their past misfortune in January, a month that has rarely been kind to the city, it’s fans, and the team. In 46 years of playing at Arrowhead, they’ve won a measly four playoff games. They’re 1-8 in their last nine playoff games. That one win came in 2015, against Brian Hoyer and very overmatched Houston Texans. This weekend is against another overmatched AFC South opponent, but as a fan of the team I’ve learned not to set my expectations too high.
Even with my wariness in hoping this Chiefs team isn’t like last year’s (or the one in 2015, or 2013), the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs are a Chiefs team unlike any that we’ve seen in a long, long time. Despite his obvious, and oft-ridiculed limitations, QB Alex Smith put forth an incredible career season, throwing for over 4,000 yards while tossing just five interceptions. He is only the second quarterback in NFL history to do that. The other? Aaron Rodgers, who was taken 24 picks later in the 2005 NFL Draft. It was Smith’s sudden urge to find and consistently come back to the deep ball that gave the Chiefs offense a new identity, and one defenses were rarely equipped to stop. Both WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce cleared the 1,000 yard receiving mark as they often worked in tandem, putting defenders in a bind because they weren’t sure who to pay more attention to. Combined with the star rookie back Kareem Hunt – NFL’s rushing leader, and the Chiefs offense was a menace much of the season.
Their downfall was the defense, which played far below expectations all season, although they have been much better at Arrowhead, where they have not allowed more than 20 points in a game all season. Aside from Justin Houston, Marcus Peters, and Chris Jones, and the defense was a ghastly sight from Week One to last weekend at Denver. The secondary, poor depth overlooked by fans and media alike, couldn’t handle the loss of Eric Berry, and cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell, Steven Nelson, and Phillip Gaines took turns giving up game-altering plays. The pass rush was no better. Tamba Hali wasn’t effective when he was on the field, and Frank Zombo wasn’t much better. Despite all this, they rallied behind the efforts of the swagger of Marcus Peters and force turnovers in the bunches late in the season Now, they’ll have to prove that they can rise up when there’s “no next week” to show they can still bring it.
The Titans don’t offer a transcendent scheme or host of standout players on offense like Kansas City does, and while their defense is better (10th against the run, 25th against the pass), it hasn’t translated into a host of wins. In addition, they made the playoffs at 9-7 despite a negative scoring and turnover differential. For the Chiefs to exorcise their playoff demons, they’ll need to to do something Matt Nagy, who is scheduled to interview for the head coaching vacancies at Chicago and Indy, has thrived on since being handed play-calling duties: featuring his best players. Kareem Hunt saw at least 25 touches in his last three starts, and the balance a consistent run game brings to the passing game allows Nagy and Smith to control the flow of the game. Paired with a raucous home crowd, and you have half of what it will take to get the second playoff win of the Andy Reid era and the first at Arrowhead in 24 years. Quiet in the playoff loss last season, the Chiefs will need Travis Kelce to step up and eliminate emotional mistakes. They will also need Smith to make the big plays, and not just the safe ones. He took far too many check downs last year, and it resulted in a two-point loss despite Pittsburgh being held out the end zone.
Defensively, the Chiefs have what it takes to best the Titans, but I’ll be watching this side of the ball closely. The Chiefs struggled early in the year against the run, but allowed an average of 75 yards per game to end the season. The Titans have been known for their downhill running game the last two seasons, and Derrick Henry (who will head the backfield with DeMarco Murray out) actually led the team in rushing. If the Chiefs don’t contain him early, it could lead to a very short game and decreased chances for the Chiefs to score. As Chris Jones said, “stop the run.”
Prediction: The Chiefs havent won a home playoff game in 24 years and a win will put them in the lead for the most playoff wins at Arrowhead, passing the Colts (2). They had a good run, but the Titans do possess their kryptonite, and a good run game will help on the road in frigid temperatures. Titans 13-10.
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