Top-seeded Chiefs will have to fend off the surging Colts to secure their first home playoff win in 25 years
The Kansas City Chiefs will host the Indianapolis Colts in Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday to kick off the AFC Divisional Round of the 2019 NFL Playoffs. These teams last met in the postseason in 2014, resulting in one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history.
The slightly favored Colts managed to erase a 28-point second-half deficit in that game to score a dramatic 45-44 victory over the visiting Chiefs. Saturday’s matchup is setting up to be another high-scoring affair with two high-powered offenses poised to put plenty of points on the scoreboard. Only this time around, the Chiefs are the favored home team, and the expectation is a closely contested shootout for four quarters.
The Chiefs (12-4) capped off a dominant regular season in similar fashion with a 35-3 victory over the Raiders to secure the AFC West title and No. 1 seed in the playoffs. They also earned the luxury of sitting out last week’s Wild Card Round with a bye. That should pay dividends for the well-rested home team. It also bodes well that Andy Reid is 20-4 all-time as a head coach when coming off a bye week. What doesn’t bode well is Reid’s 11-13 record all-time in the postseason, including a 1-4 with the Chiefs.
After a 1-5 start, the resurgent Colts enter Saturday’s game with a record of 11-6. Under first-year head coach Frank Reich, Indianapolis has won five in a row and 10 of its last 11, including a 21-7 road victory over AFC South rival (and champion) Houston in the wild-card game. The Colts now look to carry that momentum against Kansas City, who is 7-1 at home this season. Indianapolis is just 5-4 on the road, although the Colts have won their past three such contests, beating the Texans (twice) and Titans. More importantly, the Colts are 4-0 against the Chiefs in the postseason and Kansas City's is in the midst of a six-game home losing streak in the playoffs, a stretch that goes back to 1996.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Indianapolis at Kansas City
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City's explosive passing game
It’s no secret why the Chiefs led the NFL in total yards (425.6 ypg) and scoring (35.3 ppg) during the regular season. Mahomes has been a force to be reckoned with, and in 2018 no NFL player has been more fun to watch. In addition to Mahomes’ 5,097 passing yards, the MVP front-runner and first-team All-Pro selection became just the third player in NFL history to throw for 50 touchdowns. And he's doing this in his just second season, first as the starter, in the NFL. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a standout receiving corps, led by fellow first-team All-Pro selections Travis Kelce (103 rec., 1,336 yds., 10 TDs) and Tyreek Hill (87, 1,479 yds., 12).
On Saturday, Mahomes and company will be paired against a young Indianapolis defense that has come a long way since the beginning of the season, thanks in large part to the emergence of All-Pro rookie linebacker Darius Leonard (league-leading 163 tackles). Leonard and the Colts limited a dangerous Houston offense to just seven points and 322 yards last week. But they have a much bigger challenge in front of them — trying to slow down Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-octane passing attack.
Indianapolis finished the regular season in the middle of the pick in pass defense, allowing 237.8 yards per game. The Colts also gave up more yards (1,194) to opposing tight ends than any other defense in the league. And they have not faced a tight end better than Kelce all season. In addition to the already daunting task of keeping tabs on Kelce and Hill, Indianapolis' secondary may also have to contend with the return of speedy wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who has missed the last six games because of a foot injury. That’s a tall order.
2. Indianapolis' running game
Most of the hype surrounding the Colts' offense heading into Saturday’s playoff game centers around Andrew Luck and a potent passing game. And for good reason as Indianapolis boasts the seventh-ranked passing attack in the league (278.8 ypg), and Luck's 39 touchdown passes in the regular season were good for second behind only Mahomes' 50. However, it could be the running game that pays the biggest dividends against Kansas City.
Despite ranking just 20th at 107.4 rushing yards per game, the Colts' ground game has been hitting on all cylinders of late. Last week, they ran for 200 yards against Houston's third-ranked rushing defense, led by a franchise playoff-record 148 rushing yards from running back Marlon Mack. It marked Mack’s third 100-yard game in the last four weeks, two of which came against the aforementioned Texans and the Cowboys (fifth in the NFL in rushing defense).
The Chiefs finished 27th in that department, giving up 132.1 yards and an NFL-worst five yards per carry. This certainly bodes well for Indianapolis. Another reason the Colts need to have success running the ball is that it would them to control the clock and limit the number of possessions for Mahomes and Kansas City’s quick-strike offense.
3. Kansas City's pass rush vs. Indianapolis' offensive line
No one can argue that the Chiefs' defense is good. However, they have shined in one area on that side of the ball. No other defense in the NFL had more sacks during the regular season than Kansas City's 52. That effort was spearheaded by defensive end Chris Jones' 15.5 sacks, with Pro Bowl linebacker Dee Ford (13), and Justin Houston (9 in 12 games) also getting in on the action.
Meanwhile, no offensive line has fared better in pass protection than the Colts', which is a welcome sight after this being a persistent issue throughout Luck's time in Indianapolis. A standout line led by All-Pro rookie guard Quenton Nelson has surrendered a league-low 18 sacks in 17 games. That includes last week's dominant effort in shutting out J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the Texans last week.
There are plenty of intriguing matchups worth paying close attention to in Saturday’s playoff showdown, but none are more compelling than the matchup between the Chiefs’ pass rush and the Colts’ offensive line. One of these groups will have to come out on top, and It could be a major factor in determining the outcome.
There are a few reasons to like the underdog Colts on Saturday. For starters, history is not exactly on the Chiefs’ side in this matchup. They are 0-4 all-time in playoff games against the Colts, they are an abysmal 0-6 in home playoff games over the last 25 years, and their head coach has a long history of coming up short in the postseason. We also can take into consideration that the Chiefs are just 3-2 since releasing star running back Kareem Hunt, and that two of those wins came against the lowly Raiders. And last, but certainly not least, is Kansas City’s much-maligned defense, whose only saving grace is a stellar pass rush that might just meet its match in the form of an equally talented Indianapolis offensive line.
But this will mark the Colts' third straight road game while the Chiefs are coming off of a bye. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the top home-field advantages in the NFL, and Kansas City took full advantage of that, going 7-1 in the regular season. And despite Kansas City’s (and Andy Reid's) past struggles in the postseason, the Chiefs now have something, or should we say someone, they didn’t previously — Patrick Mahomes as a starting quarterback.
Indianapolis should keep it interesting with Andrew Luck leading a well-balanced offensive attack to go along with a much-improved defense. However, the Colts' offense will be hard-pressed to keep pace with Mahomes and company. Andy Reid and the Chiefs should finally get over the playoff hump at home to advance to the AFC Championship Game courtesy of a close, hard-fought, victory.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Colts 31
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.