Is it any surprise that defensive superstars such as J.J. Watt, Justin Houston and Eric Berry have their teams in the AFC Wild Card Round when the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans meet Saturday?
Of course not. Said elite players gave their respective organizations time to rally around mid-tier quarterbacks and recover from serious injuries to star running backs.
The Chiefs lost Jamaal Charles and limped to a 1-5 start, only to rattle off 10 consecutive wins led by Alex Smith. The Texans looked lost to start the season, especially after Arian Foster went down, but the defense held strong, and Brian Hoyer survived a benching to lead the team to the postseason.
The trick now? Figuring out how it shakes out. Below, let's analyze some notable predictions before nailing down a winner.
When: Saturday, January 9, at 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
Television: ESPN, ABC
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Spread: Kansas City (-3)
Kansas City Neutralizes DeAndre Hopkins
A few teams are capable of shutting down Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, and Kansas City looks like one of them.
Folks will scoff, of course. These two met in Week 1, where the Chiefs escaped with a 27-20 victory, but Hopkins exploded with nine catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
It's important to keep in mind, though, that Kansas City had to use a hodgepodge of names to defend the man called Nuk. The Chiefs had top corner Sean Smith off the field but rookie Marcus Peters played, who since the struggles of his pro debut has gone on to look great while recording eight interceptions.
Smith, the No. 18 corner at Pro Football Focus this year, will be on the field for Kansas City's second encounter with Nuk. As Brandon Kiley of KTGR pointed out, the unit changes in dramatic fashion with Smith on the field:
Nuk is elite. He's inhaled 111 of a whopping 192 targets this year with 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is the biggest reason the Texans have gotten away with Hoyer under center, who has 19 touchdowns to seven picks.
But Saturday, spamming the ball to Hopkins just won't work like it would on, say, an iffy AFC South opponent. Really, it didn't work in the first meeting with the Chiefs, who look even better this time out.
Expect the Chiefs to keep Hopkins in check and force the Texans out of their comfort zone.
Houston Controls Time of Possession
Believe it or not, Houston can be quite versatile with its offense when it really wants to be.
Running against the Chiefs isn't easy. They rank eighth in the league with just 98.2 rushing yards allowed per game. But Houston has Alfred Blue, Akeem Hunt and Jonathan Grimes to trot out and use.
Don't scoff. Those three have averaged better than five yards per carry over the past few games, providing a balance to the offense that Houston struggled to find all year.
Of course, it helps that the Watt-led defense started to play out of its mind down the stretch. The unit surrendered just 12.7 points and 263 yards per game over its final nine outings, prompting strong praise from coach Bill O'Brien.
"There's a lot of trust on that side of the ball among each other and with the coaches," O'Brien said, according to ESPN.com. "You've got some guys playing some great football. All the things that you need to play good football in this league and good defense in this league, you're having it."
Watt and Co. will have their hands full with Kansas City backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, not to mention wideout Jeremy Maclin, owner of 87 catches, 1,088 yards and eight scores. Smith tossed a trio of touchdowns in the first meeting.
But Houston's defensive revival and discovery of a ground game have coincided, creating a tandem that is sure to help the Texans control the pace of this game at home.
One of the notable storylines seemingly lost in the praise of great runs by both teams, other than Sean Smith being on the field for the rematch, is the loss of Houston offensive tackle Duane Brown, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Brown's absence might not hurt the Texans much on the ground. But the lack of protection for Hoyer to execute longer-developing plays to Nuk and others just won't be there, especially with Justin Houston and others pinning their ears back against a line that is down its best player.
The difference is big plays. Kansas City can rattle them off to guys like Maclin and Travis Kelce before Watt's rush hits home. Hoyer won't be able to respond in kind with less time in a clean pocket than usual.
Look for the Chiefs to make the most of their possessions and pull away as the game wears on, with the Chiefs extending their winning streak to 11.
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Texans 20