Saturday night is alright for revivals. Three of the four teams playing on the opening night of the 2013 playoffs had sub-.500 records last year, including the 11-5 Chiefs, who were the worst team in football a year ago. Each of those teams turned over its head coach, saw much-improved quarterback play, and got some help thanks to a reversal of several outliers that didn’t go its way in 2012. And then, defiantly flipping off precedent, there are the Colts, who unexpectedly managed to repeat their 11-5 season from a year ago while producing a résumé with wins over most of the league’s top teams.
The Colts do have something in common with two of the teams making triumphant returns to playoff football: They flipped their turnover margin in spectacular fashion. No, really — look at this table:
From 1990 to 2012, there were only 17 teams that improved their turnover differential by 25 turnovers or more.1 There are three such teams playing on Saturday. If you want to figure out why those teams are in the playoffs, you start there. And if you want to figure out who’s going to win this weekend, you might be able to end there, too. Since 1990, teams that have won the turnover battle in a given game during the regular season have won that game 79.1 percent of the time. In the playoffs, that figure climbs to 84.2 percent. Of course, everybody knows that winning the turnover battle is important; it’s figuring out how to win the turnover battle that’s the hard part.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, 8:10 p.m.
The fun arbitrary endpoint that is also a round number. For reference, the Chiefs improving their turnover differential by 42 turnovers is the biggest one-year improvement in my data set, which goes back to 1990. Philly’s improvement of 36 turnovers is the third-biggest leap. And if you want to try to figure out how much coaching is involved with this sort of improvement, consider that the team with the second-largest turnover-margin improvement is the 1991 Cleveland Browns, who went from a minus-24 margin all the way to a plus-15 figure. That was the year they replaced Bud Carson (and interim coach Jim Shofner) with a rookie head coach by the name of Bill Belichick.
The Saturday nightcap could be a nightmare for the Saints. (I hope you see what I did there. It’s important.) It appears that this game will be played in the aftermath of a Northeast snowstorm in low-twenties weather, but I also know for a fact that Drew Brees has significant experience dealing with the impact of colds from his NyQuil commercial, so that should cancel out. I’ll spare you the tortured travel food analogies2 and get to the argument that’s surrounding this game: The Saints are going to lose because they’re leaving home and going somewhere really cold, and the thing they do that works at home doesn’t work on the road and especially on the road in the cold. Is that true? Let’s try to figure it out.
Home Truths From Abroad
“From Pat O’Brien’s to Pat’s Steaks!”
Let’s start with the broadest fact: The Saints were much better at home than they were on the road this year. In New Orleans, the Saints went undefeated for the second time in three seasons. They scored 34 points per game and won their average contest by more than 18 points, producing nearly two takeaways for every giveaway. Once they flew out of Louisiana, the Saints were a mere 3-5. They were outscored by an average of 4.6 points per game on the road, and that unstoppable offense could only muster 17.8 points per contest. Their lowest-scoring game at home was 23 points, a figure they only topped twice on the road all season.
There are reasons to be skeptical that the difference is quite as severe as that paragraph makes it out to be. For one, a lot of this is driven by the difference in their records in the two locales as opposed to their actual level of play, and I don’t know that their performance gap matches up with their win-loss figures. Consider that the Saints were probably lucky to win their game against the 49ers at home after that phantom penalty on Ahmad Brooks and likewise lost in the last moments of key road games against the Panthers and Patriots, two of the best teams in football. Those were all games where the outcome, win or loss, massively overstates the difference in play between the two teams. So flip the wins and losses in those games for a second. If the Saints are 7-1 at home (having credited them with a loss for the 49ers game) and 5-3 on the road (having now won the Patriots and Panthers games), are we even having this discussion about their performance on the road? Probably not. And if the discussion comes down to what happened in three or four plays across a number of weeks, it’s probably not as meaningful as it suggests itself to be.
