Not even two weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts traveled to Kansas City and soundly beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead by the final score of 23-7. For their playoff matchup, the Chiefs will have to travel to Indianapolis as they look for their first playoff victory since January 1994.
This is familiar territory for the Colts—they made it this far last year only to lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens 24-9. The Colts had to go on the road last year, but they will host the Chiefs at 4:35 p.m. ET on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium this time around.
If the Colts lose in the first round again, quarterback Andrew Luck would follow in the footsteps of the man he replaced. Peyton Manning actually had three first-round exits before finally winning a playoff game.
The Chiefs' last six trips to the playoffs resulted in first-round exits, including a 23-8 loss in Indianapolis to Manning’s Colts in 2006. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has never started a road playoff game, but only a Kyle Williams fumbled kickoff return in overtime kept his team from making the Super Bowl after the 2011 season.
History, while fun, doesn’t have any real impact on this game. Even the Colts’ victory over the Chiefs a couple weeks ago doesn’t give them a real advantage in the rematch because things can change. What does have an impact in the game is how the players and coaches perform on the NFL’s biggest stage.
So how do the two teams stack up at every key spot?
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith isn’t a great passer, but he deserves some credit for leading two different teams to the playoffs. Maybe he isn’t the type of quarterback who is going to go throw for 300 yards every week, but he takes care of the football and has proven he can take risks and make big plays when the situation calls for it.
Smith averaged 221 passing yards per game and just 6.5 yards per attempt this season, with a touchdown percentage of 4.5 percent and an interception percentage of 1.4 percent. The Colts allowed their opponents to pass for 232 yards per game on average at 7.4 yards per attempt, with a touchdown percentage of 3.9 percent and an interception percentage of 2.8 percent.
While Smith should be able to move the ball through the air, he could struggle to throw touchdowns and avoid turnovers. Smith went 16-of-28 for 153 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against the Colts two weeks ago, so he may have to take more risks to get things going.
The Colts only allowed Peyton Manning to throw for more than 300 yards against them at home this season, so there’s not much hope that Smith will be able to get things going too much through the air. Of course, Smith has been known to pile up passing yard by throwing short passes to running back Jamaal Charles and letting him do the work after the catch.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman has the lowest pass-coverage grade of any defender on the Colts. The Chiefs wisely targeted Freeman seven times two weeks ago, but without much success.
Freeman had his best game of the year against the Chiefs, allowing just three receptions and intercepting Smith once. Another interception was changed to a fumble recovery, but Freeman was still named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
For Smith to have success, he's going to need to find a way to get the ball to Charles in open space. The Chiefs could go after Freeman again with the hope that his first performance was a fluke aided by a great pass rush or try to exploit free safety Antoine Bethea.
Smith has struggled to exploit weak safeties all season. The Chiefs targeted Bethea five times two weeks ago, but that yielded just three receptions for 28 yards. Smith doesn’t take many risks in the deep secondary, and his receivers and tight ends haven’t exactly inspired confidence.
Andrew Luck didn’t have his best game against the Chiefs, but he was very efficient. Luck completed 70.3 percent of his passes for 241 yards and a touchdown. Luck threw mostly short passes and completed just about all of them.
Short passes have been a problem for the Chiefs because they make it harder for Kansas City's pass rush to force bad throws. That’s why the Chiefs are allowing 7.2 yards per pass attempt but have also intercepted 3.5 percent of the passes attempted against them. It’s a feast-or-famine secondary that needs help from the front seven.
Luck’s 241 passing yards against the Chiefs is just a shade under the 248 passing yards the Chiefs have allowed on average this season. Luck successful avoided turnovers, but that may have hurt his ability to score through the air in the process.
Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith can both be exploited in pass coverage, but the Chiefs have recently shifted things around. Flowers had been playing a lot in the slot, with rookie Marcus Cooper playing the nickel cornerback spot on the outside, but the rookie has been benched for his poor play.
Veteran Dunta Robinson has taken over for Cooper, but the Chiefs also trust him to play in the slot. Flowers has been able to stay outside, where he appears to be more comfortable. The Colts already got to see this change, so it shouldn’t be new to them.
The Chiefs do have a really good cover safety in Eric Berry and cover linebacker in Derrick Johnson, so they usually do well covering tight ends and running backs. Luck was able to throw a touchdown to running back Donald Brown, but the Chiefs did a good job keeping the running backs and tight ends from hurting them otherwise.
Since this game will be indoors in Indianapolis, expect a bump in production for Luck. There is potential for Saturday’s game to be a long day for Kansas City’s secondary if the Colts decide to open up the passing game.
