Alex Smith holds key to Chiefs’ contention, but will he come through?
The Chiefs have been one of the best stories of the season to date, and they will continue to be on. After a 1–5 start that had everyone wondering whether or not Andy Reid would finish the season as coach, the Chiefs have clicked off six straight wins to get to 7–5 and are currently the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.
Kansas City has legitimate chance to win out, which would mean a 10-game winning streak to finish the season, an 11–5 record and a date in the wild-card round with the beatable AFC South champions, whether it’s Indianapolis or Houston. (How about a rematch of the 2013 wild-card game where the Chiefs blew a 38–10 third quarter lead at Indianapolis?) In the final four games, the Chiefs host the Chargers (3–9), travel to Baltimore (4–8) and host the Browns (2–10) and Raiders (5–7). Not only are those teams bad, but they’re slumping, with a combined 3–14 record in their past four games.
So it’s all there, and more, for the Chiefs. They’re headed for the playoffs and will most likely be favorites in the first round on the road. And they should be. Through Week 12, Football Outsiders had Kansas City ranked third in overall efficiency for the season, and first when the numbers are weighted towards more recent games. The Chiefs likely got a huge boost, since the numbers are adjusted for opponent, when the Broncos’ Peyton Manning fell apart and handed them a 29–13 victory with 5 of 20 passing for 35 yards and four interceptions. Regardless, the Chiefs are definitely on an uptick.
The question now is, are the Chiefs legitimate contenders? I tackled this same question a little over a year ago, after the Chiefs had started 6–3. Basically, I said that until the Chiefs knocked off the Broncos, they were pretenders. After getting to 7–3 the following week by beating the Seahawks, Kansas City dropped four of six down the stretch, including a loss at home to the Broncos, to finish 9–7 and out of the playoffs.
I like this year’s team much better. Defensively, the Chiefs improved with standout rookie Marcus Peters at left cornerback, teaming up with Sean Smith to make one of the top corner duos in the NFL. Offensively, they are almost a different team (though they still have to manage their shaky offensive line), and even with running back Jamaal Charles on injured reserve, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West have picked up some of the slack. With receivers Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson and De’Anthony Thomas and tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs have legitimate threats and some speed to throw at defenses.
The Chiefs are very formidable, but I wouldn’t go overboard about their six-game winning streak. They have beaten the Steelers (with Landry Jones at quarterback), the Lions (who had just fired their offensive coordinator and dropped to 1–7 with the loss), the Chargers (in the final week of San Diego’s six-game losing streak), the Bills (legit win) and the Raiders (although Derek Carr was terrible, throwing three careless interceptions that went for as many return yards as Alex Smith had passing).
Say what you want about how the Chiefs got to his point, they’re going to playoffs, and that leads to the only important question about this team: Is quarterback Alex Smith good enough to make the Chiefs Super Bowl contenders? He’s certainly talented and smart enough, with a strong defense and an adequate run game, to win regular-season games—he hasn’t thrown an interception in nine games and 305 attempts, which is the third-longest streak ever. But the playoffs are a completely different animal. At least past the wild-card round, quarterbacks have to help their teams win games. You can’t manage a team to a victory on the road against the likes of the Patriots, Broncos and/or Bengals. The quarterback has to make plays. Can Smith do that?
After watching the tape from the Chiefs’ past four games, I waver almost from game to game. If you just judged Smith against the Broncos, the best defense he will face, I would say no.
When you watch a Smith game, you come away with several of the same thoughts from every game: smart, tough, cautious, physically gifted with running ability and a good arm, won’t hurt the team, scripted, doesn’t make many plays, leaves plays on the field. Those last two were a constant against the Broncos, and they will lead to failure in the playoffs if Smith does not improve.
The Broncos’ drives in the first half of that game were as follows: interception, three-and-out, three-and-out, interception, three-and-out, interception, three-and-out. The Chiefs’ answers: touchdown (starting with the ball on Denver 31, a pass followed by four runs), field goal, field goal, field goal, field goal, field goal. Kansas City converted three of 10 third downs in the first half as Smith posted a classic Smith line: 15 of 21 for just 116 yards and an 84.6 rating. That is simply not good enough to beat the top teams unless the other quarterback completely implodes.
Why did Smith have such a pedestrian performance? As he is wont to do, Smith gets jittery against good pass rushes and either gets overly conservative or flat-out misses plays. Sure, his offensive line isn’t good and he shouldn’t camp out in the pocket, but when the games get bigger, that won’t be an excuse. No one is going to talk about how bad your protection is; they’re going to remember that you failed to make plays or turned the ball over—ask Andy Dalton. A few examples of Smith’s missed opportunities in Denver that I caught on tape:
• On the first third down after the touchdown drive, a manageable third-and-five at the Denver 32, Smith failed to step up in the pocket and wait for Kelce to come open on his out route or toss to Maclin on a short crosser. Smith saw an opening, put his head down to run and came up two yards short of the first down.
• With 12:31 left in the second quarter and facing third-and-nine, Smith never came off of Kelce, missing Maclin wide open on a simple hitch with the defender five yards off of him. Smith forced it to Kelce, and the Chiefs came up one yard short.
• Facing a second-and-18 on the next drive, Smith made good on his “Captain Checkdown” nickname when he dumped it to Kelce for six yards and missed tight end Demetrius Harris uncovered down the right side. On the next play, Smith rolled right and, instead of throwing on the run to an open Wilson for the first down, kept it himself, gaining just four and coming up well short.
• On the next possession, facing third-and-seven at the Denver 21, Smith threw late and two yards short to Thomas instead of throwing him open earlier. (To be fair, Smith did a nice job of coming back later to find an uncovered West for an 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown.)
Time and time again, especially against the good teams, this is what you get from Smith, and it won’t be good enough in the divisional round or the AFC Championship Game. Those games are won by the teams that can make a handful of crucial plays. Smith just leaves too many on the field, especially in games where his defense doesn’t get a turnover or the Chiefs turn it over themselves.
That being said, the Bills game provided evidence that Smith can do it if he cuts loose. Buffalo plays the type of stout man-to-man defense that Smith and the Chiefs will have to beat in the playoffs. To his credit, Smith took some chances downfield and made some really nice throws:
• With 7:44 left in the second quarter, the Chiefs took what looked to be a predetermined shot play (you get a lot of managed, predetermined plays from Reid and Smith) because Smith passed up an open Kelce in the middle of the field to target a corner in good over-the-top position. Still, Smith connected with Maclin on a 37-yard pass that was slightly underthrown and should have been a touchdown.
• On the next possession, Smith again saw the man free coverage (a single high safety with man coverage underneath), and threw a perfect 41-yard touchdown to Maclin.
• Then early in the third quarter, Smith got the same coverage and Maclin made a great diving catch for 32 yards before a 15-yard score to Kelce.
Those are the plays Smith is going to have to make if the Chiefs are going to be a threat in the AFC playoffs. His track record this year isn’t promising, but at least Smith has shown he can do it, whether in two strong playoff starts with the 49ers in 2011 or in flashes of brilliance this season. Maybe Smith builds on the Buffalo game in these final four weeks and enters the postseason with a new confidence.
He needs to, because this Chiefs team is ready to win now. They just need their quarterback to lead them.