Oh, and about the Panthers and Patriots? They’re really good football teams, and the Saints played a lot of those on the road this year. The Saints also lost on the road to the Seahawks and beat the Bears, neither of which is a fun place to tread. The disconcerting losses on the road were to the Rams and Jets, games in which they faced uncommon circumstances. In the Rams game, Brees threw interceptions on his first two possessions, with one deep in his own territory and the other in the Rams end zone, with both subsequent Rams drives producing touchdowns. St. Louis then delivered an unexpected onside kick to set up a field goal and go up 17-0 at the beginning of the second quarter. I don’t know any team that does well after going down 17-0 on the road after a quarter. I will admit that I can’t explain the Jets game. I think we should wait for its ‘B’ sample to get tested before we jump to any conclusions.
DVOA is very useful3 for analyzing things like home and road splits because it puts performance into context; just about every team is worse on a play-by-play basis on the road than it is at home, so the question should really be about whether they’re abnormally worse on the road. (It also adjusts for quality of opposition, so no arguments from that perspective, either.) And if we all go take a look at the Saints’ rank in DVOA on offense and defense split by their presence at home and on the road, it clears this all up as, um …
DVOA is Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average statistic, which adjusts performance for down, distance, game situation, and the quality of the opposition. Like any stat, it has its limitations, but I think it’s the best measure of team performance available, and it’ll come up a lot during these previews over the next month. More on DVOA here.
… a really meaningful, tangible thing! Well, that’s more complicated than I imagined. The Saints go from being the league’s best offense to being the league’s average offense when they leave the Superdome, while the defense goes from very good to mediocre. That seems to fit the popular perception. And, of course, that matches up with how the Saints performed during their 2009-11 run of playoff teams with Sean Payton and Brees at their mercurial best, right?
Oh, great. That doesn’t help things at all. In 2010, the Saints — with the same philosophy and a fair number of the same players — were much better on the road than they were at home.4 In 2011, they were basically the same team at home and on the road, relative to the rest of the league. In 2009, they weren’t much different on offense. This suggests that there’s no real indication the Saints are significantly better at home than they are on the road.
It was also a year in which their record was better on the road (6-2) than it was at home (5-3). Then again, that year also ended with the Seahawks beating the Saints in one of those road games (in the playoffs), so …
‘Cross the Brees
OK. Let’s drill down a little further. When people talk about the Saints and their struggles away from home, they’re not suggesting that there’s something about Junior Galette’s pass-rush essence in the Superdome that loses its aura once he hops on a plane.5 When they say the Saints need to play in the Superdome to win, they’re talking about New Orleans’s pass-happy scheme and their star quarterback. They want you to believe that Brees isn’t anywhere near as good when he’s freezing his ass off as he is when he’s inside the Superdome. Well, is he?
Although Galette does have 10 sacks at home this year and two on the road, so …
These sorts of questions are only posed toward quarterbacks who play their home games in warm weather,6 and it’s a question that’s always unfairly biased because of one simple factor: When it gets cold, they’re always playing on the road, and just about every quarterback’s statistics at home are better than they are on the road, regardless of whether they play their home games in Miami or Minnesota.
Peyton Manning gets this question asked about him a bunch, obviously, but that goes back to his days playing his home games in a dome for the Colts.
So, keeping that in mind, here are Brees’s numbers as a Saints quarterback split by the temperature given by the NFL at kickoff, with games played inside split off into their own category:
Brees is better indoors than he is in any weather pattern. Once he gets outside, it doesn’t seem to really matter all that much what the temperature’s like. He’s a little better in warmer weather than he is when it’s colder, but is it materially different? It’s a small sample at the extremes, but we’re already purporting to know that Brees is worse in that extremely cold weather. Really, he’s about the same in miserably cold weather as he is in scorching temperatures. When was the last time you read an article suggesting that Brees and the Saints offense couldn’t handle the heat?7
If you include Brees’s numbers from his time in San Diego, he’s actually better in cold weather than he is in any other climate, and that’s even without splitting his home games in San Diego out of the data.
