Thursday night, December 7th, the Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) will attempt to break the Oakland Raiders (10-2) six-game winning streak. Owning the superior division record, a Chiefs victory would move the team into either the one or two seed, a title filled with so many tie-breakers that it’s difficult to make sense out of it.
Here are four aspects to a Chiefs victory.
Houston, We Have A Problem.
A pass rushing extraordinary with a knack for deflecting passes and forcing fumbles, linebacker Justin Houston brings a monstrous presence to an already exceptional unit. (His counterpart Dee Ford has 10 sacks on the year). Owner of four sacks in three games, Houston had about hit his stride…until he didn’t. After playing 71% of defensive snaps against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 89% of defensive snaps against the Denver Broncos, Houston played only 63% of snaps against the Atlanta Falcons, and boy, did it show in the second half. Atlanta’s passing attack opened up as quarterback Matt Ryan found plenty of time to stand in the pocket and distribute. The pathway to victory is to get Houston back north of 85% and to keep Carr on his heels.
Of course, pass rushing is only half of what Houston does. As an above-average run defender, Houston will be vital in clogging up the Raiders’ seventh-ranked rushing offense. Lining up on the bottom side of the field, Houston (50) pushes aside tight end Virgil Green (85) and then leads forward, using his hip to offset fullback Andy Janovich (32). By using force to dispel Green and grace to avoid Janovich, Houston penetrates the backfield and tackles running back Kapri Bibbs (35) for a one-yard loss.
Special Teams Must Be Special
Against the Broncos and the Falcons, not only did special teams win the battle of field position, it was directly responsible for a touchdown in both games. Tyreek Hill took a kickoff to the house after a Houston safety to build a 9-0 lead against the Broncos, and the Falcons fell victim to a fake punt, as Albert Wilson received a direct snap, ran up the middle and then won a footrace to the end zone.
Hill’s kick return was great, but let’s take a look at another special teams play during the Broncos game.
It’s 4th and 19 from the Chiefs’ four-yard line. Punter Dustin Colquitt (2) is up against the edge of the end zone, a potential vulnerability for Colquitt. At the snap, the Broncos send their entire line and both edge rushers at Colquitt. On the bottom side of the field, De’Anthony Thomas (13) breaks free from defender Justin Simmons (31). He heads downfield with Simmons in stride but soon Simmons loses interest. Regardless of the fact that Denver sent their whole unit to block this punt, and that Simmons did not expect this punt to be fielded, punt returner Jordan Norwood (11) bypasses a fair catch to attempt a return. Intimidated by Thomas zeroing in on him, Norwood loses sight of the ball and it hits his face mask. Thomas has little chance of recovering the live ball, so he collides into Norwood, ensuring that Norwood will also not recover it. Long snapper James Winchester (41) appears out of nowhere, having just finished a run from the four-yard line to the forty. He falls on the ball, cradling it against him.
This muffed punt did not happen by luck but by effort. By Thomas outworking Simmons, Thomas was able to get a direct path to Norwood. By hauling it downfield, before he knew the punt would be muffed, Winchester was there to recover it.
Supreme effort and execution would aid the Chiefs in a tight victory against the Falcons, as well. Early the third quarter, the Chiefs were facing a 4th and one, a tough spot for most teams but a cinch for the Chiefs. For the year, they’re nine for eleven on fourth down attempts, for an 82% conversion rate, the second highest in the league. However, before they could snap the ball, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn called time out. At the resume of play, it appeared Chiefs head coach Andy Reid had rethought his strategy, choosing to send out his punt unit.
What follows was not a punt but a 55-yard touchdown run by Albert Wilson.
To left of long snapper Winchester is James O’Shaughneesy (80) and Anthony Sherman (42). To his right are Frank Zombo (51) and DJ Alexander (57). Meanwhile, the Falcons have chosen an interesting formation. Traditionally, most of the line plays with a hand down. On this play, only Ben Garland (63) has a hand down, while (left-to-right) Aldrick Robinson (19), Phillip Wheeler (48), Paul Worrilow (55), Justin Hardy (16) are standing. These four are assuming they will rush punter Colquitt, but their assumption turns out to be their demise. Instead of the Chiefs’ line accepting blows, they dish them. At the snap, the entire line plows forward, easily pushing aside the Falcons, all of whom have zero leverage. O’Shaunhnessy and Sherman put a double team on Garland, pushing him to the left. Zombo and Alexander take out Robenson Therezie (27) from the second level, pushing him to the right. These two blocks lock out the rest of the Falcons and the entire unit parts like the Red Sea.
Travis Kelce, Mr Clutch
In the overtime period against the Broncos, Kelce logged two catches, one for twenty-one yards and the other for sixteen. Against the Falcons, a 14-yard reception in the fourth quarter helped ice the game and maintain a one-point lead. This year, Kelce leads all tight ends with 65 receptions for 815 yards, a 12.5 yard/catch average. Part of an offense that can struggle to get its mojo going, Kelce’s explosive presence is vital for the Chiefs to hang in there with the formidable offense of the Raiders.
Having just caught a 38-yard pass, Kelcie lines up at the bottom of the formation. Initially, he is uncovered but latecomer cornerback Robert Alford (23) comes across the field. Alford covers Kelce from five yards out but soon gets greedy. He closes in on Kelce, standing firm with only one yard of separation. He pays dearly for it. Kelce takes a quick step inside to get Alford off-balance and then cuts outside, heading for a runner down the sideline. Quarterback Alex Smith (11) launches a pass that Kelce easily snags.
To defeat the Raiders, the Chiefs will have to do everything listed above, and one other thing. Both the Broncos and the Falcons games came down to the whichever team had the last big play.
After four quarters and an entire overtime period, the Broncos had possession of the ball on the Chiefs’ 44-yard line. It was 4th and ten with a single minute left. To win, the Broncos would need to make a 62-yard field goal, or they could punt and play for the tie. With the Raiders separating themselves in the division, a tie may not have helped the Broncos much, and that may explain why Denver head coach Gary Kubiak ordered the ill-fated attempt. Taking over on the Denver 48 yard line, Alex Smith led a drive highlighted by two big completions. The first was to Hill for 32 yards and then to Kelce for 16. All that remained was a 34-yard field goal with five seconds left.
Oh my God, did it go in? Did it go in? IT WENT IN!!!!
Against the Falcons, the Chiefs had surrendered a touchdown and the lead, the game now at 28-29. Hoping to bring the lead to three, the Falcon offense was sent out to attempt a two-point conversion. Quarterback Matt Ryan (2) fielded the snap from shotgun with two receivers to his high-side and one receiver to his low. The defense sent only four and the remaining seven defenders were left to protect the end zone. Noticeably, safety Eric Berry (29), alone and with nobody to cover, did not become impatient to participate but simply observed. Soon, he keyed in, realizing, “Hey, no one is here but me. This is probably where the Falcons designed this play to be executed.” Sure enough, tight end Austin Hooper (81) was crossing the defense. Ryan finished his drop and threw the ball. Berry plucked the pass from the air and then landed with a head start that led him all the way to the end zone.
Winning the AFC West will be no easy task, but if these last two games showed anything, maybe the Chiefs have a little bit of a “team of destiny” vibe going on. Having left the realm of predictable football analytics and statistics and entered the realm of magic, the Chiefs feast on big time plays, big time bounces and then soak up big time wins. Sometimes, in sports, logic is not the only determiner of a victor, sometimes it’s the heart and soul of 53 guys out for the same goal.
The Chiefs will need all that heart and a little more to take over the crowded AFC West.