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Are the Chiefs cannon fodder for the playoffs?

With their win last week, Andy Reid led his team to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. This is impressive but with just one playoff win in the last 5 years, that singular success coming against an underwhelming Brian Hoyer led Texans team. So will anything change this year, if they win their final regular season game of the season?Kansas City will finish with a 10-6 record and the 4th seed in the playoffs, leading them to host a game against the Ravens. This could be a tricky game for the Chiefs as the Ravens usually find their feet in the playoffs and have success, unlike Kansas City.

In previous years a bounty of different problems have caused the Chiefs to crash out of the playoffs earlier than expected, but at the start of this season, it all looked destined to change. An opening day massacre of the Patriots 42-27 in Foxborough with rookie running back Kareem Hunt exploding onto the NFL scene with record 246 yards from scrimmage, Alex Smith torching New England’s secondary for 368 yards and 4 touchdowns. After this shock of a win, the Chiefs then won their next 4 games, starting out 5-0. In this streak of success, it was the movement across the field of Hunt, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill that caused defences huge trouble not knowing who to cover; leaving Alex Smith with wide open targets all over the field. The Chiefs were the talk of the NFL with both Hill and Smith being named as early MVP candidates. However, something that was brushed over in this rich vein of form was the season-ending injury to All-Pro safety Eric Berry. Berry is the vocal leader and veteran experience in that defence who lets his play do the talking. His battle and recovery from cancer to play in the NFL highlights his character.

After those 5 wins to start the season, things began to change, they only won one of their next seven games, with that lonely win coming against the dismal Broncos by just 10 points. In every game, they lost with the exception coming against the Jets in week 13, Kansas City was suffocated on offence; defensive coordinators had learnt from watching film was to drop men off into zone so they can guard that area and not get mixed up having to try and keep up with all of them in man coverage. This worked very well, as the defenders would sit back, with their eyes on Alex Smith, waiting for him to throw and either make a play on the ball or come up and tackle the receiver short of the sticks. This strategy worked so well, that Smith’s interception total went from 0 through 8 games then he through 5 in the next 5 games. However it wasn’t all Smith, Hunt in the first 5 weeks ran for over 100 yards in all but 1 game, then from week 5, he didn’t get to 100 yards until week 14. This was because, defences realised he was the engine of the offence, if they stack the box to stop Hunt then KC won’t be able to move the ball through the air, using play-action which then allows them to sit back in zone coverage on passing downs. As well as the offensive line regressed, in the first 5 weeks they allowed 2.8 yards before contact then it dropped to 0.9 yards, so he’s getting hit in the backfield a lot.

But in the last few weeks, the Chiefs have refound their form to win important games against the Raiders, Chargers and Dolphins to capture a playoff berth. They have done this by the fact that these aren’t very good teams to start with, Hunt has been primarily running out of the shotgun, allowing Smith to use read options or pitches to give him the ball in open space and use Hunt’s speed to rip through opposing defences. Smith has been throwing his receivers open and downfield instead of his usual dink and dunk tactics, this defeats the defences employing the same zone coverage that others used to the same success, as the speed of Hunt, Hill and Kelce takes them through the zone coverage of teams giving Smith the easy choice of finding the open man when two of the three are covered by a safety each. This blooming of offence bodes well for the Chiefs heading into January, especially as they are able to rest their starters this week, giving Smith and co more time to prepare for their playoff game.

But will anything change come January, the Chiefs have a history of making it to the playoffs and the conservative nature of Smith’s play and Andy Reid’s game management have let them down in recent years. With Kansas City set to play Baltimore on Wildcard Weekend, I’m going to have to back the Chiefs to win at home, and making the divisional round, against either the Patriots or Steelers. I think they will lose as they always do to these two in the playoffs, but whether that initial playoff win will guarantee Smith his starting job for next season remains to be seen. If Patrick Maholmes lights up the Broncos in week 17 then expect a lot of offseason talk speculating Smith future.

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