I don’t see that the numbers suggest anything specific about Brees and his team that would make me think they can’t play well on the road in cold weather. Well, except for one. Chase Stuart, as he often does, came up with the best stat of all: In the playoffs, dome-dwelling teams playing in temperatures below 35 degrees on the road are 3-22. The last time a team like that won was in 2004, when the Vikings beat the Packers in Green Bay. That was the year Chip Kelly turned things around for his employer after years of misery and losing records. He was in his sixth year as offensive coordinator for the University of New Hampshire. 2004 was a long time ago, man.
They might be cold, but two great offenses will be lining up at the Linc on Saturday night. Kelly and Payton hardly run the same offensive scheme, but they certainly both do their fair share of attacking opposing safeties with their game plans, just in different ways. Injuries and subpar play have coincided to leave each of these teams with a big hole in the back end of its lineup, just waiting to be targeted by these offensive geniuses. Who wins on Saturday might just come down to who exploits those safeties more frequently.8
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the legendary 49ers-Saints 2011 playoff game came down to which team got to take advantage of the other team’s bad safety last.
If you watched the Cowboys-Eagles game on Sunday night, you saw just how much Kelly enjoyed spending the first quarter picking on Cowboys safety Jeff Heath, who has had a target on his back for the past several weeks. Heath was a special-teams guy who had to fill a starting role for the Cowboys because, well, Cowboys. Kelly — via his quarterback proxy, Nick Foles — went after Heath until the Cowboys took him out of the game.
The Saints have a different sort of target at safety. After producing one of the worst pass defenses in league history a year ago, the Saints fired Steve Spagnuolo, eventually replaced him with Rob Ryan, and used their first-round pick on the best defensive back available to them. That was Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had the unenviable task of replacing Earl Thomas after Thomas graduated.
Vaccaro grew up to become an excellent player at Texas, and while the Saints made a number of key moves around their defensive roster to get better, Vaccaro’s presence stood out whenever I watched the Saints on tape. Ryan noted during the season that he had never given a rookie more responsibilities than the work he laid in front of Vaccaro. The Saints used him in a Troy Polamalu–esque role as a rover, playing just about anywhere off the line of scrimmage and taking on just about every responsibility imaginable. Vaccaro wasn’t perfect; he would occasionally make the sort of mistakes a rookie makes and blow an assignment or overrun a play, but he really helped turn the tide for the Saints after a dismal 2012, just by doing a solid job in a variety of roles.
I’m speaking about Vaccaro in the past because his season is done, thanks to a broken ankle he suffered during the Panthers game in Week 16. The Saints have Malcolm Jenkins at one safety spot, and he is a former college cornerback who can do some work in coverage, but they don’t have a replacement for Vaccaro. They have Roman Harper. And Roman Harper is brutal. Harper has strengths, I guess: He’s a big hitter, and if you ask him to run toward the line of scrimmage and fill against the run, he’ll do that. But Harper in coverage is grotesque. The man just gets lost chasing ghosts at times, as he falls for seemingly endless double-moves and loses his sense of where he should be within a scheme. Put it this way: It’s not a good thing when you Google a player and one of the articles that comes up is “Miscast Harper Infects Saints’ Defense.” The Saints drafted Vaccaro to get Harper out of the lineup. Now they’re going to have to make a playoff run with Harper playing every down.
It will be up to Ryan to use Harper in a way that plays to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses, something Gregg Williams did a much better job of than Spagnuolo. The Saints will likely try to use Harper as a defender attacking the box against Philadelphia’s devastating rushing attack while leaving Jenkins deeper in the secondary as a center fielder, since the Ryan family is loath to play Cover 0. They will also sneak in some Rafael Bush, who played as the third safety earlier this year while Harper was injured. That can work, but what it does in the process is limit Ryan’s creativity and reveal more and more of the defensive coordinator’s plans to Foles (and Kelly) before the snap. And that information is going to be crucial for a young quarterback against an excellent pass rush with a resourceful architect behind it. It should create opportunities for some big plays by the Eagles, either against Harper in coverage or by taking advantage of New Orleans’s inability to put him in coverage and hitting shots down the sideline to their receivers against corners in single coverage.
