Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

A second victory over the Oakland Raiders has forced the Kansas City Chiefs into our thoughts. The Chiefs are 9-3 10-3 this season after winning 11 of their last 12 games in 2015, with the only loss coming against the New England Patriots in the playoffs. It's hard to argue that the record doesn't reflect their quality. In a league where teams are earning playoff spots by sneaking past bad teams each week, the Chiefs have the most impressive resume by a distance. Notable wins have come against the San Diego Chargers (at the start of the season when they were healthy), the Raiders (twice), the Broncos (in Denver) and the Falcons (in Atlanta). The only blotch on the schedule is a Week 4 blowout loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

That Steelers game is an easy out if you want to discount the Chiefs. It directly highlights what is perceived to be the Chiefs' biggest flaw: Alex Smith.

Smith couldn't keep up with Ben Roethlisberger in that game. Roethlisberger threw three touchdowns in the first quarter, and finished the game with 300 yards and five touchdowns in just 27 pass attempts. Le'Veon Bell also ran for 144 yards. The early deficit put Smith in position to carry the offense, and it was a major struggle. He threw the ball 50 times and accounted for two touchdowns, but only 287 yards and had an interception. All of the Chiefs' points came in the fourth quarter, long after the game had been decided.

It's between the Chiefs and the Steelers for the second-most dangerous team in the AFC. The Chiefs have been far more consistent as a whole, and while the Steelers have Roethlisberger, he has been wholly unreliable this year. Some weeks he looks like the best quarterback in the league, other weeks he collapses on himself and destroys the passing game. Roethlisberger was terrible just last week against the Buffalo Bills, and the Steelers likely would have lost had they not been able to turn to Bell for a huge game.

Whoever comes out of the AFC will need to overcome the New England Patriots. After Tom Brady's 400-yard display against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, it's clear that the Patriots still have enough explosiveness in a post-Gronk existence. The obvious conclusion is that you will need to be capable of matching that firepower to overcome them in a one-game sample. However, Roethlisberger's Steelers teams have largely struggled against Brady's Patriots teams, whereas the Chiefs' past two matchups with the Patriots have laid out a blueprint that has given them a legitimate chance at winning. The first of those two meetings was the now infamous 41-14 loss that the Patriots suffered in Kansas City at the beginning of the 2014 season. Brady had one of the worst games of his career that day. The second was last year's playoff matchup. Sure, the Patriots won that game but it was far from comfortable. Rob Gronkowski scored two touchdowns in a game that was ultimately decided by seven points. Gronkowski obviously won't play in any rematch that takes place this season. The absence of Gronkowski will be offset somewhat by the presence of Martellus Bennett. Bennett has proven to be more than just a capable complement -- his blocking and receiving ability have been invaluable to the offense all season long. Bennett sets the Patriots offense up to be largely similar to the one that played in last year's playoffs. The Chiefs defense is largely the same too, but will swap out inside linebacker Derrick Johnson for a fully healthy Justin Houston at outside linebacker.

The concern for the Patriots is that Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has shown an ability to counter Brady. Sutton is an aggressive, creative playcaller who gives his best players freedom to make instinctive plays. While Brady's statline from that game was fine on the surface -- he threw 42 times for 302 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions -- he offered the Chiefs three clear interception opportunities that they couldn't take.

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Brady's genius has always been built around his ability to diagnose defenses before the snap. He is also extremely effective at adjusting after the snap, but if you do contain him you will typically do it by slowing down his mental process with post-snap adjustments.

On Brady's first interceptable pass, he perfectly diagnosed the coverage before the snap and found the right receiver to beat the called coverage. This is where Sutton's willingness to let his players make instinctive plays comes in. Brady knew the play, but Marcus Peters also knew that Brady knew the play. Peters dropped off the line just before the ball was snapped. His body shape is such that when he begins backpedaling, Brady expects him to continue with the outside receiver, leaving the slot receiver space to run outside. Peters has his eyes on Brady though. As soon as Brady begins his throwing motion, Peters is breaking on the ball.

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Peters has no safety help. If the outside receiver is running a deep route and Brady recognizes it, he has an easy touchdown. But instead he is running a curl route, and Brady doesn't recognize it either way. He forces the ball to his slot receiver, where Peters is waiting for the ball to arrive.

This is a great example of how Sutton embraces the instincts of his best players. Peters is an intimidating cornerback. He constantly finds the football by making calculated decisions that come with significant risk but significant reward. It's why Peters has 13 interceptions in just 28 career games. Significantly, Peters also has 43 pass deflections, which tells you that he is consistently finding the football and not just benefiting from quarterbacks making mistakes that happen to fall into his lap. It would be easy for a more conservative coach to point to the touchdowns that Peters gives up as a reason to turn him into a robot who executes his exact assignment on every play. That is the juxtaposition of the Chiefs offensive approach and their defensive approach.

