Thanks to a nightmare afternoon out of Brian Hoyer and a calm performance by Alex Smith, the Chiefs are moving on in the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
The Chiefs had lost eight straight postseason games entering Saturday and haven’t won a Super Bowl since the end of the 1969 season, and in their wild-card matchup with the Texans, they wasted no time trying to put all those ghosts to rest. Running back Knile Davis returned the opening kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown, the second-longest return in postseason history behind Jacoby Jones' 108-yarder in Super Bowl XLVII, to kick-start Kansas City’s 30–0 thrashing of Houston.
From there, the Chiefs’ game plan was pretty simple: Play reasonably efficient football and wait for Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer to shoot himself in the foot ... again, and again, and again. Hoyer threw three interceptions in the first half and lost a fumble, becoming the first player in the postseason to give the ball away four times in the first half since Dan Marino’s two interceptions and two fumbles doomed the Dolphins’ 1999 season in the divisional round. That was about the only way Hoyer resembled Marino—Houston’s ostensible starter was absolutely awful, completing 15 of 34 passes for 136 yards and four picks. And he didn’t play as well as the stats indicated, leaving Houston head coach Bill O'Brien with a lot of explaining to do after keeping backup Brandon Weeden on the sidelines.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, did a lot with their scheme, though it took a while. They neutralized the furious Houston pass rush, led by J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, with quick passes, traps and zone reads. The goal was to use Watt’s own aggressiveness against him: He’d blast through open spaces, only to find that the play was going somewhere else. It was a brilliant strategy when it worked. Instead of committing two and three blockers to Watt on every play, as is generally necessary, Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson crafted a game plan that blocked Watt with movement, misdirection and changes to the play late in the down. Mercilus did have three sacks, and the Chiefs will need to reinforce their outside pass protection if they want to advance further, but it was good enough to win this one.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith led an offense that didn’t do a lot in the first half considering the opportunities Hoyer’s mistakes provided, but things eventually worked out. Smith finished his day with 17 of 22 completions for 190 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It was the classic Alex Smith game: unremarkable, unexciting, but a notable contributor to a victory.
Smith has been both sides of the equation for a playoff quarterback. In the 2013 postseason, he had perhaps the best game of his NFL career—378 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions—but the Chiefs blew a 38–10 halftime lead on the way to a 45–44 loss to the Colts. Now, with more overall confidence in all three phases of the game, the Chiefs need not rely on one aspect to win. Everything seems to be humming along, and when it takes the offense a while to get going, the defense takes over.
“I think there’s a confidence that if we play sound football like we know we can play in all three phases, We can beat anybody,” Smith told ESPN’s crew after the win. “Obviously, it’s a matter of doing it, but we feel that we have that kind of team, that kind of makeup, and it is all three phases.”
Saturday continued a pretty impressive run for a team that started 1–5 on the season and has since rebounded with 11 straight wins: 10 consecutive regular-season victories and this definitive statement in the playoffs.
“It wasn’t any one thing,” Smith said of the turnaround. “If anything, digging ourselves out of that hole early ... we had a lot of aspirations and talked about a lot of things. Digging ourselves that hole, really, made us short-sighted. We couldn’t live beyond a week—we had to just go 1–0. Let’s just go 1–0 this week, and we got it, and we just kept going. A big one was going to Denver [a 29–13 win on Nov. 15] and getting that monkey off our back, getting a little momentum at that point, and keeping that thing going.”
The Texans’ day on offense was best summed up by one second-half drive. With 6:24 left in the second quarter and the score 13–0, running back Alfred Blue scampered for 49 yards down to the Kansas City 13-yard line. O’Brien followed that with some trickeration, a Wildcat play for eight yards. Then, after an incomplete pass to DeAndre Hopkins and a two-yard run by Blue, Watt took a direct snap with monstrous defensive tackle Vince Wilfork helping to block on a run play that went nowhere. Then, for the second time in the game, Hoyer lost his marbles and threw a horrible pass directly to a Chiefs defender—in this case, linebacker Josh Mauga. Drive over, Texans with no points from the two-yard line.
Hoyer’s third pick of the first half looked like a punt to rookie cornerback Marcus Peters; the ball was barely in the vicinity of his target. And it wasn’t just the turnovers—Hoyer looked completely out of his depth when asked to anticipate pressure around him, and simple mechanical things like throwing accurately across his body appeared to be near-impossible.
With 10:43 left in the third quarter, Hoyer almost threw his fourth pick of the day, but it was dropped. Then, on third-and-10, O’Brien called for a short receiver screen to Hopkins for a gain of four yards. Giving up from a play-calling perspective? That’s what it looked like, and it would be hard to blame O’Brien for doing so.
Smith, on the other hand, played like he knew that his defense would take care of things well enough. All he had to do was to avoid screwing anything up. He had a couple of overthrows and errant passes but kept things in check. Nevertheless, it’s a known fact that the Chiefs will go as far as their defense takes them.
“I think I’m old enough to understand that when you have a defense like that, you recognize the bigger picture and how to play,” Smith said. “Just seeing things, the flow of the game, they were suffocating tonight. So, realizing that, we were hitting the long field goals, and we could have done more in the first half, but it was just kind of methodical. And the way they were playing, that’s all we needed. In the second half, we got it going a little bit, and we were a little more opportunistic, and we put that game out of reach.”