AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts

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Andrew Luck and the Colts will try and beat the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks

AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts

The 2013 NFL playoffs will kick off Saturday with a Week 16 rematch when the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts square off in the AFC Wild Card game at 4:35 p.m. ET on NBC. Andy Reid’s Chiefs (11-5) should be at near full strength for the first time in more than a month while Chuck Pagano’s Colts (11-5) appear to be peaking at the right time.

After starting out the season 9-0, Kansas City lost five of their final seven games, including a 23-7 setback at home to Indianapolis just two weeks ago. The Chiefs also haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 Divisional Round, as their seven-game postseason losing streak is tied with Detroit for the longest in NFL history. Included in this streak are three losses to the Colts, the most recent being a 23-8 home defeat in the 2006 Wild Card game.

Indianapolis won the AFC South with a perfect 6-0 divisional record and also defeated Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC respectively, as well as San Francisco during the regular season. After playing uneven to open the second half of their schedule, the Colts finished with a flourish, winning their final three games by a combined score of 78-20. Now Andrew Luck will look to keep the momentum going at home, put an end to Indianapolis’ own three-game postseason skid and earn his first career playoff victory in the process.

3 Things to Watch

Round One
Two weeks ago, Indianapolis, 9-5 at the time, entered its Week 16 game against Kansas City (11-3) as the underdog and in the midst of a six-game stretch in which the Colts traded losses and wins. Meanwhile, the Chiefs had seemingly righted the ship after dropping three in a row (two of those to Denver) at home, beating the Redskins and Raiders on the road by a combined score of 101-41. Back at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs jumped out to 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Charles, only to watch the visiting team take over from there. Indianapolis scored the final 23 points of the game, as Andrew Luck threw for 241 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers and Donald Brown scored two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) to supply most of the offense. On defense, the Colts gave up 155 yards rushing, including 106 to Charles, but limited Alex Smith to just 153 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced a total of four turnovers (three by Smith) to hold the Chiefs scoreless for the final 50 minutes of the game.

Indianapolis’ Momentum
The Colts opened this season strong, winning five of their first seven games, including home contests against Seattle and Denver and on the road against San Francisco. Coming out of their Week 8 bye, however, Indianapolis struggled to find any consistency or rhythm. A road wins against Houston was followed up by a 38-8 home shellacking administered by St. Louis, while a victory in Nashville over Tennessee preceded a 40-11 beatdown in Arizona. This win-then-lose pattern continued for two more weeks until the Colts handily defeated the defending AFC South champion Texans, 25-3, in Lucas Oil Stadium. That was the start of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season in which Indianapolis beat Houston, Kansas City and Jacksonville by an average of 19.3 points per game. Both sides of the ball have been clicking lately, as the offense has displayed balance and the defense has stiffened up. The offense has averaged 359 yards per game during this stretch, its best three-game run since early in the season, while the defense held teams to 292 yards per contest and forced a total of seven turnovers. Put it all together and Chuck Pagano’s team appears to be peaking at just the right time and now gets to face a Chiefs squad it just beat two weeks ago. What’s more, this game will be on the Colts’ home turf, on which they went 6-2 during the regular season, including wins over Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC playoffs, respectively. There’s little question that Indianapolis comes into this one with plenty of momentum on its side. The question now is can the Colts capitalize on it to produce a fourth straight win?

Kansas City’s Reinforcements
The Chiefs roared out to a 9-0 start, but limped home with a 2-5 finish due in large part to injuries. That’s the main reason why Andy Reid rested 20 of 22 starters in the regular-season finale in San Diego, a game that the Chiefs had a chance to win on a 41-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop at the end of regulation. It was not meant to be however, as Succop’s kick just missed to the right (and the referees missed a penalty on the Chargers that would have resulted in another shot from 36 yards away), giving the Chargers a second chance. San Diego made the most of the extra period, winning the game with a field goal in overtime and snatching the final playoff spot in the AFC from Pittsburgh in the process. While the Chiefs’ postseason berth had been secured two weeks prior, it didn’t take away the fact that Kansas City finished the regular season with two straight losses. The good news, however, is that the Chiefs should be back to near full strength for their rematch with the Colts, as linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, along with left tackle Branden Albert are all expected to play. Houston (dislocated elbow) and Hali (swelling in the knee) could be difference-makers for a defense that has struggled for the past two months. After allowing just 12.3 points per game in the first seven games, the Chiefs have given up 27.7 over their last seven contests. Houston, who has missed the past five games, and Hali have combined for 22 of the team’s 47 sacks. In the past five games, Kansas City has collected 10 sacks, but six of those came in one game (at Washington), and the defense had just one of Andrew Luck in the Week 16 home loss to Indianapolis. The pass rush has been one of the signatures of this Chiefs defense and it appears it will be closer to 100 percent for the most important game of the season to date. On offense, don’t underestimate the return of Albert either. He has missed the past four games and his presence is even more important now that fellow tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, injured his groin in practice on Tuesday, putting his status up in the air. The offense needs Albert to help open up space for Jamaal Charles on the ground and to give Alex Smith enough time in the pocket to make some plays. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe also has been cleared to return after missing last week’s game due to a concussion he sustained in the first meeting against the Colts. Which Kansas City team – the one that started 9-0 or the one that lost five of its final seven games – shows up in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but at least the starting lineup should look more like the former rather than the latter.

