How in the world did two teams that started their seasons 2-5 and 1-5 make it to the AFC Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs? I’ll tell you how in two words: coaching and defense. The coaching jobs that the Texans’ Bill O’Brien and Chiefs’ Andy Reid have done this season are nothing short of minor football miracles.
One couldn’t help but feel for O’Brien at times this season. O’Brien was forced to choose between two unproven, journeymen quarterbacks in Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett during training camp. Hoyer proved to be an inconsistent player and Mallett proved be an inconsistent professional.
Even after replacing Hoyer, twice, Mallett was dismissed from the team for constant tardiness. Hoyer would return, play well, then become injured — several times. Consequently, O’Brien was forced to turn to two more unproven, journeymen quarterbacks in Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates — and still won the AFC South — Oh, and all without his most reliable offensive weapon in running back Arian Foster. Sounds easy, right?
After a dominating win against these same Texans in in the season opener, things were looking up for the Kansas City Chiefs. But things went south fast for Andy Reid and company, as the Chiefs lost their next five games as well as their most reliable offensive weapon in running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL. Reid and his squad didn't cave. Instead, the team leaned upon its stout defense and veteran quarterback to win 10 straight games and charge into the AFC playoff picture.
AFC Wild Card: Kansas City at Houston
Kickoff: 4:20 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Kansas City -3
Three Things to Watch
1. A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Dare we say it, that Alex Smith is — a good quarterback? Smith has been called a lot of things in his 11-year career, but “good” hasn’t been expressed too often. He’s been widely known as a “game manager,” “reliable,” and even “efficient" — but rarely as “good.”
But this season, Smith is running Andy Reid’s West Coast offense to perfection. Smith’s numbers (3,486 yards, 20 TDs, 7INTs) won’t jump off the stat sheet, especially in today’s pass-happy offenses. But in Reid’s scheme, Smith doesn’t need to be Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Smith has only thrown for more than 300 yards in a game once, and three touchdowns once (Week 1 vs. Houston), and didn’t even break the 200-yard mark the last five games.
Despite the ho-hum numbers, Smith has been exceptional. During the current 10-game winning streak, Smith has been special, completing better than 67 percent of his throws, with 14 touchdowns and only four picks — two of which came against the Raiders last week.
Smith’s finest quality is his ability to get the ball to his best playmakers, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce, who have combined to account for 43 percent (159 receptions) of Smith’s completions and 56 percent (1,963 yards) of his passing yards.
When the Chiefs traveled to Houston in Week 1, Smith and Kelce took advantage of poor linebacker coverage for two first-quarter touchdowns. Smith and Kelce have been tormenting defenses all season long, as the athletic tight end has collected 72 catches for 875 yards and five TDs.
The Texans’ Brian Hoyer’s season resembles that of his own team: tumultuous. After being named the starter ever so awkwardly via HBO’s”Hard Knocks” by Bill O’Brien, Hoyer was benched in the opener after just three quarters. In that game, his first throw was a pick that led to a touchdown and he was sacked four times before being pulled for now ex-Texan teammate Ryan Mallett. Hoyer has played in just 11 games, starting nine, as a mix of injuries (concussion, ankle) and bad play has put him on the bench for stretches at a time.
If the Texans have any hope of moving on to the next round, Hoyer needs to be the quarterback that was reliable, throwing 10 TDs and only three picks during the Texans’ 4-1 stretch in the middle of the season. Finding the Texans’ best weapon, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, is going to be paramount for Hoyer’s success.
2. Establishing the Run
Smith has been surprisingly good, but the Chiefs’ running game, without All-Pro Jamaal Charles has still thrived thanks to a committee of ball carriers: Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and, yes — Smith (498 yards, 2 TDs). Even without Charles, Kansas City has run for 2,044 yards — 1,037 of which belong to West and Ware. That total is more than the 1,033 that Charles put up in 2014. The combination of West and Ware give the Chiefs a unique one-two punch that the Texans haven’t seen, as neither back played against Houston in Week 1.
The Chiefs have turned the loss of Charles into lemonade, while the Texans have struggled to run the ball after losing Arian Foster to a torn Achilles in Week 4. Backup Alfred Blue has been hit and miss as Foster’s replacement, but has become more reliable in recent weeks, rushing for more than 100 yards in two of the last three games. But Blue is still averaging less than 50 yards per game, and there is really no threat backing him up. Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes are averaging roughly 20 yards per game apiece, and have a combined two rushing touchdowns on 155 carries. Establishing a running game to avoid a stellar Chiefs pass rush will be important for the Texans to protect Hoyer and take care of business at home.
3. Pass-rushing Powers
Both the Chiefs and the Texans have relied upon excellent defensive play to lead them back from the abyss. The Chiefs have given up 20 or more points just twice during their 10-game winning streak for an average of 12.8 points per game, while the Texans have held five of their past nine opponents, dating back to Week 8, to exactly six points.
Both teams make their defensive living attacking the quarterback. The Texans’ J.J. Watt is doing what the two-time Defensive Player of the Year typically does: creating havoc, forcing fumbles, and leading the NFL in sacks (17.5). But Watt isn’t alone in getting to the passer. He has built quite the rapport with fellow defensive end, Whitney Mercilus, who has 12 sacks in the last 11 weeks after not starting until Week 6.
Where the Texans have a deadly combo in Watt and Mercilus, the Chiefs attack the quarterback by committee. Not a single Kanas City defender has more than 7.5 sacks, but seven players have at least four. The Chiefs’ leading pass rusher, Justin Houston, will return on Saturday after missing the last five games. In Week 1, the Chiefs’ defense dominated the Texans’ O-line, sacking Houston quarterbacks five times.
Both teams’ defenses cancel one another out. The key in the season-opening matchup was turnovers, in which the Chiefs were able to capitalize on Houston miscues. This game very well could come down to one or two plays. Both teams have explosive wide receivers in Jeremy Maclin and DeAndre Hopkins, and both running games have been more reliable as of late, that leaves the QBs as the determining factors. Give me the game manger, Alex Smith.
Prediction: Kansas City 20, Texans 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.