The NFL's Wild Card Weekend kicks off Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) visiting the Indianapolis Colts (11-5). KC and Indy met just two weeks ago in a game with playoff implications, essentially making that game a dress rehearsal for Saturday.
The Colts dominated in Arrowhead, forcing four turnovers and battering Alex Smith all game. Indy took advantage of the takeaways and an efficient game from Andrew Luck to come away with a convincing 23-7 victory.
So what can the Chiefs do to reverse that result, now on the road? And who must step up for Indy to replicate its Week 16 dominance and move on? Here are a couple players who stand out as critical X-factors to victory for each team.
The Chiefs defense was the NFL's best through the first half of the season but regressed significantly in the second half. After allowing just a tick under five yards per play the first eight games, eighth-best in the league, Kansas City gave up six yards per play in the final eight, fifth-worst, per Pro Football Reference.
The biggest factor in that decline was Justin Houston's dislocated elbow in Week 12 against the Chargers. Houston has not played since, but according to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, the outside linebacker is set to return this Saturday. That's good news for a Kansas City defense that has accrued just 10 sacks and struggled mightily in his absence:
In the #Chiefs 10 full games with Justin Houston (9-1) they gave up an average of 13.8 points per game. In 6 games without, 27.3 ppg (2-4)— BJ Kissel (@bkissel7) December 30, 2013
The Chiefs compiled a meager one sack, four hits and nine hurries on Andrew Luck in the first meeting. Houston's return is crucial to harassing one of the league's most pressured quarterbacks.
Kansas City's backup swing tackle will be replacing Eric Fisher, who is out with a groin injury, as reported by NFL.com's Marc Sessler. Fisher wore the goat horns for Kansas City's humiliating defeat in Week 16. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Fisher was beaten that day for a sack and two hurries, including a strip sack of Alex Smith that led to a turnover.
Now Stephenson will have to step in. Stephenson played on the left side in place of Branden Albert in Week 16 and actually held up well, conceding just one pressure. Now on the opposite side, he must find a way to at least contain the Colts' fearsome pass-rusher.
That means Donald Stephenson will get the start at RT. The Albert-Allen-Hudson-Schwartz-Stephenson line has done some good things. #Chiefs— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) January 3, 2014
The Chiefs' inability to protect Alex Smith led to the offense's worst game of the year, as nearly a quarter of Kansas City's 18 total turnovers on the season came on that day. Indy's pass rush is extremely Mathis-centric, so Stephenson should receive double-team help throughout the game. Keeping Smith upright is absolutely essential if Kansas City is going to establish any offensive rhythm in the rematch.
Brown has been Indy's best back but played sparingly in the first meeting while recovering from a stinger. Now healthy, Brown should receive the majority of the carries against a Kansas City defense that has conceded 4.5 yards per rush, seventh-worst in the league.
It's a bit puzzling why Brown has played over half the offensive snaps just twice all season, per Pro Football Focus. Indy's offensive line is not a particularly great run-blocking unit, and Brown's shiftiness and speed is vital toward hitting the hole and gaining yardage. His skill set stands in direct contrast to the physical, happy-footed Trent Richardson, who is ill-suited in Indy's offense, to say the least:
Of the top 71 running backs in rush attempts this year, Donald Brown was 3rd in the @NFL with 5.3 yards per carry.— Kevin Bowen (@KBowenColts) January 1, 2014
The Colts would be wise to allow Brown to take over in the red zone as well, as Kansas City's secondary has tightened up in the red zone. Per Pro Football Reference, the Chiefs have conceded just 12 passing touchdowns inside the 20 all season, the third-best mark in the league. Rather than forcing Andrew Luck to stick passes into tiny windows, Brown is the best option for Indy to take finish drives with touchdowns.
Many casual fans see the Colts defense as Robert Mathis and a bunch of flotsam, but Cory Redding deserves much more credit. According to Pro Football Focus, not only is Redding the Colts' best run defender, but he's also the seventh-best run defender among all 3-4 defensive ends.
Redding will likely be much more vital on Saturday than he was in the first meeting, when Jamaal Charles received just 13 carries. The Chiefs have no choice but to lean heavily on their best (and arguably only) offensive playmaker, and Matt Grecco of SB Nation believes Indy will try to stifle the ground game early to discourage the pass-happy Andy Reid:
I expect Jamaal Charles to get many more touches Saturday than he did in the first match-up, as the Chiefs nearly ran for 8 yards per carry, yet only ran Charles 13 times. It's pretty clear the Colts had major issues stopping him the first go-round, and a point of emphasis should be put on stopping him, to an extent. Reid is notorious for completely abandoning the run game if his team gets down early, so the Colts just need to have a good start and that will neutralize Charles without actually having to tackle him.
Redding obviously will not be alone in containing Charles, but containment from Redding and the Colts' other edge defenders will be vital. Charles is absolutely lethal when given space to roam outside the numbers, and keeping him confined in between the tackles should make run defense manageable for Indy.