The story surrounding the Eagles’ safety situation, sadly, is a less exciting one. Rookie safety Earl Wolff had done a quietly impressive job of solidifying a position that has been a huge hole for the Eagles over the past half-decade, but Wolff went down with a knee injury against the Packers and was replaced by Patrick Chung, whose job Wolff had taken earlier in the season. Wolff made his way back into the lineup for the Week 16 win over the Bears, but reaggravated the injury and will likely be out against the Saints on Saturday.
That means Chung will be in the lineup, which will make Payton happy. Payton loves attacking the other team’s safeties with his group of tall, strong, speedy receivers, especially with throws up the seam to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. Chung isn’t going to do well against those. Do you remember Week 15, when the Eagles got torched for 382 yards and two touchdowns by Matt freaking Cassel and the Vikings? Patrick Chung helped make that happen. Chung was actually benched during that game, with the Eagles bringing in two safeties to replace him, only for each of those safeties to get hurt and push Chung back into the lineup. And, again — that was Cassel throwing to Greg Jennings. Imagine how this will be with Brees and Graham! Oh, what fun.
Of course, there’s no good way to cover Graham with a talented secondary, let alone Philly’s middling bunch. You might have seen Jason Witten destroy them last week. The Eagles will probably try to use some combination of a chipping linebacker and a cornerback, although nominal slot corner Brandon Boykin won’t be big enough to pull off the task. New England had the best success by moving Aqib Talib inside and having him follow Graham around the field, which helped hold him without a catch; I don’t know that the Eagles have anybody who can do that, but they can try it with Cary Williams and give him some help. That might be their best way of stopping New Orleans’s star receiver.
It All Comes Down To …
Any team matched up against the Eagles has to worry about stopping the read-option. No team runs it more than Philly and it’s not even close. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Philadelphia ran the ball using some sort of zone-read play 304 times, gaining 1,725 yards in the process, for a very impressive 5.7 yards per carry. The Saints only saw 36 zone-read plays all year, and they didn’t handle them very well: New Orleans allowed 5.6 yards per carry on those 36 plays. If the Eagles can manage it, they’ll happily run the read-option 36 times against the Saints on Saturday night.
I suspect that this game will come down to who can run their offensive scheme of choice more effectively. If the Saints can march up and down the field with their low-risk passing game in between big plays up the seam to Graham and Colston, it’ll force the Eagles to get out of their rushing attack and chase the game, at which point I’d prefer Brees in a Brees-Foles shootout. If the Eagles can dominate the Saints at the line of scrimmage and run the football, though, they’ll have the dual advantage of both scoring points and keeping Brees off the field for long stretches of time. This game might very well be won by who executes on offense in the first half.
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts, Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
It’s not uncommon for two teams to play each other in the playoffs after matching up in the regular season, but it certainly is strange to see them play in the playoffs just two weeks after a competitive regular-season game. The Colts won that game comfortably, 23-7, despite being a dome team playing in frigid temperatures, as that game kicked off at 22 degrees with the wind chill knocking that down to 11 degrees. And given that this playoff matchup takes place in the temperate home confines of Indianapolis, where the Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and Broncos this year, it seems like the onus in breaking down this matchup would be to prove that the rematch will be any different from the first contest.
Fortunately for Chiefs fans, there are reasons to think that might be the case. And that starts with the guys who were missing from Kansas City’s lineup in Week 16.
Return of the Macks
Let’s talk about the missing Colts players from that 23-7 win in Week 16, who will likely be in the lineup for Saturday’s playoff game. Guard Hugh Thornton and defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois were both inactive, while cornerback Greg Toler played a handful of snaps in his return from a groin injury. They should each step in as starters on Saturday, and while none of the three is a star, they should provide meaningful depth to Indianapolis’s rotations at each position. Kansas City? It was down two Pro Bowlers. Left tackle Branden Albert and outside linebacker Justin Houston are among the best players in football at their respective positions, and their absences — both in that game and over the final half of the season — have had a significant impact on the Chiefs.