Donald Brown deserves the bulk of the carries for the Colts.
The much-maligned Colts running back Trent Richardson averaged a cool 2.9 yards per carry this season. The Colts kept giving him opportunities and hoping he could do better, but he never really turned a corner. Given how much they traded for him, it made sense to give him as many opportunities to turn it around as possible.
Donald Brown averaged 5.3 yards per carry, but it’s not as simple as giving Brown all of Richardson’s carries and instantly improving the running game by 2.4 yards per carry. Brown probably should be getting more of the work in the playoffs than Richardson, but it remains to be seen if the Colts will make a change to the division of carries now that the team has made the playoffs.
With Luck sprinkling in 63 carries for 377 yards, the Colts rushed for 1,743 yards this season while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. That’s nothing spectacular but got the job done for the Colts this season.
When the Colts rushed for 100 yards or more in 2013, they were 9-1. When they didn’t, they were 2-4, with wins over the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The former was also only by three points.
Rushing for 100 yards is not some sort of magic number that the Colts must hit to win, but the correlation is hard to ignore. The Colts are clearly a running team that needs to be productive on the ground and burn time off the clock.
The Chiefs allowed 1,923 rushing yards at 4.5 yards per carry this season, which is pretty average for a defense that is so good at limiting points. The Colts ran 34 times for 135 yards and a touchdown in Kansas City two weeks ago.
In the red zone, the Chiefs have been able to stop the run more effectively. Opposing teams had just nine rushing touchdowns during the regular season. The Chiefs do boast a tough defensive front anchored by nose tackle Dontari Poe. Defensive ends Mike DeVito and Tyson Jackson are also pretty good run-stoppers, as that’s all they really do.
The Colts should be able to get yards on the ground, but they are going to have to throw to score. The teams are relatively evenly matched in this area, but the Colts already proved they could run it effectively on the Chiefs.
Despite Jamaal Charles being one of the best running backs in the league, the Chiefs just barely squeezed into the top 10 in rushing yards with 2,056. Charles had just 1,287 yards rushing, but he added 693 receiving.
The Colts have one of the lesser run defenses in the league, having allowed 2,002 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry during the regular season. The Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars were the only two teams not to rush for over 100 yards against the Colts.
Given that the Chiefs rushed for 155 yards two weeks ago against the Colts, it’s pretty easy to see who comes out ahead in this area. Charles averaged 8.2 yards per carry on just 13 carries against them, so if he gets more carries this time around, things could get ugly.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Colts left defensive end Cory Redding is their one really excellent run defender. Since Redding will go up against Chiefs rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, it’s safe to say the Chiefs might not be running in his general direction.
Justin Houston has been very valuable to the Chiefs in 2013.
One of the key differences in the rematch between these two teams is the presence of outside linebacker Justin Houston for the Chiefs. Houston has been out for six weeks now with a partially dislocated elbow, but he should be ready to make his return Saturday.
The Chiefs were 9-1 when Houston was fully healthy—with only a loss to the Denver Broncos in Denver. In Week 12 when Houston was injured, the Chiefs allowed just three points with him and 38 after he had to leave the game. Overall, Houston has been worth about a touchdown per game in points allowed to the Chiefs.
Andrew Luck was sacked just once in Week 16 against the Chiefs, and he was well protected. The Chiefs had to blitz an extra guy or two to get pressure, but weren’t very effective.
The Chiefs only blitz when their natural pressure isn’t getting the job done. If the Chiefs don’t get better production from their pass rush, their secondary is going to struggle to make consistent stops. Luck is too good a quarterback not to pick apart a secondary when he has time in the pocket.
Despite missing so much time, Houston still finished the season as ProFootballFocus’ top 3-4 outside linebacker. The Chiefs’ other outside linebacker, Tamba Hali, finished sixth, but he’s had an inconsistent second half without Houston drawing some of the attention away from him.
The Colts may have had some issues in pass protection, but they are strongest at the edge—right where they need to be against the Chiefs. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus and left tackle Anthony Castonzo have both been solid in pass protection for the Colts this season.
With Houston returning, you have to like the Chiefs’ chances of putting more heat on Luck. Just like most quarterbacks, Luck isn’t nearly as effective when under pressure.
Robert Mathis can disrupt an entire offense.
The Colts sacked Alex Smith five times in Week 16, but outside linebacker Robert Mathis only had one of them. Mathis finished with a league-leading 19.5 sacks during the regular season, so holding him to just one could be considered a small victory.
The Chiefs were also without their best pass-protector in left tackle Branden Albert, who will return from a knee injury this week after sitting for the past month. Donald Stephenson has played well in Albert’s place and would be a candidate to start over Eric Fisher at right tackle if the rookie hadn’t also improved.
