After a 1-5 start, K.C. has won five straight with no sign of slowing down. Here’s how a resurgent defense and unsung offense are paving the way to a wild-card berth. Plus, the Pack’s miracle finish and 10 things to watch
Six weeks ago, the Chiefs appeared to be on life support. They were 1-5 by late October, with an offense that had already lost Jamaal Charles and was wheezing its way to fewer than 20 points per game. They’d just lost their fifth game in a row, a 16-10 rock fight up north in Minnesota, and the preseason hope that Alex Smith and friends could emerge as the best of the wild-card bunch was all but gone.
Those days, and that team, are tougher to imagine lately. Kansas City—fresh off five straight wins and a run of offensive dominance that rivals any during Andy Reid’s three seasons in Missouri—is the hottest team in football. Even with Ben Roethlisberger raining fire from the skies in Pittsburgh, the Chiefs look like the safest bet to secure one of the two extra playoffs spots in the AFC, and they’ve done it through a combination of expected and unexpected means.
When the Chiefs stormed to the playoffs two years ago, in Reid’s first season, they did it behind one of the scariest defenses in football. Coordinator Bob Sutton’s group gave up just 19.1 points per game, the fifth best figure in the league, thanks to a bloodthirsty pass rush led by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Everyone in the K.C. metro area held their breath Sunday when Houston went to the turf with what looked like a significant knee injury, but Reid told reporters on Wednesday that “he’s made big improvements over the past two days,” and wouldn’t rule him out for Sunday’s tilt against the Raiders. That’s welcome news, because the Kansas City pass rush is officially back.
Through Week 6, the Chiefs ranked 12th in the league in pressure rate (25.9 percent of opponents’ dropbacks) and just 18th in sack rate. During the win streak, only the torrid Denver pass rush has created pressure more often, and Kansas City has jumped to third in sack rate. The increased pass rush has helped K.C. climb from 24th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in mid-October to sixth as of this week. At this point teams are throwing on the Chiefs at their own risk. Their pass rushers may be hazardous to your quarterback’s health.
The overall potential of that pass rush may be getting the most significant test it has all season against the Raiders on Sunday. Oakland, with its hodgepodge offensive line, is currently allowing pressure on the fewest percentage of snaps in football—19.2. A renewed rivalry see the league’s hottest pass rush against its most effective pass-blocking group. Chiefs-Raiders returning to relevance is good for the NFL as a whole, but as far as Kansas City’s outlook is concerned, a revived Raiders team also means this is their toughest challenge remaining in 2015. If the Chiefs can get by Oakland, they’re starting a three-game stretch that features a banged-up Chargers team, the Matt Schaub-led Ravens and Cleveland.
The success of the Chiefs pass rush isn’t much different from what’s happened in years past. Houston was a drop in coverage away from locking down the single-season sack record a year ago, and nearly every team in the league would do a deal with the devil to get Hali as their number two rusher. The difference between this year’s Chiefs and last year’s is what they’re doing against the run, and that starts with the man in the middle. At age 33, coming off a torn Achilles, linebacker Derrick Johnson has resumed his run as one of the most undervalued players of the past decade. He’s been everywhere for the Chiefs, in both run support and coverage. Between his presence and his play, this defense transforms when he’s on the field.
The pieces for Kansas City’s defensive resurgence—Johnson, Houston and Hali ramping up, Marcus Peters settling in and Sean Smith coming back—weren’t hard to imagine. The same can’t be said for what’s happening with Alex Smith, a pair of unknown running backs and the rest of the Chiefs offense.
Calling Jamaal Charles one of the best backs in the NFL isn’t enough. He’s among the best backs of an entire generation, and no one could be faulted for doubting that the Kansas City running game could sustain its level without him. Well, all the Chiefs have done since losing Charles in Week 5 is ascend to No. 1 in the league in rushing DVOA behind the work of Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and a surprisingly impressive run-blocking line.
