3:05 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -10, Over/Under: 51
The NFL Playoffs march on as two of the league’s premier young Quarterbacks face off in the Divisional Round, as the Kansas City Chiefs play host to the Houston Texans from Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. If you’re looking for a dark horse to potentially advance to Super Bowl LIII, you may want to consider the Texans (10-6, 1st in AFC South), who in many ways have done everything they can in order to reach this point. For the fourth time in the last five years, Houston managed to rise to the top of a habitually mediocre AFC South, though have routinely crashed out of the Playoffs for a variety of reasons, going 1-3 in the Postseason under Head Coach, Bill O’Brien, heading into last weekend’s meeting with the Buffalo Bills. After getting embarrassed by division rival, the Indianapolis Colts, 7-21 in last year’s Wild Card, the club made a wealth of moves with an eye of finally getting over that particular hump in the Playoffs. It all started with O’Brien essentially assuming control of personnel following the ousting of former General Manager, Brian Gaine, which would lead to a flurry of transactions both before and during the season in an attempt to repair the considerable flaws that had plagued the team in recent years. The veteran Head Coach initially came off as if he was at a supermarket, bartering off a cadre of premium Draft Picks and players (I.E. Jadeveon Clowney) in exchange for the likes of Franchise Offensive Tackle, Laremy Tunsil, veteran Receiver, Kenny Stills (40 REC, 561 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 4 TD), wantaway Tailbacks, Duke Johnson (83 CAR, 410 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 2 TD) and Carlos Hyde (245 CAR, 1,070 YDS, 4.4 Y/C, 6 TD), along with young, castaway Cornerbacks, Gareon Conley (50 TKL, 1 INT, 13 PD) and Vernon Hargreaves (61 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 TD, 6 PD). Each of these players were acquired with designs on improving respective trouble areas; Tunsil was obviously brought in to stabilize a porous Offensive Line that allowed a league-worst Sixty-Two Sacks in 2018, with Stills bringing depth to the Receiving Corps, while both Johnson and Hyde were to fill the void left by Pro-Bowl Tailback Lamar Miller, who was lost for the season before it even began with a torn ACL. The Defensive Backs were added midseason and later, but all in all, we’ll give O’Brien credit for moving mountains to fill the holes on his roster, which by and large these players have all done. In respect to the others, Tunsil’s addition has been the most significant, for it has ensured that their Franchise Quarterback, Deshaun Watson (67.3%, 3,852 YDS, 6.67 NY/A, 26 TD, 12 INT, 69.5 QBR), will enjoy better protection on his blindside than he had through his previous two years as the Starter. Coming into 2019, Watson was sacked a whopping eighty-one times in Twenty-Three Games, or in other words on 10.3% of his Dropbacks, even missing the entire second half of his rookie campaign due to a torn ACL of his own. Though he’s still been prone to a rash of pressure from time to time, the 24-Year Old has been the recipient of generally better protection this season; Watson was sacked on forty-four occasions this term for a percentage of 8.2%, which is a career-best for the young Signal-Caller. Granted, his playing style will always lend towards taking hits from the Defense, but at the end of the day, you’re going to have to live with that because he’s proven on so many occasions that he can make the requisite plays to win games. Look no further than this past weekend’s narrow 22-19 victory over the Bills in Overtime for proof of this. The Texans looked overly lethargic early, falling into an 0-13 hole at Halftime, with the Offense struggling mightily as Buffalo’s Defense continuously pressured Watson, logging four of their Seven Sacks in the First Half, as the hosts could muster a meager Eighty-One Total Yards and Three Punts over that period. Following another Punt to open the Third Quarter and a Lost Fumble from All-Pro Receiver, DeAndre Hopkins (104 REC, 1,165 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 7 TD), on the following Drive, the visiting side extended their lead to sixteen points. And this is where Houston finally woke up, folks, with their young Quarterback putting his team on his shoulders. Watson would engineer a stellar 9-Play, 75-Yard Drive, in which he would escape the Pocket and run free down the right sideline for a 20-Yard Touchdown, followed immediately by calling his own number on the ensuing Two-point Conversion. After stopping Buffalo and regaining