NFL

Chiefs finally win, NFL playoff reaction, power rankings and more

A major mistake in December led to a major shakeup in the defense and now a major improvement as the Chiefs showed some defensive chops

Kansas City’s ugliest play all season is proving to be its saving grace.

In Week 15, the Chiefs lost 29-28 to the Los Angeles Chargers in brutal fashion. Leading 28-14 with under six minutes remaining, Kansas City allowed two touchdowns. On the second one, Los Angeles went for a two-point conversion. Chiefs cornerback Orlando Scandrick blew his assignment, allowing for a comically easy game-winning conversion.

The disastrous finish forced coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to make changes. Scandrick and safety Ron Parker were benched after starting all season. Charvarius Ward and Jordan Lucas were inserted into the lineup. The result was added speed with the trade-off of less experience.

Prior to his Week 16 start, Ward had played 10 career defensive snaps. The adjustments have helped the Chiefs to turn their clear weakness into a burgeoning strength. In Kansas City’s 31-13 win over the Colts in their AFC Divisional, the Chiefs held Indianapolis to 263 yards. Andrew Luck was sacked three times even those the assembled group of offensive linemen in front of him hadn’t allowed one all season. The improved coverage on the back end forced Luck to hold the ball longer and allowed the Chiefs talented pass rush to get to him.

The final sack punctuated Kansas City’s effort. Two plays after Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins fumbled to give the Colts possession at the Chiefs’ 20-yard line and seeming hope for a comeback, linebacker Dee Ford tore around Colts right tackle Braden Smith to strip-sack Luck. The ball was recovered by linebacker Justin Houston to end any ideas for the Colts.

The pass rush has been the one consistent element of Kansas City’s defense. Defensive tackle Chris Jones, Ford and Houston helped the Chiefs to a league-best 52 sacks. On Saturday, Jones batted down three passes and generally won his battle with rookie All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. Houston added two sacks and Ford had the aforementioned strip-sack.

Unquestionably, the Chiefs are an offensive team. Ford, Jones, Houston and the rest of their defensive teammates are taking a backseat to Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They might be in the hatchback.

GOING DEEP: Chiefs finally break playoff hex

Regardless, Kansas City was able to stymie a Colts team many believed would charge up and down the Arrowhead field. Instead, it was a day of dominance from a group that had authored nothing but porous play against other top-end quarterbacks.

Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Jared Goff and Ben Roethlisberger played the Chiefs this season and averaged 368 yards and three touchdowns. Luck was held to 203 yards on 5.64 yards per attempt with a single touchdown.

Now Kansas City gets Brady one more time with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line. In their first matchup, the Patriots rushed for 173 yards and threw for 340, all while taking zero penalties and never punting. Somehow, the Chiefs only lost 43-40 on game-ending field goal.

In the rematch, it stands to reason Mahomes and Co. will score their points.

If Kansas City’s reinvigorated defense can come anywhere close to matching Saturday’s performance, the Chiefs will be Super Bowl bound for the first time since the 1969 season.

Power rankings

Top 10 Divisional round games since AFL-NFL merger

The Divisional round has provided games that will forever be known by titles. The Tuck Rule. The Immaculate Reception. The Sea of Hands. Ghost to the Post. The list goes on. While the Divisional round remains two steps from a championship for all the participants, no round has provided more great contests.

1. Chargers-Dolphins, 1981 – Double-OT epic when Kellen Winslow Sr. was carried off
2. Raiders-Patriots, 2001 – The Tuck Rule and Adam Vinatieri launched a dynasty
3. Raiders-Steelers, 1972 – Franco Harris makes the Immaculate Reception
4. Cowboys-Vikings, 1975 – Roger Staubach says a Hail Mary
5. Dolphins-Raiders, 1974 – Clarence Davis in the Sea of Hands
6. Dolphins-Chiefs, 1971 – Garo wins the longest game ever on Christmas
7. Raiders-Colts, 1977 – Oakland wins on the Ghost to the Post
8. Saints-Vikings, 2017 – Stefon Diggs authors the Minneapolis miracle
9. Jets-Browns, 1986 – Bernie Kosar and the Browns escape in double OT
10. Ravens-Broncos, 2012 – Rahim Moore gets lost and the Ravens go on

Honorable mention: Broncos-Jaguars, 1996, and Cowboys-49ers, 1972

Quotable

Terrell Owens called out the Cowboys after their 30-22 loss to the Rams on Saturday night. Owens’ premise is that head coach Jason Garrett is holding them back. Here are some numbers to consider:

Owens: 130-89 (.593) in the regular season and 4-8 (.333) in the postseason.
Garrett: 77-59 (.566) in the regular season and 2-3 (.400) in the postseason.

For all of Owens’ greatness, he never won a thing. Food for thought.

Podcast

Matt Verderame and Josh Hill bring you a new podcast every Sunday night, recapping the weekend’s action with a preview of the playoff games ahead. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, and leave a comment and rating!

Listen to “Championship Sunday preview.”

Random stat

The Big 12 Conference was created in 1994. Since then, no quarterback from the Big 12 had ever gone on to win an NFL playoff game until Mahomes did on Saturday.

Info learned this week

1. Observations from the Divisional round

After Kansas City dispatched Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, the Rams, Patriots and Saints joined them as the final four teams still playing for the Lombardi Trophy.

Los Angeles buried Dallas with a devastating rushing attack, gashing the Cowboys for 273 and three touchdowns, led by backup running back C.J. Anderson. Anderson, who has gone from obese to O-Beast, notched 123 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, the Cowboys couldn’t do enough on third down. Quarterback Dak Prescott was 5-of-9 for 40 yards and took a sack in such situation, converting only one of 10 opportunities. With Prescott entering the final year of his rookie deal, Jerry Jones has a major decision ahead of him.