It's easier for Peters to make these decisions with a healthy Justin Houston. Houston, Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali, Chris Jones, and Dee Ford create a dynamic and deep group of pass rushers who can win one-on-one matchups consistently.

Peters' inability to coral this interception ultimately led to the Patriots kicking a field goal. On the following drive, the Chiefs missed another interception opportunity that turned into a field goal. Again it was Peters. This time the Patriots tried to take advantage of his aggressive nature.

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Peters again lines up on the left side of the screen. This time he sits off the line of scrimmage and stays there. Brady and Julian Edelman attempt to draw Peters forward with an in-breaking route and pump fake. Peters steps forward but doesn't allow his momentum to control his movement. When Brady holds the ball and Edelman continues upfield, Peters is able to turn with the receiver and play the route perfectly. Had Peters turned his head and attempted to catch the ball over his shoulder instead of reaching one hand out to pull the ball in, he would have had an easier interception. He still had a good chance at pulling the ball in the way he played it, but instead had to settle for a third-down stop.

Both of these plays came at the beginning of the fourth quarter. At the time the Patriots were holding an eight-point lead. The two field goals stretched it out to a 14-point lead. The Chiefs scored one touchdown before giving the ball back to the Patriots with 1:12 left on the clock. On second-and-12, the Patriots came out throwing.

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This play ended the game. It gave the Patriots a first down and let them run out the clock. Brady anticipated the Chiefs bringing pressure and rushed his throw against a three-man rush. By doing that he threw the ball directly to Tamba Hali, who dropped out from his pass rushing position to cover the flat. Had Hali caught that ball he could easily have run it back deep into Patriots territory or all the way to the end zone. Instead he let the ball bounce off of his hands into the waiting arms of Julian Edelman for a first down. The ball hit Hali's right hand, which was in a cast. He had no chance of catching the ball unless it had first landed in his chest. With a healthy hand, it would have been a relatively easy catch to make.

Chances are you won't contain Brady without creating turnovers and creating pressure. The Chiefs have all the pieces to do both. It's still a monumental task, but it's one the Chiefs defense is at least built to do, whereas the Steelers defense has severe limitations that would make Brady's tasks much easier. When the Steelers and Patriots met earlier this season, the Patriots offense had an easy day. It's impossible to guess what the Steelers offense would have looked like against the Patriots defense because Roethlisberger didn't play in the game.

Alex Smith showed the positives and negatives of his more aggressive self against the Raiders last week. Smith had a great first half before giving up an interception and lost fumble early in the third quarter. The Patriots defense is lacking quality pieces at this point. They are more reliant on offenses beating themselves than them forcing offenses into mistakes. That was showcased against the Baltimore Ravens, as Joe Flacco repeatedly showed no awareness of the defense's passive approach.

The overall speed of the Chiefs offense should be problematic for a relatively slow Patriots defense. Those matchups combined with the quality of the defense should at least give the Chiefs a chance of competing with the Patriots even if the Patriots remain strong favorites in the AFC.


12 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2016, 12:36pm

1 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

Man do you guys have a rage-boner for Alex Smith. Did he piss in your shoes?

As for:
"The obvious conclusion is that you will need to be capable of matching that firepower to overcome them in a one-game sample."

Denver, NYG, and NYJ have had success against NWE without being capable of matching their firepower. Who would you rather have face off against New England, New Orleans or Kansas City?

2 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

Huh? The very next sentence describes how the team perceived to have the firepower to match NE doesn't historically play them very well, and the rest of article focuses on Kansas City's defense. I think the author agrees with you. I also don't think he was really all that hard on Smith, either.

I think the general antagonism toward Smith is this: rule changes have dramatically tilted the scales toward passing offense. The more exciting offenses out there have taken advantage of the new environment to be aggressive and push the limits of passing game production. Alex Smith on the other hand is the personification of the boring downside of this shift—it's now easier than ever to dink and dunk and screen your way to offensive success.

There's probably also an element of him getting a very, very long leash when he wasn't a very good QB and eventually settling with teams that win a lot of games primarily on the back of their running game and/or defense.

7 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

Rage-boner for Smith. I love it! Alex (lower-case) fans unite!

I know it's almost heresy to say it, but you have to give some credit to Smith's W-L record: he does what he's asked to do within the offense, and it's good enough for KC to win games. The offense has been solidly above average too--even this year when the running game has fallen off a cliff. It may not be pretty, but it works.

The offense's biggest issue (and Smith's) is on 3rd down. One almost gets the sense that the strategy is to just give up if they're forced into a 3rd down. But I think that partly comes down to coach and strategy. And the advantage of the low-ALEX approach with a good defense is that KC typically starts with solid field position.

I'm expecting KC to get to the Super Bowl this year as long as their passing rush manages to get pressure in all its playoff games. KC-NE will be a dink and dunk clinic.

