The Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts ended their seasons on very different notes, but the pair will still play a close game in the Wild Card Round that will be decided by just a handful of factors.
The Chiefs stumbled into the playoffs, losing six of their last eight games amid a rash of injuries, while the Colts looked confident, winning four of their final six contests.
The teams faced each other in Week 16, with Indianapolis winning an impressive 23-7 victory, but that early matchup only explains a little about each team’s chances in this one.
Each squad has gotten some key players back from injury in time for the playoffs and also feature plenty of healthy playmakers that could easily impact this matchup in a huge way.
Despite being 32 years old, Colts defensive end Robert Mathis enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career.
He led the NFL in sacks with 19.5 and forced eight fumbles, a truly impressive feat, as Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter notes.
Mathis has been effective against every team he’s faced this year, but he was particularly good against the Chiefs when they faced off.
He sacked Alex Smith once and seemed to be in the backfield all day, as Grantland’s Bill Barnwell explains.
The exception to that was what the Colts did up front.
Mathis is rightly regarded as one of the best players in football in terms of getting around the edge and either knocking the ball out of the quarterback's hand or hitting his arm as he winds up to throw.
The Chiefs couldn't keep him and the other Indy rushers out of the backfield in that game.
Part of the reason Kansas City struggled so mightily against Mathis and company was the absence of left tackle Branden Albert, who will be returning for the playoff game.
However, Albert has sat out for the last four games with a hyperextended knee—hardly the best circumstances to be ready to face one of the premier pass-rushers in the game.
The Chiefs will also likely be without right tackle Eric Fisher, meaning Mathis could be moved around to find a mismatch with his lesser replacements.
Mathis helped the Colts defense force six fumbles the last time these teams played. While expecting a repeat performance of that magnitude seems unreasonable, if he can create havoc once more, the Colts will have a distinct advantage.
However, Barnwell does offer one solution for slowing Mathis.
If the Chiefs can't block Mathis, well, there's a classic solution: read him.
Kansas City isn't exactly a heavy read-option team by any means, but it enjoyed success several times during the Week 16 game when Smith noticed Indianapolis's edge rushers crashing down the line of scrimmage on handoffs and kept the ball for himself.
That's a move that keeps the Indianapolis outside linebackers honest and forces them to stay in their lanes, which weakens the backside pursuit when Kansas City does decide to hand the ball off to Jamaal Charles.
For all the Chiefs offense’s struggles in the teams’ first matchup, Charles was still able to run for 106 yards. If Mathis does prove to be a disruptive force, Kansas City does have some options for neutralizing him.
Kansas City’s defense has plenty of playmakers, but linebacker Justin Houston is likely the first among equals.
Houston was one of the most dominant players in the league before his elbow injury in Week 12, and his absence was a huge reason the Chiefs struggled so mightily down the stretch.
Now, with Houston back, Kansas City’s pass rush is formidable once more.
With defensive end Tamba Hali struggling with injury issues of his own, Houston’s presence should be a huge boost to the Chiefs defense, and the Colts will have to account for him.
“With Tamba (Hali) on one side and Justin (Houston) on the other, it’s a great duo,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano told The Kansas City Star. “Our tackles have played well, for the most part, all season so it will be a huge challenge for both of those guys to get those guys blocked.”
In fact, Pagano’s assessment of his offensive line’s play might be a bit optimistic.
If Houston can succeed in pressuring the Colts’ porous line and make Luck run scared, the Chiefs’ chances will improve noticeably.
Luck’s production has been way down over the back half of the season, with his last 300-yard game coming in Week 14 in the lopsided loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, so it does look like there’s some room to contain him.
If Houston rattles Luck with consistency, then that will take a lot of pressure off the offense to keep up.
By contrast, if Mathis is the one that has the big day defensively, the Chiefs might be unable to stay competitive.
Either way, both teams' star pass-rushers should prove to be the X-factors in this wild-card matchup.