It’s time to take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ AFC Championship Game opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Everyone already knows about Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the Chiefs’ high-flying offense, so we’ll get to them in more detail later in the week. First, let’s talk about Kansas City’s defense, which has been surprisingly competent in recent weeks.
The Chiefs couldn’t stop anyone during the regular season, ranking near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every defensive metric (points allowed, yards allowed, rushing defense, passing defense, DVOA, etc.). Their defense was the primary reason for their four losses, which came by margins of 43-40, 54-51, 29-28 and 38-31.
The unit the Patriots will see this Sunday, however, looks substantially different from the one they hung 43 points on back in Week 6, and those changes have led to some surprising improvement on that side of the ball.
In their last two games, the Chiefs’ defense first held an Oakland Raiders team that put up 33 against them a month earlier to three points in Week 17, then ground the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts offense to a halt in the divisional round, surrendering just six points in a resounding 31-13 victory. Luck posted his lowest completion percentage of the season and his third-worst yards-per-attempt average.
Mahomes and Co. still are the strength of this KC team, but its defense no longer resembles a turnstile.
“We got an opportunity to play against them earlier,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday, “and it?s a different group now then what we played against.”
One notable alteration has been the emergence of undrafted rookie cornerback Charvarius Ward, who, after hardly seeing the field on defense in the first 15 weeks, became a starter after head coach Andy Reid benched veteran Orlando Scandrick following a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Ward, who played only on special teams in the first Patriots-Chiefs meeting, has impressed since his surprise promotion, breaking up seven passes over the last three games, including four against the Colts in his postseason debut. How will he hold up against Tom Brady? We shall see.
Folks in KC also have been pleased with the play of third-year safety Jordan Lucas, a converted cornerback who played every defensive snap against the Patriots but was banished to the bottom of the depth chart for much of November and December. He’s started the last two games in place of injured star Eric Berry — whose status for Sunday remains unclear — and over veteran Ron Parker.
(Like Scandrick, Reid had seen enough of Parker following the Chargers loss. A starter all season, he was a healthy scratch in Week 16 and has played just 14 defensive snaps over the last two games.)
Kansas City also has safety Daniel Sorensen, who was unavailable for the first Patriots meeting, back from injured reserve and no longer employs Josh Shaw, who allowed the deep ball to Rob Gronkowski that essentially won that game for New England. (Remember, the Chiefs’ secondary was so thin in October that they were considering using a wide receiver at safety.)
“There?s a lot of changes that have taken place here,” McDaniels said.
One thing the Chiefs’ D has done well all season is get after the quarterback. They tied for the league lead in sacks, averaging 3.25 per game, and should have their full complement of pass-rushing options available this weekend. That includes veteran edge rusher Justin Houston, who missed the first Patriots matchup due to injury.
Houston had nine sacks in just 12 games during the regular season, plus another two against Indy. And he’s not even close to leading his team in that category, as defensive tackle Chris Jones (15 1/2 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, 29 QB hits) and edge rusher Dee Ford (13/13/29) both put up incredible numbers.
“Houston, we didn?t see earlier in the year,” McDaniels said. “We know how good he is on the edge and the things he does and how much of an impact he makes on their team, not only in the pass rush, but in the running game. …
“Jones is as good of a player as we?ve played in the front all year. This guy is tremendously disruptive, not only in the running game but as a pass rusher inside. This guy is really a talented player. Ford?s having a great year. We saw him in the first game, and he?s a very disruptive player on the edge, too.”