Albert missed the final four games of the season with a hyperextended knee, but his absence was most keenly felt in the game against Indianapolis. The Chiefs had the option of moving first overall pick Eric Fisher over from right tackle to the left side, but they instead decided to leave Fisher in his less demanding position on the right side and insert swing tackle Donald Stephenson into the starting lineup on the left side. That, um, didn’t go especially well. Stephenson got beat by first-round pick Bjoern Werner early in the game for a sack before eventually falling victim to a number of classic hits by Robert Mathis, including a spin move that flummoxed Stephenson to the point of tripping the All-Pro across from him. Fisher was badly beaten by Mathis on a third-down speed rush that resulted in Mathis knocking the ball out of Alex Smith’s arm for a fumble. The Colts finished with five sacks of Smith in 33 dropbacks that day, producing a season-high Smith sack rate of 15.1 percent. They buzzed him with heavy pressure, often around the edges, and prevented him from cycling through his reads comfortably in the pocket.
With the pressure surrounding Smith and some sloppy play from the Kansas City ball carriers, the Chiefs also had another rarity sprout up during that game: turnovers. Kansas City’s offense only turned the ball over 18 times in 2013, the second-lowest total in football. In that Week 16 game, the Chiefs turned the ball over four times alone, more than in any other game all season. Three of those turnovers came from Smith, whose calling card is famously avoiding giveaways; he was strip-sacked twice9 and threw an interception in the red zone to Jerrell Freeman. Rookie halfback Knile Davis threw in the fourth turnover by losing the ball with little contact on his lone carry of the game. The Colts also directly benefited from those mistakes; their two biggest offensive plays of the game were a 33-yard catch and a 51-yard run, both by Donald Brown, both for touchdowns, and both on the series immediately following a takeaway.
One of which was basically an interception, since Mathis hit Smith’s arm, producing an empty hand, but also knocking the ball seven yards forward in the process.
And here’s the weirder thing: It wasn’t even like the Chiefs were unlucky on the day. They fumbled six times, recovering three of them. They were able to hold on to some particularly damaging possible giveaways, notably a second fumble by Davis on a kickoff return. They had two more fumbles questionably ruled to be non-fumbles, including a Junior Hemingway fumble that seemed like such an obvious turnover that the retiring Dan Dierdorf actually shrieked upon hearing the referee’s review decision. The Colts even dropped a would-be Smith interception. It was the sloppiest game I saw the Chiefs play all year.10
It was also, for many of the starters on Kansas City’s roster, the last game they played; many of the Chiefs sat out what became a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Chargers, including Smith.
Here’s the big question for me: How much of Kansas City’s struggles to hold on to the football in Week 16 amounted to its own sloppy play, and how much of it was the Colts forcing it into ugly mistakes?
I have to admit that I think it’s more the former than the latter. While the Colts drastically improved their turnover margin this year, that has more to do with an offense that only turned the ball over a league-low 14 times than with a defense that created 27 turnovers, which ranked 15th in the NFL. In rewatching the game, I saw that a good amount of those takeaways came, honestly, from unforced errors. Davis’s fumble between the tackles was one. Smith’s underthrown interception was another. The Chiefs did a good job of beating themselves in that game.
The exception to that was what the Colts did up front. Mathis is rightly regarded as one of the best players in football in terms of getting around the edge and either knocking the ball out of the quarterback’s hand or hitting his arm as he winds up to throw. The Chiefs couldn’t keep him and the other Indy rushers out of the backfield in that game. And while Albert will be back at left tackle for Saturday’s contest, Fisher went down in practice this week with a groin injury that could keep him out of the Colts game. That would likely end up with Stephenson playing right tackle as part of a new-look right side, with Geoff Schwartz taking over for Jon Asamoah in recent weeks.
If the Chiefs can’t block Mathis, well, there’s a classic solution: read him. Kansas City isn’t exactly a heavy read-option team by any means, but it enjoyed success several times during the Week 16 game when Smith noticed Indianapolis’s edge rushers crashing down the line of scrimmage on handoffs and kept the ball for himself. That’s a move that keeps the Indianapolis outside linebackers honest and forces them to stay in their lanes, which weakens the backside pursuit when Kansas City does decide to hand the ball off to Jamaal Charles.