In the past two games Ware has rushed for 210 yards on just 30 carries. There have been slogs for West—a slow day against Denver, a mediocre one into the teeth of Minnesota’s emerging defense—but he’s had monster afternoons too. His 110 yards on a workhorse’s 20 totes paced Kansas City in what could prove to be an invaluable tiebreaking win over the Steelers. At least some of the credit for the Chiefs’ ability to keep moving the ball on the ground with the stable of backs replacing Charles goes to the other Andy on the coaching staff. For the third straight season, line coach Andy Heck has dealt with bodies shuffling in and out of his starting lineup, and again, the Chiefs have managed to put together an effective group of five. It looks like Kansas City has settled on Eric Fisher, Jeff Allen, rookie center Mitch Morse, and the combination of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Jah Reid on the right side, and although it’s an unlikely group, the results are there.
At its core, even without Charles, this is the type of team Andy Reid has tried to build each season he’s been in red. The offense relies on low-risk throws and a running game that moves the ball, and the defense thrives on a few pass-rushing terrors with a pair of corners comfortable pushing people around on the outside. Add in the type of receiving talents that Alex Smith hasn’t enjoyed during his tenure there—a healthier-than-ever Travis Kelce and a dynamic threat in Jeremy Maclin—and you could argue that even without Charles, the Chiefs are as much of a threat in the AFC as any team Reid has coached.
About Last Night
Packers 27, Lions 23. At my old job with Grantland, I hosted a podcast three times a week with Bill Barnwell. There were plenty of overdone inside jokes that became well-tread territory during 180 minutes worth of shows in five days, but my favorite was the long-running shtick that to us Bears fans, Aaron Rodgers is not a man. He’s an actual fire-breathing dragon.
I’ve seen quarterbacks whose amalgam of traits rivals what Rodgers can do on a football field—Manning’s mind, Brady’s fire, Favre’s cannon—but when it all coalesces, I’ve never seen a quarterback whose sheer physical tools can burn a defense to the ground like Rodgers. As soon as Devin Taylor was called for the face mask penalty that extended last night’s game, my first thought was, “It’s 70 yards now. That’s close enough.” The ball that plummeted into Richard Rodgers’ outstretched arms traveled about that far—even further, considering its scrape against the Ford Field roof. It’d be easy to consider the feat a fluke, if only Rodgers hadn’t tossed a 35-yard strike on the run two plays earlier. That ball, intended for Randall Cobb, was slapped to the ground, but that has nothing to do with the throw.
The supporting cast in Green Bay’s offensive huddle has been a lesser version of the ones from years past since before the regular season even began. Most teams can’t fathom life without Jordy Nelson because they don’t have a Jordy Nelson to lose. The Packers have been without him all year. Eddie Lacy, even after the slight resurgence, has been a disappointment this season. Green Bay’s line, which was intact for almost the entirety of 2014, was down to a single Week 1 starter—all-world left guard Josh Sitton—at one point last night.
Those shortcomings shined a light on Rodgers’ imperfections that were hard to see during his MVP season a year ago, but even as Green Bay struggled, they didn’t do much more than that. He wasn’t the study in efficiency he’d been in 2014, but as he scampered away from pass rushes and snuck off-balance throws into impossible windows, there were still enough glimpses at Aaron Rodgers. I remember a conversation Barnwell and I had once, about the basement a team would have with a healthy Aaron Rodgers under center for 16 games. We settled on 8-8. It was the worst we could envision an NFL team finishing with him at the helm, if all else went wrong while he was still the one flinging it. What happened last night made me think we might have been right. That’s a game the Packers lose with anyone else. That’s a game that should send a season further down the river. With Rodgers, it becomes another example of why no defense is safe with him across the line of scrimmage.
