The Wild Card Round used to serve as a de facto undercard before the more important stages of the NFL playoffs. The league’s second-tier teams, each with their fatal flaws, would fight for scraps and moral victories until the true contenders would return from their byes to wipe out the survivors. But not anymore, as the meek have inherited the earth. Seven of the last eight Super Bowls included a team that came from the Wild Card Round, and six of them won it all. And if you’re looking for a team that has the potential to make such a run, the Chiefs and Colts are as good a couple of candidates as any.
Kansas City’s 9-0 start seems like a distant memory after they lost five of their last final seven games, but they have a talent-laden roster that earned a league-high six selections to our Pro Bowl team and is getting back one of the league’s best defenders in Justin Houston. The Colts battled inconsistency midseason as they struggled to replace top receiver Reggie Wayne, but have won four of their last five and have taken down some of the league’s best teams.
Keeping in mind that the winner of this game could go the distance, let’s examine three big matchups that could decide who advances to the Divisional Round.
The Winning Edge
Nothing disrupts an offense more than an elite pass rusher bringing pressure off the edge, and this game features three of the NFL’s best in Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Robert Mathis.
Houston is making his long-awaited return after suffering an elbow injury in Week 12, and the Chiefs sorely missed him while he was gone. He was our highest-graded 3-4 outside linebacker this season despite the time he lost, and Frank Zombo’s 10 quarterback pressures during his absence were far below Houston’s regular production. But Houston may not find it all easy going this week against the Colts best pass protector, Gosder Cherilus. The bright spot on a Colts offensive line that has the 29th-ranked Pass Blocking Efficiency in the league, the right tackle has allowed no sacks and just one quarterback hit in his last four games.
The bigger trouble instead may come on Andrew Luck’s blind side. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has flourished as a run blocker but has been spotty in pass protection. He’s done better in recent weeks but still allowed three quarterback pressures to Hali in Week 16. Hali may not be as active in the run game as Houston, but his 77 quarterback pressures this season led all 3-4 outside linebackers. Assuming he can play though his knee injury, Kansas City will once again be able to lean on the league’s best pair of bookend rushers.
Indianapolis will counter with a pass-rushing force of its own, as Mathis ranked right behind Houston in our 3-4 outside linebacker grades. Naming Mathis the Defensive Player of the Year is a bit of a stretch, as 25 other defenders had more quarterback pressures this season. But he made the most of his opportunities, racking up a league-high 19 sacks (19.5 by the NFL’s count, as our grades don’t award half-sacks) and eight forced fumbles. His game against the Chiefs was emblematic of his season, as he tallied just three quarterback pressures but converted one into a strip sack and forced another fumble on a running play. Branden Albert has been no slouch in pass protection this season, but it’s ultimately up to Alex Smith to ensure that when Mathis does get home, the damage he causes is limited.
Charles In Charge
One way for Smith to avoid Mathis’ troublemaking is to get the ball to the engine of the Chiefs’ offense, Jamaal Charles. Despite the lopsided scoreboard in their victory, the Colts never really figured out a way to stop the Kansas City running back in Week 16. Charles rushed for 7.1 yards per carry with the Chiefs only score, and forced three missed tackles. Leading the way, as he often does, was Anthony Sherman, whose +17.9 blocking grade this season was nearly twice as high as any other fullback.
The prime victims in that game were inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Kelvin Sheppard, as Charles averaged 9.3 yards on nine carries between the tackles. Both have struggled against the run in general this season, and will need to reverse course if they want to fare better in the rematch. It will also help if Cory Redding plays up to par, as he earned the seventh-highest run defense grade of any 3-4 defensive end this season, yet recorded just one defensive stop versus Kansas City.
However, stopping Charles on the ground is only half the challenge for Indianapolis, as he’s just as dangerous as a receiver. No running back forced more missed tackles on receptions or gained more yards after the catch this season than Charles did. The Colts did a decent job of limiting him to 38 yards on six targets, including just three yards on screens only a week after he torched the Raiders for over 100 yards on such passes. Much of the credit goes to Freeman, who made up for his poor run defense by allowing just 28 yards on seven targets with a pass defensed and interception in coverage. He’ll need an equally impressive showing to again hold one of the best all-around backs in the NFL.
Luck Going Deep
With an easy 23-7 win and an efficient stat line that included a 70.3% completion rate, one touchdown and no interceptions, it’s logical to conclude that Andrew Luck had a good game against the Chiefs. But his -2.8 passing grade told a different story, as he completed just three throws more than 10 yards downfield and was lucky that Brandon Flowers dropped an interception in the red zone. The fact is that Luck has earned just three positive pass grades in the nine games since Reggie Wayne’s injury. No longer under Bruce Arians’ downfield passing attack, Luck’s percentage of yards through the air and total Deep Pass yards have plummeted from among the highest marks in the league to one of the lowest. T.Y. Hilton is still productive as a deep threat, but after Wayne caught 15 deep balls last season no other Colts wide receiver has more than one this season.
Luck would still be smart to test the Chiefs deep, as their cornerbacks are the one glaring weak point of an otherwise strong defense. Sean Smith has been the least damaging of the group, but still allowed five catches on seven targets versus the Colts in Week 16. Rookie Marcus Cooper had one of our highest coverage grades at the midseason mark, but Peyton Manning exposed him in Week 11 and he finished his rookie year with the third-most Deep Passing yards allowed of any cornerback. Brandon Flowers has been playing better lately, but his 846 yards allowed this season were still the seventh-most of any cornerback. The Colts dominated in Week 16 thanks to the Chiefs’ turnover issues, but Luck can’t count on that sort for fortune again. He’ll need to do more this time around to avoid a second one-and-done playoffs.
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