Charles was effective on a carry-by-carry basis against the league’s 22nd-ranked run defense in Week 16, picking up 106 yards on 13 carries, but the Chiefs didn’t give him the ball enough to make an impact after the first quarter. If that has any silver lining for Kansas City, it’s that it has likely managed to rest Charles for these playoffs. He had just eight carries in that incredible five-touchdown performance against the Raiders in Week 15, and after 13 carries against the Colts, Charles sat out the season-ender against San Diego. Charles had previously been averaging 18.3 carries per game, so ending the year with 21 carries over a three-week stretch has to feel like a relative respite. The Colts will have to hope that the return of Jean-Francois helps slow the Chiefs and Charles on the interior.
It would also make things easier if the Chiefs had anybody who could beat man coverage, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. When things are going right for the Indy defense, its cornerbacks are bumping and manhandling wide receivers, preventing the West Coast offenses of teams like Kansas City from developing the much-needed rhythm and consistency they desire. Vontae Davis has had an up-and-down season, but he had little trouble dealing with Dwayne Bowe during the Week 16 matchup between these two, with Bowe catching five passes on 10 targets for a total of just 46 yards. Both those players come into Saturday’s game with injuries, as Davis is dealing with a groin injury, while Bowe suffered a concussion that ensured his absence in Week 17.11 They’re both expected to play on Saturday. Davis will start with Toler likely returning to his starting role on the opposite side, moving Darius Butler back into the slot. Kansas City desperately needs somebody to take the top off this Colts defense and scare Antoine Bethea or LaRon Landry into staying off the line of scrimmage. It’s not going to be Bowe, who has just one catch over 30 yards this year. Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster could sure change things with one big catch, but it might be more likely for that long catch to come from Charles or Davis motioned out of the backfield.
Watch Me Jump-Start
There are still some unexplained circumstances surrounding Bowe’s concussion. He took a nasty hit to the back of the head at the end of the Colts game in Week 16 from LaRon Landry, who was flagged for a personal foul on the play. Bowe then left the game for a brief time with a neck injury before appearing on the injury report later the following week with a concussion. Did Bowe suffer a concussion on that play? If so, he returned to the game several plays later, presumably without having gone through any concussion protocol. Did he suffer a concussion during practice the following week? Or, perhaps most disturbingly, did Bowe suffer a pair of concussions within several days of one another?
Getting Albert back will help the Chiefs. Getting Justin Houston back, though, could be the difference between winning and losing. Houston has missed almost six full games with a dislocated elbow after suffering the injury early in the Week 12 loss to the Chargers, and it’s fair to say that the Chiefs have missed him in the process. His absence is almost surely the biggest reason why Kansas City’s defense declined during the second half of the season. Take a look at Kansas City’s rank in DVOA over the respective halves of the season:
Why am I pretty confident that the absence of Houston was the key driver of that decline? Well, as a pass-rusher who had 7.5 sacks through three weeks and 11 sacks through Week 8, Houston would naturally exhibit his most notable impact by taking down the quarterback. And during the first half of the season, with Houston around and playing at his highest level, the Chiefs sacked opposing quarterbacks 10 percent of the time, which was the second-highest rate in football. From the Week 10 midway point of the season on, with Houston held sackless before suffering his elbow injury, the Chiefs sacked opposing passers just 4 percent of the time. That was the second-lowest sack rate in football over those eight weeks.12 Kansas City has a solid enough core of linebackers and a deep enough secondary to remain effective without a pass rush, but the difference between a good Chiefs defense and a great Chiefs defense comes down to getting after the quarterback.
The only team to sack quarterbacks less frequently over the second half? The Browns, who spent serious cash to bring in Paul Kruger from the Ravens and drafted Barkevious Mingo in the first round of the draft to improve their pass rush. Kruger and Mingo combined for just 9.5 sacks all season, with a mere three of those sacks coming during the final eight games of the year. That far from justifies the firing of Rob Chudzinski, but it explains why ownership and the front office might have been in a cranky mood.