possession, he would again drive his team deep into Bills’ territory, where Place Kicker, Ka’imi Fairbairn, would drill a 41-Yard Field Goal to cut the deficit to five. Then following a 3 & Out, they would march Sixty-Nine Yards downfield in Eight Plays, with Watson finding Hyde inside the Red Zone for a 5-Yard Touchdown, with another Two-point Conversion, this time to Hopkins, granting them a 19-16 lead. With the Defense forcing a Turnover on Downs, Houston had an opportunity to ice the contest altogether, but would turn it right back over themselves, as Watson was stopped on a controversial 4th & 1 at Buffalo’s 30-Yard Line. From there, the Bills would drive all the way to the Texans’ 29-Yard Line, setting up their own Field Goal Attempt that would square away the affair at 19-19 heading into Overtime. The extra period would see each team possess the football, with the hosts making the most of their second chance, beginning from their own 17-Yard Line and traveling Seventy-Three Yards in Nine Plays, with Fairbairn driving home the walk-off 28-Yard Field Goal to advance to the Divisional Round. It was far from a perfect performance on either side of the football for O’Brien’s charges, with Watson completing an efficient 20-of-25 Passes for 247 Yards and a Touchdown, while rushing for Fifty-Five Yards and another score on Fourteen Attempts, though was sacked a whopping seven times for a loss of Twenty-Eight Yards. The Defense, which was on the field for virtually the entire First Half, bended but ultimately refused to break, allowing 425 Total Yards, including 172 of the rushing variety on Thirty Carries, and 11-of-21 Third Downs, but received it’s boost from the return of three-time Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt (24 TKL, 4 TFL, 21 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD), who had missed the previous eight games with a torn pectoral muscle. Watt was a menace throughout the Second Half, with a Sack, a Tackle for Loss and a pair of Hits on Bills Quarterback, Josh Allen, as Buffalo could muster 129 Yards and a scant Three Points with a pair of Turnovers on their final Five Drives. Saturday’s victory marked just the fourth in the Playoffs in franchise history, all of which have occurred at NRG Stadium. They’ll hope that a boost on the offensive side of the football with the return of vertical threat, Will Fuller (49 REC, 670 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 3 TD), will bring some more dynamism to the Offense, which will be needed after he missed last weekend’s affair with a tender groin, particularly against the high-flying Chiefs.
Meanwhile, for the fifth consecutive season, the Chiefs (12-4, 1st in AFC West) find themselves in the Playoffs, and figure to be one of the favorites to advance to Super Bowl LIII and claim that elusive Lombardi Trophy. By now, we should all be familiar with Kansas City’s history in the Postseason, which by all means is really rather mediocre, all things considered; since winning Super Bowl IV back in 1969, this is a franchise that has gone a dreadful 5-17 since then, with last year’s 31-13 trumping of the Indianapolis Colts ending a dubious home losing streak in the Playoffs that had lasted a quarter of a century. However, the elation of that victory would be short-lived, for their ensuing meeting with the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game would leave the bitterest of tastes in their collective mouths. In an epic, 31-37 defeat that required Overtime to claim a victor, Andy Reid’s charges spent the majority of the contest reacting to a masterful game plan from the visiting side; the Pats possessed the football for a staggering 43:59, amassing Thirty-Six First Downs and 524 Total Yards, converting a ridiculous 13-of-19 Third Downs, along with a very crucial Fourth Down. New England manufactured five different Drives of Sixty-Five Yards or more, with their first and last encompassing Fifteen and Thirteen Plays respectively, the latter of which ended the affair in walk-off fashion in the first (and only) possession of Overtime. There were numerous instances in that matchup in which the hosts simply couldn’t get off the field no matter the circumstances, which ultimately served as the inspiration for Reid’s complete overhaul of the Defense. Yes, we could go on and on in this column about the exploits of reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes (65.9%, 4,031 YDS, 7.79 NY/A, 26 TD, 5 INT, 78.0 QBR), who despite missing a pair of games with a knee injury still managed to throw for 4,031 Yards and Twenty-Six Touchdowns, or the likes of speed demon, Tyreek Hill (58 REC, 860 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 7 TD), who himself