GOING DEEP: Pats send clear message in dominant win

On Sunday, the Patriots opened the action by crushing the Chargers, 41-28. Los Angeles elected to play zone for much of the day, and Tom Brady picked them apart to the tune of 343 yards and a touchdown. New England also rushed for 155 yards and four scores, helping the franchise reach its eighth consecutive AFC title game.

In the Big Easy, the Saints continue to ride behind a much-improved defense. Since Week 13, New Orleans has eclipsed 30 points only once. While that’s a problem, it has been mitigated by a defense which found itself at midseason. Exluding Week 17 when the Saints played backups, they haven’t allowed 30 points since Week 9 against the Rams. Of course, Los Angeles is making its way to the Superdome come Sunday.

2. Steelers taking big risk if Antonio Brown gets traded

When Art Rooney II stated that people don’t change in response to Antonio Brown’s behavior, that was a tell. Pittsburgh will be moving on from Brown this offseason. The Steelers are tired of the off-field craziness, which in the last 12 months includes an alleged furniture toss off a 14th floor balcony, threatening a reporter, asking for a trade on Twitter, getting into a shouting match with Ben Roethlisberger, skipping two Week 17 practices and then leaving that game at halftime.

This summer, Brown becomes a 31-year-old with three years and $39 million in base salary and roster bonuses left on his deal. That’s all that some acquiring team would be on the hook for if it traded for Brown, making him very affordable. While there are undeniable concerns about him moving forward, there will be a bevy of teams calling Pittsburgh to find out the price. The Steelers are motivated to move Brown, but it would be surprising if they took a package that doesn’t include a first-round pick.

Once Brown is being shopped, the Seahawks and Packers are at the front of a long line of teams that makes sense. Seattle has never shied away from strong personalities, and Russell Wilson could certainly use an elite target. In Green Bay, the Packers would have a devastating combination between Brown and Davante Adams.

3. Kyler Murray heads to the NFL Draft

The rookie quarterback class isn’t deep, but it may get more interesting. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray is leaning toward declaring for the NFL Draft, surprising many after he signed with the Oakland A’s as a first-round pick of the MLB Draft in June. As of Sunday night, the A’s were negotiating with Murray to keep him from entering the draft.

Last month, five personnel men within the league told FanSided that Murray is believed to be a potential first-round talent. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Murray’s size will be a constant source of concern. Still, he’s a fantastic athlete who will tantalize teams in need of a quarterback such as the Giants, Jaguars, Redskins, Dolphins and Broncos.

GOING DEEP: Murray clearly wants to play baseball amid demand

At this juncture, Murray and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins are the top quarterback prospects. Drew Lock, Will Grier and Daniel Jones.

4. Bears hope to maintain defense with Chuck Pagano

After losing a 16-15 heartbreaker in the Wild Card round, the Chicago Bears suffered another loss last week with the departure of Vic Fangio. Fangio, 60, left his post as defensive coordinator to become the head coach in Denver. To replace him, the Bears turned to Chuck Pagano.

Pagano spent last year out of football after being the Colts’ head coach the previous five seasons. Before that, the cancer survivor was a defensive coordinator with the Ravens in 2011 following three years as the secondary coach. Pagano makes sense for Chicago, considering he runs a 3-4 scheme and has experience in the position. However, if there is a concern, it’s that Pagano isn’t as detail-oriented as Fangio. It was a problem that showed up often in Indianapolis.

During his only year as coordinator in Baltimore, the Ravens defense ranked third in both points and yardage allowed.

5. Buccaneers land fantastic staff led by Arians

There were eight head coach openings in the NFL this offseason. All are now filled save Miami, which has zeroed in on Patriots’ defensive coordinator Brian Flores.

Grading hires is a wasted exercise, but it’s hard to see Tampa Bay landing Bruce Arians as anything but a home run.

GOING DEEP: Fins taking major risk in hiring from Belichick tree

Arians’ biggest drawback is his age (66), but that is far outweighed by his history with quarterbacks. The New Jersey native has coached Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, getting the first three in their formative years and then extracting the best out of Palmer in his mid-30s. Now Arians is tasked with fixing Jameis Winston.

Winston has immense promise but his 74 turnovers across his four seasons have scuttled any real progress. Going into his fifth year, Winston is a pending free agent. The Buccaneers’ future largely rests on whether Arians can reach Winston. Not a bad bet by Tampa Bay.

History lesson

With the Chiefs set to host their conference championship game on Sunday, only the Ravens, Texans, Titans and Lions are without that honor.

Parting shot

Kliff Kingsbury couldn’t win in the Big 12 with Patrick Mahomes. The Cardinals are betting that he can win in the NFL with Josh Rosen.

Kingsbury, 39, is the product of a strong trend within the NFL. Teams want innovative offensive minds at the helm with the rules favoring that side of the ball. Whether that’s a smart play with Kingbury remains to be seen, considering he was fired this autumn at Texas Tech after going 35-40. In that vein, how does Kingsbury sell veterans that he knows how to win? If things don’t start well, he’ll have to do a masterful job keeping them on board.

Still, for all the talk about Sean McVay connections and Kingsbury’s dashing good looks, this is all about Rosen’s development. Entering his second season, Rosen’s career in the desert largely rests on whether Kingsbury can prove his worth.

Ultimately, the Cardinals are hoping that Kingsbury will be the next wiz kid. If he isn’t, they’ll go back to the drawing board in a few years, something the franchise has done relentlessly throughout its history.

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