Travis Kelce Primed for Big Game Against Jaguars

Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Divisional - In one corner stand the Kansas City Chiefs, the closest thing to a juggernaut we have in the NFL today. They have won 12 games or more in every season since 2018, and have reached the AFC Championship Game in each of the last four seasons. They're heavy favorites to reach the AFC title game again for the moment. They are the measuring stick, and Patrick Mahomes is the league's most valuable and important player. They did what they did this year despite a massive pass offense overhaul in the absence of Tyreek Hill. Mahomes made it work anyway.

In the other corner stand the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have drafted outside of the top 10 once since 2007. After taking his lumps (perhaps this is too kind) in the first half of his first playoff game, Trevor Lawrence delivered a scintillating comeback win over the Chargers. The Jaguars are flying as high as they ever have at any point since 2017. Nothing that they have done this year would lead us to believe that they have a shot to knock off a rested Chiefs team at home in the divisional round. At the same time, Doug Pederson and Lawrence give them a puncher's chance. Kansas City's defense is not quite the same level of daunting as what the Chargers designed against Jacksonville before adjustments and an untimely injury to Michael Davis.

Jacksonville was sent limping home after a 20-0 Chiefs lead against them in Week 10 was crockpotted into a 27-17 win. They were not in the right class of team. The Jaguars will need to channel their inner Miluda for the comeback game.

Final Fantasy Graphic

(Please do not tell any Jaguars fans what happens to Miluda in Final Fantasy Tactics—spoilers for a 25-year-old game will not be tolerated.)

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  JAX KC
DVOA 3.3% (13) 23.0% (4)
WEI DVOA 5.4% (14) 29.7% (3)
Jaguars on Offense
  JAX OFF KC DEF
DVOA 7.7% (9) 1.4% (17)
WEI DVOA 7.1% (9) -2.9% (14)
PASS 27.1% (6) 6.5% (20)
RUSH -7.5% (20) -6.9% (15)
Chiefs on Offense
  JAX DEF KC OFF
DVOA 6.1% (26) 25.2% (1)
WEI DVOA 6.3% (25) 27.5% (1)
PASS 19.7% (30) 41.1% (1)
RUSH -11.8% (11) 1.3% (9)
Special Teams
  JAX KC
DVOA 1.7% (11) -0.9% (19)

If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL

JAX Week-to-Week DVOA

The Chiefs took a step forward on defense this year, coming up from 24th in defensive DVOA to 17th. The big difference? They were 15th in run defense DVOA, where they were actually in negative numbers for the second straight season. That's the highest finish the Chiefs have in run defense DVOA since 2015. Second-round linebacker Nick Bolton, who played extensively as a rookie in 2021 and has been a full-timer in 2022, deserves more air space for how well the Chiefs have turned things around here.

The Jaguars did have some success against the Chiefs in Week 10 with the run, it's just one of those things that is hard to do when you trail 20-0. Travis Etienne rushed 11 times for 45 yards, and there were plenty of yards before contact to be had. In an ideal world, the Jaguars would be able to slowly milk some clock and run a methodical offense where the pass leads to the run. The problem is that, as Week 10 demonstrated, the Jaguars don't have much in the way of advantages when they do throw the ball.

While the Chiefs were 20th in pass defense DVOA, they also a) were closer to 16th than 21st, and b) broke in enough newcomers and dealt with enough early injuries that it's hard to take that number purely on face value. Kansas City's nine worst games in pass defense DVOA were all over 10.0%, but only three of them came after Week 6. Those were games against a fully healthy Mike Williams/Keenan Allen Chargers offense, a fully healthy Tee Higgins/Ja'Marr Chase Bengals offense, and, somehow, the Texans in Week 15. (The Texans only completed 14 passes in that game, but they were all huge, and Houston also managed to draw a few big defensive pass interference penalties.)

L'Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie both had seasons that may have been more impressive than you thought. McDuffie only played 11 games, but his 5.0 yards allowed per target was fifth best among any cornerback with at least 10 games started per SIS. Sneed was just outside the top 20 with 6.2 yards allowed per target. It is factually true that Christian Kirk had a 9-105-2 statline against the Chiefs in Week 10, while Zay Jones went 8-68-0 on 10 targets. It is also true that Kirk did this mostly in pure man coverage because the Chiefs were comfortable letting their cornerbacks play on an island. No other Jaguars pass-catcher had more than four targets in that game.

