If you don’t feel differently about the Kansas City Chiefs than you did when they entered the postseason last year, you are lying to yourself.
The 12-4 Chiefs have gathered a ton of momentum on both sides of the ball heading into Sunday’s Divisional round game against the 11-6 Houston Texans. They have earned the confidence of their fans — as well as local (and even national) media.
Now it’s time to let their performance in the postseason do the talking. Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s battle:
1. Corralling Deshaun Watson with pressure
If you watched the Texans survive their matchup with the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round, you saw how important it is to get pressure on Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson — as long as you finish the play.
Watson was sacked seven times. But the one time the Bills didn’t finish the tackle, he miraculously escaped — throwing a pass to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Watson has been doing this all year. He holds the ball longer than he should, creating pressure on himself that wouldn’t exist with a quicker throw. Pro Football Focus has faulted him for 43 such pressures this season — the second-most by any quarterback. 14 of his 44 sacks have been been on him. That’s third-most in the league.
While Watson shoulders some of the blame, his offensive line could be a better help. In the Week 6 meeting between the teams, the Chiefs had key defensive absences. This time, they should be better-equipped to take advantage of a weak offensive front.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones did not play in the first game. In Friday’s final injury report, he was listed as questionable with a calf injury that kept him out of practice on Friday after being limited on Thursday. Hopefully he will be ready to go on Sunday — so he can exploit rookie left guard Max Scharping.
Defensive end Frank Clark had a good game in the first go-round with five pressures and two quarterback hits, but was struggling with a nerve issue. He is fully healthy now. And veteran pass rusher Terrell Suggs has joined the team since then, too.
The defensive performance will come down to how effectively they can pressure — and tackle — the elusive Watson.
2. The Chiefs offense airing it out
Time for head coach Andy Reid to cut loose with the play-calling. Time for the nearly impossible-to-cover vertical route concepts featuring the Chiefs’ speed threats. Time for the complementary weapons to take advantage of the chances they get — and the primary targets to prove why they’re considered elite at their positions.
It’s time for an offensive explosion.
A lot of things have changed since the first game — including Houston’s starting secondary. In that game, rookie Lonnie Johnson and former Chief Phillip Gaines had the most snaps at cornerback. They’ve definitely upgraded since then, trading for former Oakland Raiders first-round pick Gareon Conley mid-season. They’ve also had strong play down the stretch from veteran slot corner Bradley Roby. But they will be weaker at safety — starter Tashaun Gipson was placed on injured reserve before the playoffs. His backup Jahleel Addae has been limited with a knee injury this week and is listed as questionable.
Either way, the Chiefs offense should be able to execute. On the season, the Texans have allowed the 19th-most points in the league, the 28th-most total yards and the 26th-most first downs. They’ve given up at least 425 yards in five of their last six games. In Week 6, the Chiefs offense didn’t have starting receiver Sammy Watkins. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was hobbled in the second half. In his first game back from injury, star wideout Tyreek Hill only played on 51% of the offensive snaps — yet still scored two touchdowns!
In the postseason, the Chiefs offense needs to play to its peak. Against the Texans, they have a good opportunity to start off on the right foot.
3. Containing the Texans’ receiving threats
If there’s one reason to be worried about this game, it’s the threat of the Texans’ passing game.
When everyone is healthy, the Texans have a good trio of receivers. You know about star receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He is complemented with deep-threat receivers Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. Fuller in particular has been crucial to Houston’s offensive success. They average 25.5 points when he plays and just 20 when he doesn’t. We saw his deep ability in the Week 6 matchup, in which he had multiple scoring opportunities that he couldn’t catch. Fuller, however, has been limited in this week’s practices with a lingering groin injury. He has has been listed as questionable for the game.
The absence of starting safety Juan Thornhill will be a huge loss for the Chiefs defense. His first big game was against Houston, getting his first career interception and some big plays on run defense. The Chiefs will absolutely miss his ability to patrol the back end of the defense.
Another Chiefs defender with a good performance that day was cornerback Charvarius Ward. He only saw two targets when matched up with Hopkins. Ward allowed a seven-yard catch on one target and made a nice end zone interception on the other. He will once again play a crucial role in defending Hopkins.
Watch to see how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo schemes to replace Thornhill and prevent deep, vertical plays.
4. Running effectively in the right situations
In neutral situations during this season, the Chiefs have had one of the highest passing rates in the NFL — and on Sunday, the Chiefs offense should absolutely be airing it out. But they also need to execute when running situations are presented.
In the Wild Card round, Houston’s run defense was soft against the Bills’ rushing attack. The unit missed 19 tackles — and their starting linebacker Zach Cunningham missed seven by himself. The team surrendered 5.7 yards per attempt in the game — even while aided by Buffalo’s inability to do anything down the field. On the season, they allowed the league’s sixth-highest rushing yards per attempt — and have given up more than 144 rushing yards in six of their last eight games.
It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs deploy their backfield. Running back Damien Williams has been notable in the final stretch of the season and should see the majority of the reps — but in theory, veteran running back LeSean McCoy has been rested in order to be fresh in the postseason.
Look to see how the Chiefs choose to attack the Texans on the ground. If they can execute short-yardage conversions and dictate the tempo by running effectively with a lead, the offense should be in full control of this game.
5. The organizational advantage
These weeks of the season — when so many NFL franchises fire their head coaches and general managers — always serve as a good reminder of how well the Chiefs organization is run. Owner Clark Hunt, general manager Brett Veach and head coach Andy Reid all have a great relationship together — and their plans have resulted in consistent success.
Calling the Houston Texans a well-run organization, however, might be a stretch. They fired their general manager in June — and instead of hiring a replacement, they let head coach Bill O’Brien take on those duties. This has resulted in player trades that have sacrificed future development for wins now.
But even with that all-in mentality, the Texans haven’t impressed as Super Bowl contenders. They were shut out in the first half of last week’s home playoff game, ultimately being bailed out by the Bills’ inability to finish off the game. O’Brien is considered a good offensive coach — but there have been too many letdowns this season to give him a lot of credit.
This clearly gives the Chiefs the coaching advantage. In the postseason, it usually comes down to which team has the better coach and quarterback combination. If they perform to their ceiling, Reid and Mahomes are very hard to beat.