That’s normally a bad fit for the Colts, because Andrew Luck is a pass-rush magnet. Luck was the most-hit13 quarterback in football by a significant margin as a rookie, and while the Colts invested in their offensive line during the offseason in the hopes of keeping their meal ticket healthy, the preliminary numbers suggest he was the most-hit NFL quarterback by a significant margin in 2013, too.
In this sense, “hit” means knocked down to the ground.
While Luck has preternatural pocket presence and the footwork of a 10-year veteran in creating space for himself to narrowly get out a throw at the last moment before being hit, a great pass rush can squeeze Luck’s clock dry and prevent the Indianapolis offense from springing to life. A perfect example is the Rams game, in which St. Louis only sacked Luck three times and knocked him down on seven plays, but its ability to force Luck to hurry up and prevent him from finding a comfortable spot to settle before making his throws stifled the Indy offense and led to Luck’s worst game of the season.
In Week 16, the Chiefs knocked Luck down five times, but they only sacked him once. Most of that pressure came through blitzes or on stunts that failed to get home before Luck released his pass; there just weren’t enough snaps where outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Frank Zombo beat their man around the edge. That’s where Houston needs to come in and make a difference.
There’s something else unique about that Rams game that the Chiefs have to try to emulate: takeaways. St. Louis had five takeaways in that game. As I mentioned earlier, the Colts have only lost the ball 14 times on offense this year, which leaves some scary math for Chiefs fans: The Colts only turned the ball over nine times across their other 15 games combined. The Chiefs, meanwhile, thrive on turnovers. They had 36 takeaways on defense this year, more than any other team besides the Seahawks (39). Something’s gotta give. And in the first game, given that they failed to force a takeaway, it was the Chiefs that gave.
Indianapolis’s turnaround in avoiding turnovers on offense is pretty shocking. It was likely that its turnover margin would regress toward the mean before the season, but becoming one of the league’s most secure offenses was hardly in the cards. You can attribute that to a few factors. One is really simple: Luck cut his interceptions down by half, throwing nine picks in 2013 after throwing 18 a year ago.
The more subtle figure is Indy’s fumble totals, which have gone down noticeably. The Colts fumbled 21 times last year; this year, they’ve only put the ball on the ground 14 times. Part of that is capital-“L” Luck; their quarterback has only fumbled six times this year, down from 10 a year ago. Another is the larger role provided to Brown, who doesn’t fumble. It’s only a slight bump in usage, as he’s taken 17 percent of the touches this year as opposed to 15 percent a year ago, but every extra snap with Brown helps the Colts hold on to the football. Brown fumbled once during his rookie 2009 campaign … and hasn’t since. By my count, Brown has an even 600 NFL touches since his last fumble.14 Brown wasn’t often a great back before his impressive run this season, but avoiding fumbles is one of those hidden ways to provide value to your football team that we don’t think about unless it’s in terms of devaluing a guy who fumbles too much. By expanding Brown’s role, the Colts should be able to keep their turnovers down moving forward, too.
As you probably already guessed, a Brown scouting report coming out of Connecticut dings him for his poor ball security.
The Colts have seen a bit of lowercase-“L” luck on those fumbles, though, too. Indy has managed to recover 10 of those 14 fumbles this year, a 71 percent rate that nobody else in the league can match. The average team has recovered just more than 52 percent of its own fumbles this year. That’s not a lot — it’s a difference of about two extra fumble recoveries for the Colts this year, given the small sample and small total — but a recovery might be the difference between winning and losing. Would the Colts have won if the Seahawks had recovered Indy’s blocked punt in the end zone for an early touchdown as opposed to having it roll out of bounds for a safety?