And that's because the Chiefs spent most of Week 10 feeding into a few things that are true:

  • Trevor Lawrence was worse throwing into man coverage on the season, with only a 43% success rate as compared to 51% against zone.
  • The Chiefs are eighth in defensive DVOA when they blitz (-13.6%) and 24th when they don't (13.9%), so they blitzed Lawrence (per Sportradar) 14 times in 45 dropbacks in Week 10. They sacked him five times.
  • The Chiefs also run more man coverage than almost anybody in the league—a 54.8% rate that ranks fourth in the NFL behind the Jets, Texans, Browns, and 49ers. The 49ers were ahead of Kansas City by just 0.1%.

So the Chiefs ran man coverage, blitzed, and asked the Jaguars to deal with it. Clearly Kirk had some success. Not only do the Jaguars need that to repeat itself, but they also need a secondary target to pop up and do damage. Subjectively, if you were asking me, I'd be trying to make that target Evan Engram instead of Zay Jones. I don't think that Jones has played consistently enough even in his expanded role to make me want to count on him in man or press-man with a series on the line on third down. He could only turn four of his 10 targets into first downs in Week 10.

But as Pederson made adjustments late in the game, the Jaguars did close in a bit after the Chiefs led 20-0. (In a way it was a predecessor to their wild-card comeback, just an unsuccessful one.) Lawrence can make these throws even if he did not do it consistently this season. How well the Jaguars are able to manage those conditions, along with the pressure that comes from them, is a major question mark in how competitive this game will be.

The other factor there will be Chris Jones—if it's possible to be an underlooked star in Kansas City's dynasty, Jones has managed it. Jones had 1.5 of the five sacks against Lawrence in Week 10. Both center Luke Fortner and guard Brandon Scherff spent time limited by injury this week, and Scherff is dealing with a multiple-week abdomen injury. The Chargers did get pressure up the middle last week at times despite not blitzing much. Now the heat will really be turned up on that interior line for Jacksonville in the divisional round.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

KC Week-to-Week DVOA

The Chiefs are not as bad running the ball as you might think if your only exposure to them is fantasy football. They're ninth in rush offense DVOA, and the Jacksonville game in Week 10 was one of a few times where they were successfully able to just sit on an opponent with the run game. They were able to run for 115 or more total yards in six of their last nine games, and while the raw numbers looked bad against Denver in Week 17, they still had a 10.1% rush DVOA in that game.

Given how running the ball is a matchup-on-matchup thing, I have some faith that it matters that the Chiefs were able to carve out 155 rushing yards on 27 carries against the Jaguars. You would not attack the Jaguars this way as a general concept if you were building the game on paper—the Chiefs have the No. 1 passing DVOA and the best quarterback alive, and the Jaguars have been much more vulnerable through the air than on the ground. Still, it means something to me that the Chiefs could reliably get some yards on the ground in Week 10.

The Chiefs were able to turn Week 10 into something akin to a Kadarius Toney trial week:

Toney had just been made active for the first time following his trade from the Giants, and the Chiefs used him to horizontally spread the Jaguars thin. Jacksonville traditionally this year has been more vulnerable up the middle. They were 32nd in DVOA allowed to tight ends on six targets per game, and also 32nd in passes targeting the short middle. What the Chiefs did was take the elements of those rankings and spread them out to the point where Toney was completely uncovered on a goal-to-go snap for his touchdown. With Mecole Hardman (pelvis) ruled out on Thursday, Toney again figures to factor heavily into the show. Jerick McKinnon led the team in targets against the Jaguars and should again be a major part of the misdirection passing attack. Those two will be pitted against a Jaguars defense that ranks 29th with an 11.8% broken tackle rate, and they'll likely be in position to benefit.

Oh, right, the Chiefs also have Travis Kelce, don't they? Well, Travis Kelce will be here again. He only—only—went for 6-81-1 on seven targets in Week 10. But he also only played 73% of the snaps, his second-lowest rate of the season, because the Chiefs built that 20-0 lead. It is emerging as chalk in daily fantasy to use Mahomes and Kelce and, well, I can't tell you I have any reason to believe that to not be wise. If Kelce had to play the whole game, he likely would have gone over 100 yards.