For Lions fans, it’s another moment of heartbroken incredulity. For Bears fans, another look at the beast who’s guarded the door of the division for nearly a decade. For Vikings fans, the creak of a boogeyman who haunts their playoff dreams. If you’re a fan of another team, maybe that fear isn’t so engrained. But do us NFC North folks a favor. Go watch that half—14 of 20 for 197 yards and three total touchdowns—and that throw again. Then tell me you’re not at least a tiny bit afraid.
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Player to Know This Weekend
Scott Chandler, TE, Patriots
And here he is, the last man standing for Tom Brady. Somehow, the Patriots managed to get to Week 12 with Rob Gronkowski—he of the shredded knee, exploded elbow, and once-iffy back—as their healthiest pass catcher. The carnage has become absurd. Dion Lewis is gone. Future Julian Edelman isn’t much help now. Danny Amendola should be back this week, but he’s dealing with a gimpy knee. And now, the Gronkinator has been thrown in a vat of molten steel.
It remains to be seen what the New England offense would even look like without Gronkowski, but imagining the Patriots’ attack without a healthy diet of tight-end targets is difficult. Not surprisingly, Gronkowski is the most targeted tight end in the NFL, just ahead of Greg Olsen. But he’s also the 16th-most targeted receiver in the entire league, and even if it seems like he’s used as a blocker more than the Patriots would prefer, he’s still run more routes this season than Amari Cooper.
Chandler is likely to get more looks, but the question is what he’s going to do with them. His history as a useful piece in Buffalo’s offense played into why Bill Belichick wanted him, but it’s been a trying season to this point. Among the 38 tight ends with at least 25 targets on the season, only two have a worse catch rate than Chandler, who’s hauled in just 55.9 percent of the throws his way. He’ll need to be better than that for the Patriots to survive without Gronkowski for any extended amount of time.
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Line-Play Nerd-Out of the Week
Ravens RG Marshal Yanda vs. Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh
Somewhere out there, one of you has ended up in south Florida or Baltimore this weekend against your will. Maybe a spouse’s family member is having a birthday or getting married. Maybe you’re in town on business. Maybe a group of enterprising kidnappers mistook you for the heir to a urinal cake empire, and as they wait out the ransom call, you’re tied to a chair in a warehouse that happens to have a TV. I don’t know. Life is unpredictable.
Whatever the reason, you’re in a strange place, you’d like to watch some football, and the only game that’s on is Ravens-Dolphins. It’s a meaningless spat between two teams that have the same playoff relevancy as a smoldering pile of rubble. Don’t worry. There’s hope.
Ndamukong Suh hasn’t been the offense-wrecking force he has been in years past, but that’s all relative. Even with all the attention that’s come his way with Cameron Wake on the shelf, Suh’s production still compares to almost any defensive tackle in the league. His sack total (4.0) is underwhelming, but he’s third in the league among defensive tackles in quarterback hits (behind only Aaron Donald and Gerald McCoy) and second in tackles for loss. I promise, Suh can still play. And this week, he draws the league’s best guard, and according to some (some means me), the best offensive lineman, period.
Marshal Yanda is a line nerd’s fantasy. He’s an ingenious run blocker, finding routes and angles that few can while occasionally managing to send two or three would-be tacklers off course on a given play. Any time the broadcast shows a replay from the end-zone view when the Ravens are on offense, just watch the right guard, No. 73. He’ll be playing that spot the way every guard wants to, and he’ll be doing it against a $114 million man.