Kansas City Key Player: Jamaal Charles, RB
Besides leading the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards, Charles is the Chiefs’ leading receiver with 70 catches for 693 yards and he led the entire NFL in touchdowns with 19 (12 rush, 7 receiving). Put it all together and Charles is responsible for more than a third (36.6 percent) of Kansas City’s total offense (1,980 of 5,396 yards) and nearly half (46.3 percent) of the team’s offensive touchdowns. Simply put, Charles is the Chiefs’ offense and he needs to put up big numbers against the Colts to take the pressure off of quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game, as well as a defense that’s been reeling lately. In the first meeting against Indianapolis in Week 16, Charles staked Kansas City to a 7-0 lead and finished the game with 106 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving. The biggest problem was that he touched the ball just 18 times, which tied for his second-fewest of the season. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs managed just seven points and posted the third-fewest offensive yards (287) on the season in the home loss. The Colts finished 26th in the league in rushing defense, giving up 125.1 yards per game. Charles averaged 132 total yards per game, so there’s no reason to not expect him to get 20-plus touches this time around, especially if the Chiefs want to put themselves in a position to survive and advance.

Indianapolis Key Player: Andrew Luck, QB
Luck has already done something that his predecessor, Peyton Manning, didn’t accomplish during his tenure in Indianapolis. Luck, the former Stanford star and No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, has led the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, posting 11-5 marks both years. Manning went 3-13 in his 1998 rookie campaign before turning that record completely around and winning the AFC East the following season. Now Luck will try and beat Manning to another milestone by winning his first career playoff game in just his second try. Manning lost his first three postseason contests before taking the Colts to the AFC Championship Game in 2003, where they lost to the Patriots. Luck’s second postseason game will come at home, and he knows better than anyone that he must improve on his first playoff effort to put his team in a position to win. In last season’s AFC Wild Card game in Baltimore, Luck completed just 28 of 54 passes for 288 yards with an interception and he also lost a fumble after a sack. The Ravens, who were the No. 4 seed, went on to win Super Bowl XLVII over San Francisco, a path the Colts would no doubt love to copy. The first step is beating the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks. However, as his predecessor will attest to, regular-season success doesn’t automatically carry over to the playoffs. Luck has already demonstrated he’s a quick study, increasing his completion percentage by more than six points (54.1 to 60.2) and cutting his interceptions in half (18 to 9) from his rookie season to this one. Now’s the time to find out if his maturation process carries over to the games that count the most.

Final Analysis

Indianapolis enters this rematch with Kansas City playing its best football of the season. The Colts are at home, where they have already beaten the Seahawks and Broncos, and also have a road win against the Chiefs under their belt. Kansas City struggled to close the season out, but injuries played a big hand in its 2-5 finish and Andy Reid basically treated the finale against San Diego as a bye week. The Chiefs should be close to full strength for this game, and the defense has already shown on multiple occasions that it’s capable of dominating the opposition.

As well as the Colts have played lately, I think one of the keys in this game will be the Chiefs’ re-energized pass rush. Kansas City had 47 sacks in the regular season, and Indianapolis has had its issues with teams that can pressure the pocket. Andrew Luck had little trouble with the Chiefs’ defense in the first game, but Kansas City wasn’t close to 100 percent on that side of the ball. This time, I am expecting Luck to be under more duress, and the Colts don’t have a running back like Jamaal Charles in their backfield to take the pressure off of their quarterback.

In the end, Kansas City returns to the formula that produced a 9-0 start – a heavy dose of Charles combined with a relentless pass rush and opportunistic defense – and make just enough plays in the second half to keep a scrappy Indianapolis team at bay. The Chiefs put an end to their seven-game losing streak in the playoffs while the Colts’ grows to four in a row, as Luck gets a second taste of the postseason disappointment that his predecessor experienced early in his career.

Kansas City 27, Indianapolis 23

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