Fisher’s biggest struggle has been with speed-rushers, so the Colts should consider letting Mathis go to work on the rookie. If Mathis isn’t making an impact, the Colts have to rely too much on too many players to be productive against Kansas City’s solid offensive line.
Considering how well the Colts pressured Smith two weeks ago, even the return of Albert isn’t going to be enough to give the Chiefs a blocking advantage. If the Colts are smart, Mathis can be even more disruptive to the Chiefs passing game than he was a couple weeks ago.
Vontae Davis made life difficult for Dwayne Bowe two weeks ago.
Kansas City’s receivers have been a problem all season. Maybe they would be better if Alex Smith could get them the ball down the field, but that’s not really his strength.
Smith is learning how to feed Dwayne Bowe, but still isn’t finding him with enough regularity. Bowe didn’t have a single 100-yard game this season and actually topped out at 69 yards. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis will also give Bowe all he can handle.
Kansas City’s other options are less than stellar. It’s pretty unlikely that Dexter McCluster, Donnie Avery and Junior Hemingway are going to be able to expose the Colts’ deep secondary.
Even though the Colts have cycled through nickel cornerbacks like Greg Toler, Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy, none of them have been terrible third options. It’s not a perfect group, but the luxury to cycle out a struggling player is a bonus few teams have.
Cornerback Sean Smith needs to play better for the Chiefs in the postseason.
T.Y. Hilton, Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen aren’t the biggest names in the league, but it doesn’t take big names to exploit Kansas City’s secondary. Hilton eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the season and added five touchdown catches—he’s plenty talented.
The Colts like to use Hilton in the slot, where the Chiefs will either put Dunta Robinson or Brandon Flowers in coverage. Flowers had that duty for most of the season but didn’t have much success there.
If not for safety Eric Berry, the Chiefs would be in really tough shape in the secondary. As it is, they have very little quality depth at cornerback that can be trusted. Even the starters aren’t playing particularly well.
Berry has done it all this season, but he’s been particularly great in pass coverage. The Colts were lucky enough to complete four of four passes for 43 yards and a touchdown against Berry a couple weeks ago according to ProFootballFocus (subscription), but they shouldn’t expect a repeat performance.
The problem with Berry is that he usually covers just running backs and tight ends and not receivers. That makes life a little easier for Sean Smith and Flowers, but not so much that a great performance from Berry would keep them from getting exposed.
Dexter McCluster has multiple kick-return touchdowns in 2013.
Games can be won and lost on special teams, and it always tends to be magnified in the playoffs. A team will try a surprise onside kick or block a punt that will change the outcome of a game—it almost always happens.
The Chiefs have a great special teams unit—they returned two punts and two kicks for touchdowns this season. A big return, a field-flipping punt or a clutch field goal can also have a significant impact on the game.
In kick-return average and punt-return average, the Chiefs have a big advantage. The Chiefs have averaged 29.9 yards per kick return and 11.8 yards per punt return, and the Colts have also allowed 25.2 yards per kick return and 13.7 yards per punt return.
There’s a significant enough difference here to think that the Chiefs can get a few extra yards per punt return and come close to their average yards per kick return. An extra five yards per drive can be the difference between a makeable game-winning field goal and one that’s out of kicker Ryan Succop’s range.
The Colts haven’t been nearly as good on punt returns, and the Chiefs are only allowing 6.5 yards per punt return in coverage. The Colts have been better in kick-return average at 23.5 yards per return, but the Chiefs are only allowing 24.4 yards per return—slightly more.
In just about every area on special teams, the Chiefs have an advantage except in the kicking game. Ryan Succop missed a game-winning kick as time expired last week. It was a meaningless game, but can he now be trusted when there is a real pressure kick?
Succop has hit just 78.6 percent of his field goals this season. Half of his misses have come from over 50 yards, but that’s still not a good enough average for a kicker in the NFL. The Colts have the old, reliable kicker Adam Vinatieri, who has hit on 87.5 percent of his field goals this season.
No one doubts that Vinatieri can make a pressure kick, which gives the Colts the light edge in the kicking department. Overall, the Chiefs still have the advantage on special teams.
Chuck Pagano's team should have the advantage on Saturday, but can it come away with the win?
The Colts come out ahead in the final tally, but the outcome of the game is far from predetermined. An argument could be made that many of the categories could favor the Chiefs or Colts depending on a variety of different unknown factors like player health and the game plan.
These teams are surprisingly even on paper, so the only thing left is to let the drama unfold. It’s been a fun ride for both of these teams in 2013, but for one team, the storybook ending will have to come in another year.