A key playmaker for the Colts, somewhat surprisingly, could be one of Luck’s former teammates at Stanford. You thought I was going to say tight end Coby Fleener? Nah. The deeper cut is wide receiver Griff Whalen, who has had a strange season. Whalen has been cut twice this year and made it back onto the practice squad both times before being re-signed by Indy; he has also been a reasonably meaningful part of the offense around those releases, having caught 24 passes for 259 yards. He actually led the team in receiving against the Chiefs in Week 16, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play a meaningful role in the slot this week. The Colts have looked better throwing the ball since they replaced disappointing veteran free-agent acquisition Darrius Heyward-Bey with the likes of Whalen and Da’Rick Rogers, just as their running game seemed to improve with Brown replacing disappointing trade acquisition Trent Richardson. It’s a weird trend.
The identity of the man who might be covering Whalen on defense remains confidential. The Chiefs invested heavily in their secondary this offseason by bringing in Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson in free agency, but the player who emerged as a surprise contributor alongside them was cornerback Marcus Cooper, who was a revelation during the first half of the season. Then, he ran into Peyton Manning, who — to reuse a gimmick — is some capital-“R” Revelations stuff for rookie defensive backs. Manning tore Cooper15 apart during the two Broncos-Chiefs games this year, and naturally, the rookie’s confidence plummeted. By the time the Colts game rolled around in Week 16, Cooper had been benched for Robinson, reversing a decision the Chiefs had made earlier in the season. Cooper played just six defensive snaps in Week 16 before starting as one of the many B-teamers who infiltrated the opening 22 against the Chargers in Week 17. It remains to be seen whether Cooper or Robinson will get more reps in the playoff run. My suspicion is that Cooper’s speed makes him a more likely candidate to suit up on a regular basis against the Colts, but if the Chiefs win and play the Broncos next week, I kinda get the feeling that they might prefer Robinson against Peyton & Co.
Is this some sort of weird sibling rivalry in which Manning wanted to show up a player with the same name as his older brother, Cooper? I guess we’ll know if a DB named Elisha makes it into the NFL before Peyton retires.
Dawning of a New Era
If the Chiefs have one other advantage that didn’t manage to manifest itself against the Colts the first time out, it’s on special teams. Now, before we go any further, chill. I know this is going to be a hard sell right now. Hear me out. Yes, Ryan Succop isn’t exactly coming into the playoffs on a hot streak. Not only did Succop miss a kick against these very Colts in Week 16, but he missed a second field goal in Week 17 that would have ended the game in regulation and sent the Chargers packing from the playoffs. That kick didn’t miss by very much. And I know that Adam Vinatieri’s postseason reputation is beyond reproach, but even legendary kickers miss kicks in the postseason. Vinatieri missed what turned out to be a huge kick in last year’s wild-card round when the Colts were down 17-9 in the fourth quarter and stalled in Baltimore territory before Vinatieri surprisingly missed a 40-yard field goal that would have brought Indy within five. Instead, the Ravens took over and scored a touchdown five plays later, producing the final points of the game in doing so.
Field goal kicking is the most visible part of special teams, and it’s the one thing the Chiefs do poorly; Succop has been 5.5 points worse than an average kicker this season, while Vinatieri has been 2.9 points better than the average placekicker. KC makes that up in other places. It has the league’s best return game by a significant margin, producing 37.1 points on field position combined on kick and punt returns this season under legendary special teams coach Dave Toub, who formerly ran the Bears special teams department during the glory days of Devin Hester. Kansas City has two punt returns and two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. Indy is a relatively average special teams unit across the board. The Chiefs were able to return one kickoff to midfield during the Week 16 game, but they have the ability to do more against the Colts. At the very worst, it could help them control the field-position battle in a close game.
It All Comes Down To …
The turnovers. More than in a typical regular-season game and even more than in a typical playoff game, these two teams match up against one another as dependent upon creating takeaways and avoiding giveaways. Smith has made a career out of doing just that, but Luck’s offense has been better than anybody at pulling that off this year. I think it’s fair to say that the Chiefs will play better on Saturday than they did in Week 16, which would point to a close game, but the Colts are now 14-2 in games decided by one score or less under Luck, which is freakish. So then, I go back to the turnover margin. I think it will be exceedingly difficult for the team that loses the turnover battle to win this game.
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