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Tweet of the Week
The real winner here is Danny Woods, whose original joke is so good that I honestly don’t know which line is best. Woods went all-in on the notion that outrage over Cam Newton’s end-zone hijinks is absurd by detailing how much trouble he had explaining the Quan dance to his father. In the process, he gave us a reminder that if everyone was having half as much fun playing this game as Newton and Travis Kelce, everything about the NFL would probably more enjoyable. OK, I lied. “That game happened to be my 52-year-old father’s 71st live NFL experience” is definitely my favorite line.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching Sunday
1. Tyrann Mathieu. The stories have their differences, but Mathieu’s career reminds me a bit of Steph Curry’s. Sometimes, there are guys who just know how to play. Mathieu dominated college football, and even without the off-field concerns, teams were sure to poke holes in him as a pro product. He’s small; his speed numbers aren’t eye-popping. Despite how successful Curry was in college, he dealt with similar critiques about his physical profile and where he’d fit in the NBA. All Curry’s done since is prove he’s the perfect player for today’s game, and Mathieu is doing the same. The NFC Defensive Player of the Month can do a little bit of everything for the Arizona defense, and his versatility has made him a perfect piece for the nebulous defenses of today’s NFL.
2. Whether J.J. Watt can replicate last year’s destruction. Against Buffalo a season ago, Watt turned in a performance as ridiculous as any I’ve ever seen. He somehow finished without a sack but managed to torch the Bills’ offensive line for nine quarterback hits and a game-changing pick-six. It seems like Watt was quiet for most of this year, right? That with the Texans reeling, he was also headed toward a lackluster season? Cool. He has a league-leading 13.5 sacks and 42 quarterback hits on the year. Carlos Dunlap is second in the NFL—with 24. This guy is not real.
3. The next step for Michael B. Jordan. The holidays got in the way of me seeing Creed last week. It won’t happen again. I made my emotional investment in Michael B. Jordan the second I met Wallace on The Wire, and I doubled down hard during the “My mama isn’t going to bury me” scene in season 4 of Friday Night Lights. He’s unequivocally a star, and seeing both him and director Ryan Coogler get a chance like Creed after what they did with Fruitvale Station gives me some hope about meritocracy in Hollywood.
4. Exactly where Washington sits at this point. Jay Gruden’s team leads the NFC East. I’m dead serious. Go look it up. If this team is going to be on my TV during the playoffs, I need to see more of Kirk Cousins’ throws and more of Ryan Kerrigan stalking quarterbacks to get a better idea of just how threatening they are.
5. How the Patriots’ offensive line stacks up against Philly’s front. The Eagles defense has its issues (we’ll get to those), but there are still stars in that front seven. Fletcher Cox can be a serious problem, and Tom Brady has hit the turf 23 times over the past two games. New England’s front five needs to start slowing down some pass rushes, and this week would be a good time to get that going.
6. A sign that the Steelers defense can be a speed bump. Pittsburgh’s defensive showing early in the year was somewhat shocking, considering how much rebuilding they still have to do, and after the past few weeks, it looks like the seams are starting to show. As Andy Benoit noted earlier this week, Pittsburgh’s zone defense gets vulnerable when teams spread them out. Let’s see if they’ve been figured out or if a couple tweaks can get them back to a level that doesn’t render irrelevant the Steelers’ explosive offense.
7. Just a little more from Teddy Bridgewater. Relying on Adrian Peterson and one of the league’s most entertaining young defenses isn’t a bad plan. But if the Vikings are going to truly scare anyone and contend in the NFC, Bridgewater needs to flash more than he has. Seattle typically wouldn’t be the team that allows that to happen, but the Seahawks have been picked apart of late.
8. The middle of that Tampa Bay defense. Every year, the Bucs quietly put together a run defense that ranks among the best in football. This year, they’ve added middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, and finally, Lavonte David has returned to form. It’s time to spend a few plays watching them fly around the ball.
9. Any indication that the Eagles are still playing for Chip Kelly. I mean, the last two weeks are troubling, to say the least.
10. Brock Osweiler, quarterback of a contender. The Patriots defense was missing a couple key pieces last week, especially up the middle, but Osweiler certainly had his moments. I’m not quite willing to buy into the notion that with Osweiler under center, Gary Kubiak can run “his offense” and finally make the Broncos a point-scoring threat. But if Osweiler can play slightly above-average, the rest of Denver’s roster may be good enough to be an unwelcome sight in the postseason.
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