8 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

Steelers example is an interesting one. On week one KC allowed 3TDs to Chargers on the first 3 drives and came back to win mostly due to Smith's play. One can use that example to prove something or can use Steelers example to prove something opposite.

6 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

The Patriots are a nightmare matchup for the Chiefs. The Pats line is starting to peak finally, and Brady has a great internal clock for how long each defender in the line can hold his block. Time after time he's stepping up to make throws at the last possible moment. Contrast that with last year when his quick release was a result of (correctly) assuming he was getting hit by 2.5 seconds at best and that blitzes wouldn't be picked up. With the confidence he has in his line, his throws will be based, not on anticipation reads, but on the actual defense he sees. And his receivers are doing a great job of being on the same page. Oh, and the hurry up is finally back, too, so bad news for substitutions and creative defensive calls. Freelancing defenders are going to get burned, not paid off.

Also, how are the Chiefs going to score on the Pats? They will need a lot of luck and creativity to manufacture points.

The Chiefs are still the Pats-lite, a team that is conservative on both sides of the ball and plays to make fewer mistakes than its opponent, which usually pays off against most non-excellent NFL teams.

This is all likely moot though, as the Chiefs road to the AFC Championship in all likelihood involves a #3 seed Steelers coming to their stadium. That won't end well for the chiefs either.

9 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

The Pats have had (I'm pretty sure) the easiest schedule in the NFL this season. While they are definitely a good team, KC just beat Denver/Atlanta/Oakland all in a row, and two of the games were on the road.

Pats are 2-1 against teams currently in the playoffs. Chiefs are 4-2, winning the last 4 straight.

Don't get me wrong, the Pats will be the favorite in that potential matchup...but you're out of your mind if you think the two teams are that far apart.

12 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

You sound like someone who has never watched KC play or read the above article. I would love a crack at NE who hasn't played ANYBODY this year. I agree NE's O line is better, but last year KC was injury ravaged at CB and pass rush. We had to put our SS Parker in the slot on Edelman because we didn't have enough healthy bodies at CB. That isn't the case this year. Finally, without Gronkowski NE is the team that doesn't have explosive skill players. KC will be lining up Travis Kelce (3x covered whole game last year) Jeremy Maclin (used as a decoy for 7 plays after bad knee injury) and Tyreek Hill (rookie). I'm not saying KC would win, but on paper NE has a huge advantage@ QB and disadvantages pretty much everywhere else.

10 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

I have a question about playoff clinching scenarios, which I realized isn't exactly related to this article, but posting here anyway in the hopes I can figure this out. (the problem with playoff scenarios, especially early enough that they involve many teams, is that it's rare to observe a complicated scenario actually happen, so you never learn why that scenario would have worked.)

According to, for the Giants to clinch this weekend, they need 4 things to happen: 1) NYG beats DET; 2) CAR beats WAS; 3) IND beats MIN; and 4) CHI beats GB. I don't understand why #4 is required. First 3 would ensure that Giants (who would finish 10-6 or better) finish ahead of WAS (who could do no better than 9-6-1) and MIN (who could do no better than 9-7). Giants could still finish behind TB/ATL non-division-winner (either of which will have the tiebreaker over the Giants in any scenario because of better conference record) for one wild card spot. GB wins this weekend they can still go 10-6, and would have a tiebreaker over the Giants because of head-to-head — but if they did so they would win the division (GB and DET play each other in week 17; GB getting to at 10-6 means DET either 10-6, with GB winning and Giants having tiebreaker over DET, or DET 9-7). Giants would get 2nd wild card spot at least.

How am I wrong?

11 Re: Film Room: K.C.'s Playoff Odds

If NYG finishes 10-6, DET finishes 10-6, and GB finishes 10-6, NYG can end up tied with DET and either TB or ATL, all at 10-6. That means NYG's head-to-head victory over Detroit wouldn't matter, as head-to-head only applies in a three-way tie if one team has beaten, or lost to, BOTH other teams.

Here are the NFL tiebreakers. Three-way ties for the wildcard are covered under the third header. To wit:

Tiebreaker 1 would not apply, as there is not more than one club per division tied for the WC spot.

Tiebreaker 2 would not apply, because neither NFCS team has played either DET or NYG.

Tiebreaker 3, conference record, would then see the Giants at 7-5, 10-6 DET at 8-4 (currently 7-2, adding losses to NYG and GB and a win vs DAL), and either ATL or TB at no worse than 8-4 (both currently 6-3, all three remaining games in conference, would need to go 2-1 in those games to reach 10-6). NYG would lose out on this tiebreaker, and DET plus ATL/TB would advance.

If GB loses or ties, scenario 3 is impossible as 10-6 DET would advance as division champions and GB could not finish better than 9-6-1. NYG and ATL/TB would claim the wild card spots.