Now, as we mentioned last week, the Jaguars as a pass defense have been extremely reliant on pass pressure:

They're fourth in the NFL with a 28.0% rate, and Josh Allen finished with 44 individual pressures, fourth-highest in the league. When Jacksonville does poorly as a pass defense, it is a lack of pressure. They managed just six pressures in 43 Jared Goff dropbacks in Week 13, four pressures in 35 dropbacks against Patrick Mahomes in Week 9, and 10 in 58 dropbacks against Matt Ryan in Week 6 despite blitzing 18 times (all data from Sportradar)—those were their three worst defensive DVOA games of the season.

And, let's see, they are playing the Chiefs again, and all we have heard is that "that wasn't us." OK, but Patrick Mahomes plays the position like an alien! The Chiefs are 27th in the NFL in pressure rate allowed. It's just that Mahomes doesn't do what normal quarterbacks do against pressure. He does something more like this:

Now, Mahomes actually did wind up with a lower DVOA this year when blitzed (29.6% DVOA vs. 44.7% DVOA), but I don't think the Chiefs are particularly worried about that. Perhaps this turns into a game where the Jaguars blitz a lot and then Mahomes finds Marquez Valdes-Scantling deep. The Jaguars only blitzed Mahomes three times in 35 dropbacks and probably will only turn to it if they feel desperate.

SPECIAL TEAMS

We went over Jacksonville's ratings last week. Riley Patterson hit his lone field-goal attempt for the game-winner against L.A., while Logan Cooke's punts led to an end-of-half kneelout, a three-and-out deep in Chargers territory, and a three-and-out at midfield after one was shanked out of bounds. Jamal Agnew had an impressive 36-yard return to spark the Jaguars to their second touchdown of the game, and also had a 52-yarder that was spoiled by a Lawrence interception. It's also worth noting that the last time these teams played, the Jaguars tried and successfully covered an onside kick to open the game.

The Chiefs are actually having a down special teams season. They finished 19th overall and haven't been lower than that since 2012—they're a perennial top-10 special teams DVOA squad. The two major weak points have been at returner and kicker, two areas where the team has had to cycle candidates. Five different Chiefs returned punts and four different Chiefs returned kicks. Isiah Pacheco has been the main kick returner this year, but the Chiefs have wanted to get him more involved in the offense. Toney has returned punts the last few weeks and has just 61 yards to show for it. Meanwhile, some of the special teams rating is stuck in a mid-season injury to Harrison Butker. Kansas City's other three kickers (including Justin Reid) went 6-of-8 on field goals and 12-of-14 on extra points. Butker has struggled relative to his past performance by missing six field goals and three extra points of his own.

OUTLOOK

This does feel, on paper, like the least interesting of the four divisional games. One of these teams has Patrick Mahomes, and the other has a player that may turn into a Mahomes foil someday but—even last week—could only mix incredible throws with disastrous ones. Not to take anything away from Pederson and the Jags coaching staff, but it feels like what the Giants have done is a step ahead of the Jaguars this year, and that gives them a little more appeal amongst the week's major underdogs.

I believe the Jaguars still have a chance—they will need to take more longshot gambits and get a little risky, but they have the talent to win an "everything goes right" sort of game. They clearly have no problems unburying from big leads. They will need a better defensive strategy, though, because Mahomes and Andy Reid do not create the kind of game plan that mainlines Blown Lead vibes like the Chargers do.

The most likely outcome? The Chiefs set up a date—be it at home or in Atlanta—for the AFC Championship Game.

 

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

3 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2023, 12:23pm

#1 by Legion // Jan 20, 2023 - 2:15pm

I didn’t pay attention to the byline when I clicked on the article, but when I got to the FF Tactics screenshot, I knew.

The Jags are 7-1 since Jaxson de Ville put on the speedo. The team that lost to KC doesn’t exist anymore.

”No one cared who I was until I put on the m̶a̶s̶k̶ speedo.”

Points: 1

#3 by DocPossum // Jan 21, 2023 - 12:23pm

Not just a FFT reference, but one to a fairly minor character. Guess you coulda gone with the Jags need to go from Wiegraf to Velius.

Points: 0

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