Can Kansas City Chiefs Continue to Survive on Defense Alone?

Chris TrapassoAnalyst INovember 13, 2013

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: Tamba Hali #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates as he scores the game-winning touchdown on a fumble recovery against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It's almost as if the Kansas City Chiefs are playing in the wrong era. 

They're 9-0, and they've gotten there with a running back as the undisputed offensive focal point, a distinct game-managing quarterback and, most importantly, a menacing, backfield-disrupting, turnover-manufacturing defense. 

They're turning back the clock because offenses have dominated the NFL over the past decade while defenses have been pushed to the background.

No wonder most of us aren't exactly sure how to handle, react to or form a distinct opinion of these professional football time travelers.

Kansas City has gone so incredibly against the grain in 2013 that it's hard to believe.

Here's where the Chiefs rank defensively heading into their colossal matchup with Peyton Manning and the 8-1 Denver Broncos

Kansas City Chiefs Defense (Rank)
Yards Per DrivePoints Per DriveTDs Per DriveTOs Per DrivePlays Per DrivePoints Per Red Zone Trip
Chiefs24.29 (1)0.96 (1).096 (1).174 (5)5.12 (1)3.0 (1)
League Average30.251.83.20.1315.734.80
Football Outsiders

Not surprisingly, from an individual standpoint, Kansas City boasts an abundance of the league's most effective players at their respective positions: 

Top Chiefs Defenders
Overall PFF Grade (Positional Rank)
Tamba Hali, 3-4 OLB+21.5 (1)
Justin Houston, 3-4 OLB+14.8 (4)
Dontari Poe, DT/NT+14.7 (10)
Derrick Johnson, ILB+8.7 (2)
Akeem Jordan, ILB+0.7 (15)
Mike DeVito, 3-4 DE+13.6 (9)
Tyson Jackson, 3-4 DE+9.4 (13)
Marcus Cooper, CB+10.0 (5)
Sean Smith, CB+6.8 (15)
Eric Berry, S+8.1 (4)
Pro Football Focus

Just about every statistic or grouping of statistics comes with a logical counter or caveat. These statistics are no different. 

While the Chiefs' overall defensive stinginess and the players that make up that dominating unit deserve the recognition for what they've accomplished through nine games this season, they've also come across an atypical string of luck in regard to the quarterbacks they've faced.

This chart in Bleacher Report Lead Writer Mike Freeman's "Ten-Point Stance" column illustrates every signal-caller Kansas City has played thus far:

WeekOpposing quarterbackSeason ratingRating vs. K.C.
1Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars36.030.8
2Tony Romo, Cowboys98.399.1
3Michael Vick, Eagles86.549.4
4Eli Manning, Giants68.564.8
5Ryan Fitzpatrick, Titans76.057.7
6Terrelle Pryor, Raiders69.045.7
7Case Keenum, Texans105.1110.6
8Jason Campbell, Browns106.6105.4
9Jeff Tuel, Bills45.152.2
Mike Freeman and Pro Football Reference

After the Chiefs' Week 4 win against Eli Manning and the New York Giants, they played their opponent's backup quarterback in four of the next five weeks.

That's some good fortune. 

Sure, Kansas City handled its business in those games, and there's something to be said about that, but having the luxury of facing a backup quarterback four times in a five-week stretch is absolutely unheard of in the NFL. 

Ironically, the Chiefs will get the polar opposite of an inexperienced, second-string quarterback when they face Peyton Manning on the other side of the line of scrimmage on Sunday. 

The runaway MVP candidate was injured late in Week 10 against the San Diego Chargers, and for a while, there was some concern about his availability for the impending AFC West showdownwhich would have taken the Chiefs' luck to an entirely new, astronomical level. 

However, Mike Klis of The Denver Post confirmed that "The Sheriff" will play:

Broncos source: Manning: "Absolutely will play Sunday against Chiefs." MRI showed aggravation of his right high ankle sprain. No new damage

— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) November 11, 2013

It's nearly impossible to predict how this amazingly opportunistic Kansas City defense will play against arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, who's on pace to have the best season of his career. Obviously, it won't be a total shock if Manning has much more success against it than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jeff Tuel did. 

Actually, Case Keenum and Jason Campbell were pretty effective against the Chiefs defense. Remember that.

After the revitalized Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers come to town in Week 12, Andy Reid's club gets Manning again.

In Arrowhead.

Following that three-game stretch, which should serve as a tremendous barometer for the Chiefs, this is what Kansas City's remaining schedule looks like:

Rightfully, many have wondered how good the Chiefs defense really is and if it can sustain its magnificent play down the stretch. For as plausible as those concerns are, Alex Smith's offense isn't being ignored, and it shouldn't be. 

This is Smith's stat line heading into the matchup with the Broncos:

Alex Smith's 2013 Statistics (Rank Out of 34 QBs)
CompletionsAttemptsCompletion %Yards Per AttemptTD %INT %
188 (14)315 (15)59.7 (21)6.09 (29)2.9 (28)1.3 (2)
ESPN and Pro Football Reference

The most vintage Smith statistic in that group is the 1.3 interception percentage. 

It's insanely low and has played a major role in the Chiefs leading the league with plus-15 turnover differential. 

Sure, no team has forced more turnovers than Kansas City, but no team has thrown fewer picks than Smith's four either. 

Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar sent out a series of tweets after watching film of the Chiefs offense:

Biggest problem I see with Alex smith is that he's been so conditioned to distrust his deep arm, he now ignores open shot plays by default.

— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) November 13, 2013

If Smith has two deeper breaking routes that will provide windows, and a short easy throw, he'll take the latter 98% of the time.

— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) November 13, 2013

I understand that last 2 coaching staffs have beaten that into him, but I don't think you can win a Super Bowl today w/risk-averse offense.

— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) November 13, 2013

Farrar made his predictive thought quite clear, and it's a sentiment shared by many. 

However, it's clear that Smith is simply doing what he's become extremely good at—operating a "risk-averse" offense. Thus far, it's worked. 

We've been conditioned to expect prolific passing yards and an abundance of touchdowns from the finest quarterbacks and finest teams. Smith and the Chiefs fall short in those areas. 

With that said, note the interception percentage of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning signal-callers:

Super Bowl-Winning QB's INT % and Team TO Differential
INT %Playoff INT %Regular Season Team TO Diff.
Joe Flacco1.90+9
Eli Manning2.7.6+7
Aaron Rodgers2.31.5+10
Drew Brees2.10+24
Ben Roethlisberger3.21.1+4
Eli Manning3.8.8-9
Peyton Manning1.64.5+7
Ben Roethlisberger3.43.2+7
Tom Brady3.00+9
Tom Brady2.31.5+17
Average2.631.32+8.5
Alex Smith's Career Average2.70
Pro Football Reference

In 2011, when Smith was a few bounces away from reaching the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, his interception percentage a league-low 1.1 in the regular season.

Essentially, the table above and that fact from two seasons ago hammer home the football credo that avoiding turnovers and forcing turnovers will—in almost all cases—result in success. 

Can the Kansas City Chiefs continue to survive on defense alone? 

If the defense can weather the Peyton Manning-Philip Rivers-Peyton Manning storm over the next three weeks and Smith continues to play relatively mistake-free football, yes, it's possible. Unconventional, but possible.

It's just that doing so in the playoffs won't be as easy.