One of the trickier games to project in the NFL's Wild Card Round is a matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. The Colts were one of the big surprises to reach the postseason last year, while the Chiefs shocked everyone by starting 9-0 this season.
These teams met in Kansas City in Week 16, with the Colts forcing four turnovers and winning in convincing fashion, 23-7. Will we see a repeat of that in the playoffs?
That remains to be seen. What we can take a closer look at, however, is the advantages that each team holds in this game and the factors that may ultimately dictate the outcome.
Colts Advantage: Momentum
Talking about momentum can get you eviscerated around certain NFL scribes, but it's hard to ignore how poorly the Chiefs played down the stretch. Even if you take away their Week 17 loss to the San Diego Chargers—they sat the majority of their starters, so it's hard to hold that result against them— the Chiefs still lost four of six after their Week 10 bye.
One of those losses came in Week 16, at home, against these Colts, as the Chiefs only managed to put up seven points in that game.
Now, does any of this actually matter? After all, the Baltimore Ravens lost four of their last five regular-season games last year before winning the Super Bowl. It only takes one win to reverse a team's "momentum."
But look more closely at the Chiefs' schedule. When the team went 9-0 to start the season, they faced just one current playoff team, the Philadelphia Eagles, beating them 26-16. But that was before Nick Foles became the second coming of Dan Marino.
Contrast that to down the stretch, when the Chiefs played five games against playoff teams, losing all five of them. It's hard to ignore that the Chiefs feasted on non-playoff competition this year (10-0) but didn't fare so well against the NFL's top teams (1-5).
Add in the fact that the Colts are also quite good at home, going 6-2 in Indianapolis on the season, won three straight to end the season and went 4-2 against current playoff teams, and it's not hard to craft an argument for favoring the Colts in this game.
Colts Advantage: Andrew Luck
If you only looked at the numbers, you might not be convinced of the impact Andrew Luck has on this team. His 3,822 passing yards and 23 touchdowns are modest totals in today's NFL, but there are plenty of other indications that show serious improvement:
- In his rookie year, Luck threw 18 interceptions. This year, just nine. He was a huge reason why the Colts turned the ball over just 14 times this year, best in the AFC.
- He completed 60.2 percent of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 87.0, both major improvements.
- He lost his go-to receiver, Reggie Wayne, midway through the season, but continued to produce by making young receivers like T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers a bigger part of the offense.
- Very quietly, he rushed for 377 yards and four touchdowns. One of the most overlooked aspects of Luck's game is how athletic he is.
A big part of his decline in yardage and an identical touchdown mark to 2012 was the Colts' emphasis on the running game. But the young quarterback continued to improve in 2013 and his ability to limit mistakes and make plays within the offensive scheme gives the Colts a major advantage in this game.
And you could argue that the Colts' ability to protect the ball is their defining feature and the primary cause for their success this season. That starts with Luck.
Chiefs Advantage: Jamaal Charles
If Peyton Manning didn't decide to break just about every record available to him this season, you could make a very strong case that Charles would have been a worthy winner of the league's Most Valuable Player award.
And you can bet that he'll get a heavy dose of touches against the Colts. In fact, he's the key player in this game, and it isn't a secret.
From Mike Wells of ESPN:
The Chiefs' best chance of winning is by getting the ball to Charles as much as possible—handing it off or throwing it to him.
"If you just look at his numbers, 13 touches in the run game for 106 yards, you would have to say if I was Coach [Andy] Reid and the rest of your staff, I would say—especially in an environment if it's going to be loud and the game warrants that you can stick with the run—I'm sure we're going to see Jamaal," [head coach Chuck] Pagano said. "If he doesn't touch the ball 30 times, I'd be shocked."
Said Charles, who was third in the league with 1,287 rushing yards and had 70 catches for 693 yards: "Oh yeah, running the ball is always a good thing to do. But at the end of the day, we know they're going to try their hardest to stop the run. You stop the run, you beat the Chiefs."
Charles also had 19 touchdowns on the year, making him one of the league's most valuable offensive weapons. When you take into consideration that he accounted for 36.7 percent of Kansas City's yards and 26.5 percent of their points, it's pretty obvious that without him, the Chiefs are a pretty average team.
Pagano is correct—Charles will likely touch the ball at least 30 times. Four turnovers in the first meeting killed the Chiefs, but only getting Charles 18 touches—albeit it for 144 yards and a touchdown—didn't help matters.
Every time Charles touches the ball, he's a threat to take it to the house. If the Chiefs are forced to rely on Alex Smith and the passing game to win this game, well, they won't.
Chiefs Advantage: A Bend-But-Don't Break, Ball-Hawking Defense
Only the Seattle Seahawks (39) forced more turnovers than the 36 created by the Chiefs this year, arguably the most important aspect of their success outside of Charles' impact on the offense. The Colts may protect the ball as well as any team in the league, but the Chiefs take it away just as well.
Statistically, the Chiefs don't look all that great on defense. They allow 247.6 passing yards (25th) and 120.2 rushing yards (22nd) per game.
But while they bend, they generally don't break. They allow just 19.1 points per game, tied for fifth in the NFL, highlighted by a dangerous pass rush that led to 47 sacks on the year, tied for sixth in the league. The combo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali (if he plays) will be a key factor, as giving Luck little time in the pocket could completely derail Indy's offensive rhythm.
The Chiefs defense gave up 27 or more points five times in their last seven games. With this unit rested and seemingly healthier after taking Week 17 off, a big performance will not only be expected, but necessary, if the Chiefs are to pull off the win.