missed four outings with a fractured collarbone, or even prolific Tight End, Travis Kelce (97 REC, 1,229 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 5 TD), with each of them selected to the 2019 Pro Bowl, but no we’ll refrain from waxing poetic about their playmakers for a change. Above all else, this season was about the Chiefs’ Defense, which will in all likelihood control their fate moving forward in these Playoffs. As we stated earlier, that defeat to the Patriots was indeed the final straw for Reid, who promptly fired Defensive Coordinator, Bob Sutton, eventually replacing him with one of his previous assistants from his days with the Philadelphia Eagles, Steve Spagnuolo. Of course, at this point everyone should be well acquainted with Spagnuolo, who rose to prominence as the New York Giants’ Defensive Coordinator in 2007, whose magnum opus was crafting a masterful defensive game plan of his own, denying the previously unbeaten Patriots another Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLII. Since then, he’s never come close to reaching those heights, floundering as the St. Louis Rams Head Coach from 2009 to 2011 (10-38, .208), followed by brief stints with the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens before returning to his previous post with the Giants in 2015, eventually serving as Interim Head Coach for the final four contests of 2017. Reid also overhauled the personnel quite a bit to aid the transition to Spagnuolo’s preferences, adding the likes of Defensive Ends, Frank Clark (37 TKL, 12 TFL, 13 QBH, 8.0 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Emmanuel Ogbah (32 TKL, 6 TFL, 11 QBH, 5.5 SK, 1 FF, 3 PD), alongside Defensive Backs, Tyrann Mathieu (75 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 2.0 SK, 4 INT, 12 PD) and Bashaud Breeland (48 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 FR, 1 TD, 2 INT, 8 PD), via Free Agency and Trades, while giving Undrafted Free Agent, Juan Thornhill (57 TKL, 3 INT, 1 TD, 5 PD), an opportunity to flourish at Cornerback. By any measure, this process always looked like it was going to be a lengthy one, which was precisely the case as the Chiefs really struggled to get on the same page throughout the first half of the campaign. Through the first ten games, Kansas City allowed an average of 23.9 Points on 369.5 Total Yards, with a Turnover Differential of Plus-2, all the while posting a 6-4 record. However, the figures in their four defeats during that span were the most telling of all, with their opponents going all out to copy the blueprint that New England enforced so mercilessly last January. In defeats to the Colts (13-19), Texans (24-31), Packers (24-31), and Titans (32-35), the Defense was gouged for an average of 29.0 Points per Game on 387.0 Total Yards, pummeling them to the tune of 178.8 Rushing Yards. Of course, successfully running the football typically leads to moving the chains, and moving the chains leads to chewing up time of possession which is exactly what these teams did to the Chiefs, forcing Mahomes and the Offense to bide their time in frustration before they could return to the field of play. Obviously limiting the Offense’s possessions guarantees a closer contest, which is really all the opponents want in this case, which the Texans worked to impressive effect in their particular trip to Arrowhead; Houston controlled the flow of the game, possessing the football for an insane 39:48, rushing for 192 Yards on Forty-One Carries and accumulating a staggering Thirty-Five First Downs, with the hosts by comparison only having the ball for a scant 20:12. Fortunately, Spagnuolo’s message eventually began to hit home, with the Defense finally rounding into form over the final third of the term; over the last six games heading into the Playoffs, the Chiefs have relegated opponents to an average of just 11.5 Points on 298.5 Total Yards, limiting each of their final four foes below 300 Yards, while altogether owning a Plus-6 Turnover Differential. Oh, and their record during this stretch? An unbeaten 6-0, which is why so many are tabbing this team to represent the AFC at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami in three weeks time. One would have to imagine that they would be licking their chops for another shot at Watson and the Texans, for this time around they’ll have Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle, Chris Jones (36 TKL, 8 TFL, 20 QBH, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD), and Left Tackle, Eric Fisher, who both missed that particular meeting with respective injuries, while the aforementioned Hill, made his return after missing the previous four outings with that collarbone malady.