— It took longer than it looked like it might 11 weeks ago when the Chiefs stood atop the AFC, but Kansas City punched their ticket into the playoffs Sunday afternoon by besting the Miami Dolphins 29-13 at Arrowhead Stadium and clinching the AFC West. With the business of making the playoffs complete, let’s get right to questions about where this team sits heading into Week 17.
Nope, that ship has sailed. Jacksonville owns a 9-2 record in the AFC while the Chiefs sit at 7-4. Kansas City is locked into the No. 4 seed, and will host the No. 5 seed, the top-rated wild card team, at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 6 or 7. Right now that would be the Baltimore Ravens, and they clinch that spot with a win versus Cincinnati next week. Tennessee can take the No. 5 seed with a win over Jacksonville and a Ravens loss. Buffalo takes the No. 5 seed with a win over the Miami coupled with losses by Baltimore and Buffalo. Baltimore also takes the No. 5 seed if they lose along with Buffalo and Miami. The Los Angeles Chargers can sneak in the playoffs with a win over Oakland and losses by Buffalo and Tennessee, but they can only be the No. 6 seed.
Head coach Andy Reid often rested starters in the regular season finale with Philadelphia if the game had no playoff implications for his squad. The Chiefs needed wins in 2015 and 2016 to maintain position in playoff seeding, and as such the starters played. The Chiefs had playoff possibilities entering the final day of the 2014 season, but those hopes were dashed based on results earlier in the day. Chase Daniel did start in place of Alex Smith because Smith missed the game after undergoing an appendectomy.
Only in 2013 did the Chiefs enter the final week of the season with little on the line in Week 17. Reid hemmed and hawed about who would play, offering that he would “mix and match” his lineup. In the end, 13 starters did not play and several other starters made limited appearances.
It seems likely that Reid will sit a large chunk of key players against Denver this week. All seven inactive players next week will likely be starters, and more may play few if any snaps. It’s a great opportunity to see young players get extended playing time, especially this year’s draft picks such as Tanoh Kpassagnon, Jehu Chessson, Ukeme Eligwe and Leon McQuay.
That list includes Mahomes, too. The situation with Mahomes is different from the one with Daniel. If Reid plays Mahomes, which it seems like he will, don’t expect any bluffs. Mahomes needs to enter the week as the starter and not the subject of a will-he, won’t-he shell game.
Mahomes playing against the Broncos presents the ultimate no-lose scenario, so don’t sweat it.
Let’s say Mahomes plays great. Chances are we won’t learn that much. Denver has nothing at stake either, and will probably sit many of their starters as well. The Chiefs have a great offense with offensive coordinator calling great games right now, so Mahomes playing well says more about the team that the quarterback.
If Mahomes plays poorly, who cares? This is a one-week internship, a chance for Mahomes to get his feet wet and experience a real NFL game in a no-pressure atmosphere. Frankly, a poor performance from Mahomes would get Reid, Nagy and Childress more to work with than a great performance. One often learns more in losing than winning.
However Mahomes plays, it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change that Smith is dealing in a career season and the Chiefs offense for once appears roaring heading into the postseason. Anything Mahomes does against Denver is gravy.
Anyone sensing a theme here? The Chiefs sent off alarm bells against the Dolphins despite the victory be going a woeful 2 of 7 scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The team entered the week ranked 28th in the league with a red zone touchdown percentage of 45 percent. The four teams behind them — San Francisco, Denver, Arizona and Indianapolis — all have something in common called not going to the playoffs.
Set aside a positive thought — the Chiefs won by 16 points. Had the Chiefs had a league average day in the red zone, they would have won 37-13. If they had a great day they would have won 41-13. Winning 29-13 looks pretty good too.
Despite the red zone problems, the Chiefs still rank sixth in the league in scoring. This team can score with anyone, that’s not a problem.
There are reasons to gloss over the red zone issues. One is that while the rank low in red zone touchdown percentage, they rank in the top 20 in red zone scoring opportunities. They also rank fifth in points per field goal attempt. That means that the Chiefs have more red zone scoring opportunities and generally convert their field goal opportunities better than most teams. While they Chiefs may leave points on the field in the red zone, they pick up a few points per game by creating more scoring opportunities and making field goals when the need them.
Now, what can the Chiefs do to improve their red zone efficiency? This is a long-term problem plaguing the Chiefs. They ranked 26th last season scoring touchdowns 47.37 percent of the time in the red zone.
But let’s take a look at their five failed red zone trips against Miami:
- 3rd-and-3 from the 13, Smith fired a pass low and in front of Albert Wilson. Smith essentially threw the ball away to protect possession and the field goal opportunity.
- 3rd-and-13 from the 20 just before halftime, Smith threw a short pass to Charcandrick West to set up another field goal.
- 3rd-and-goal from the 3, Smith hits Tyreek Hill in the end zone but officials rule him out of bounds.
- 3rd-and-1 from the 19, Kareem Hunt is stopped for no gain on back-to-back runs up the middle.
- 3rd-and-goal from the 11, Smith throws incomplete to West. A holding call on Zach Fulton on second down negated a run by Hunt that would have given the Chiefs 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
The Chiefs scored 12 points on these drives, only failing to score on the fourth-down stop. The Chiefs also probably caught a bad break on the throw to Hill in the end zone. On two of the drives the Chiefs put themselves in third-and-long situations on third down. Those are difficult situations. The Chiefs need to be more productive on first and second down in the red zone — they have too many plays for no gain in the red zone on first and second down.
The Chiefs also seemed to play it safe a bit in the red zone against Miami. The Hunt runs on third and fourth down for no gain seemed way to conservative. In the playoffs, would the Chiefs be inclined to use a quarterback sneak to get that yard? Or might the Chiefs used some of their trick misdirection such as Smith on an option run or the shovel pass that worked effectively early in the season? It would be nice if the Chiefs were a team that could muscle up for a yard when they need it, but we see no signs of the happening.
But some of this is who the Chiefs are. Reid and Smith both stress protecting possessions and making sure you walk away with points. The Chiefs probably missed out on at least four points they could have had with more aggression. But could they have also lost three points with too much aggression? Absolutely.
At some point in their playoff run, the Chiefs are going to need a big red zone conversion, and the jury is out if they have aptitude to get it done.
A month ago the argument could be made that this team seemed destined for an early playoff exit. Teams with defenses ranked in the bottom third of the league don’t win playoff games.
The Chiefs defense over the last three weeks shows a marked change from the first 12 weeks of the season. The defensive line is generating more pressure in the pocket. The secondary has tightened up with the addition of Darrelle Revis. But most importantly of all, the defensive is taking away the football.
This defense thrives on turnovers. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s defense can shut teams down for a period of time. The second half against the Dolphins proves that. But the Chiefs win if the defense turns the ball over. Sometimes the offense can win without the defense turning over the opponent but the Chiefs can’t count on that.
The Chiefs have a playoff run in them, but it rests solely on Sutton and the defense. The Chiefs have a Super Bowl offense, but the team can only go as far as the defense takes it.