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A pair of playoff-bound teams preview a likely wild card game
Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs welcome Andrew Luck and the AFC South champion Colts into Arrowhead for a 1:00 p.m. ET game on CBS that will likely be a preview for a playoff matchup just two weeks from now. If the season ended today, Kansas City, as the five seed, would be on its way to Indianapolis to take on the Colts, as the four seed, in one of the AFC's two wild card games.
Kansas City, despite its impressive 11-3 record has been unable to supplant Denver, who has defeated them twice this year. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has taken full advantage of playing in the NFL's worst division, where the other three teams have a combined win percentage of .262.
After starting the season at 6-2 with wins over Denver, Seattle and San Francisco, the Colts have gone 3-3 since. In that six-week span Indy has been blown out by St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have won their last two games after dropping three straight. Despite the 11-3 record, the Chiefs only have a single win against a team, the Eagles, with a plus .500 record.
The Colts are 11-8 in the regular season and 3-0 in the playoffs against the Chiefs. The matchup between these two teams came almost exactly one year ago in which the Colts won 20-13, despite 226 yards rushing from Jamaal Charles.
3 Things to Watch
Who can stop Jamaal Charles?
Anyone who owns or was playing against Charles in fantasy football last week can now appreciate his game-breaking abilities. Against Oakland, his 215 yards from scrimmage were a season-high and four receiving touchdowns were the most by a running back in a single game in NFL history. Charles is responsible for 37 percent of the Chiefs' rushing and receiving yards this season. That's the league high for any player on his team. On the season he is fourth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Where Charles separates himself is the extra dimension he brings with his 655 receiving yards, seven touchdowns and 630 yards after the catch. Charles has posted over 100 yards from scrimmage in 12 of 14 games in 2013, with seven games over 80 yards rushing and four games with over 50 yards receiving. Charles is a touchdown machine with 10 over the last month of play. He should find room to run against a Colts defense that has allowed 13 rushing touchdowns and enters this game as the NFL's 27th-ranked rushing defense, allowing 128.9 yards per game.
Reliable Alex Smith vs. Inconsistent Andrew Luck
A major part of the recipe for success in Kansas City has been the remarkably steady play of Alex Smith. Smith is coming off of his best game as a pro, in which he posted a perfect passer rating and threw for five touchdowns against Oakland. Smith has just one game with more than a single interception and has just four other games in which he's thrown even a single pick. He has posted nine games with over an 80 quarterback rating, with six games with a 94.0 rating or higher. Smith is throwing nearly four touchdowns for every interception, which ranks as one of the best ratios in the NFL. While he doesn't pile up the yardage, with zero 300-yard games, he succeeds at protecting the ball and making quick decisions. Smith certainly has a great deal of talent around him, which is why his style of play in 2013 has been the perfect addition to the Chiefs' offense. On the other hand, Andrew Luck hasn't been getting much help in Indy, which may be the reason for much of his inconsistency. Luck himself has only three 300-yard passing games. In fact, over the last month Luck has 200 yards or less in three of four games. Luck has struggled with his accuracy, as he has seven games with a completion percentage in the fifties. After throwing three interceptions in the first eight games, he has thrown eight touchdowns to six interceptions in the last six. Over the first seven games of the season, Luck's passer rating was 92.8; however, since Reggie Wayne went down in Week 7, Luck's passer rating has dropped to a mediocre 79.9.
Both teams bring excellent pass-rushers into this game. The Colts boast the NFL's current leader in sacks, with 16.5, and all-time leader in strip sacks, with 42. That man is Robert Mathis, who has 4.5 more sacks than anyone in the AFC, and accounts for 49 percent of Indianapolis' sacks. Meanwhile, Kansas City is third in the NFL with 43 sacks, as their roster is chock full of elite pass-rushers. The combination of outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who have each accounted for 11 sacks, makes it impossible for an offensive line to slide protection in any one direction. The Chiefs also register sacks from other positions on the field as defensive tackle Dontari Poe has 4.5 and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry each have 3.5. The good news for Indy is that Houston, who was expected to play this week, has been progressing slower than expected and will likely remain shelved due to an elbow injury for the sixth straight week.
Key Player for Indianapolis: T.Y. Hilton, WR
Hilton is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury for today's game. Hilton's absence would be huge as he has been Luck's top option since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL. Hilton's eight-catch, 78-yard performance last week was the best game he'd had since a pair of back-to-back 110-yard games in early November. Despite his struggles over the second half of the year, Indianapolis lacks any proven receiving threat behind him. If Hilton sits, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Da'Rick Rogers, who have a combined 37 receptions, will see a bigger role in the offense.
Key Player for Kansas City: Sean Smith, CB
The Colts, as it has been all year, will not be able to run the football; especially not against the quality front seven in Kansas City. Therefore, the only way the Colts will move the ball will be through the air. Thus, Smith should be busy all day as it wouldn't be unusual to see Luck drop back more than 50 times. Smith, standing 6-3, is huge for a corner and won't struggle with bigger receivers like Da'Rick Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If Smith does his job on the perimeter, Luck's only option may be tight end Coby Fleener down the middle. Even so, Fleener will be covered by either one of the Chiefs' athletic linebacking corps or one of the big, physical Kansas City safeties.
If the Chiefs win their final two regular-season games, they will have the largest win improvement from one season to the next in NFL history. The Chiefs, 2-14 last season, would finish 13-3 by winning out, an improvement of 11 games. If this is to happen look for the Chiefs to make use of a formula that has worked extremely well for them thus far; that is, returns and turnovers. The Chiefs, with 11 return touchdowns, are the first team in NFL history to score multiple touchdowns via interceptions (5), kickoff returns (2), punt returns (2) and fumble returns (2). Additionally, they lead the league with a plus-21 turnover differential, turning those takeaways into 115 more points off turnovers than their opponents.
The Colts just aren't the same team they were early in the season, when then had several impressive victories and a healthy Reggie Wayne; however, they will be the best team Kansas City has faced all year. While the numbers appear to favor Kansas City, the Colts are never out of a game with Luck involved. Home field advantage in Arrowhead will make the difference in this game, but things may be different in two weeks at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kansas City 21, Indianapolis 17