AFC Fear Index: Kansas City Chiefs
With the Patriots on a much deserved (and needed) bye this week, I'll be taking a look at each potential New England opponent playing on Wild Card weekend and how they could potentially match up with the Pats. Last but not least, the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs.
Season results: 11-5, 2nd in AFC West
Ranks: Offense: T-6, Defense: T-5 (remarkably they've scored and given up the exact number of points as Cincinnati)
Reason to fear: Of all the Patriots potential opponents, no one is better at nor more committed to running the ball than the Chiefs. Quite simply, that's a problem for a Patriots team that ranked 30th in the league against the run in 2013. On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs are a fast, physical defense that can get after the quarterback in a hurry. Quickly getting pressure on Tom Brady has proven to be a recipe for success against New England, and the Chiefs have a number of guys capable of doing just that. Finally, the Chiefs excellent special teams could pose a serious challenge to a Patriots group that has been outstanding for most of the year.
- Jamaal Charles, world-beater: Peyton Manning will run away with the MVP award thanks to his record-breaking statistics, but you could make a legitimate argument that Charles was more valuable to the Chiefs. Simply put, Charles was the Chiefs offense in 2013, leading the team in rushing yards (1,287), rushing touchdowns (12), receptions (70), receiving yards (693) and receiving touchdowns (7). Whoever said the workhorse running back was a thing of the past clearly missed what Charles has done this season. Tackling and pursuit will need to be excellent against Charles, who possesses the speed to break off a big play at any time. Between the Patriots problems against the run and their struggles covering backs and tight ends, Charles is a nightmare match up for them.
- Alex Smith (yes, that Alex Smith): Why is Smith, routinely maligned as a "game manager", up here as a matchup concern? Because of his athleticism. People seem to forget that Smith was a great dual-threat quarterback in college, playing the Tim Tebow role (albeit with a much better arm) for Urban Meyer at Utah. While has largely stuck to the pocket in his pro career, he still has the kind of speed to hurt a defense with his legs if given the chance; just ask the New Orleans Saints. The Patriots defense, built with an emphasis on size and power rather than quickness, has had its issues all season containing mobile quarterbacks. While Smith's legs alone shouldn't be enough to beat the Patriots, they certainly could contribute to a Chiefs upset if the Pats don't pay them the proper respect.
- Protecting Tom Brady: The Chiefs defense racked up 47 sacks this year, a figure that tied for the sixth most in the league. While they got 11 each from Pro Bowl OLB/edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston (despite Houston missing five games with an elbow injury), the Chiefs were far from a two man show. Nose tackle Dontari Poe and DE Tyson Jackson each showed up with 4.5 and 4 sacks respectively, despite taking on extra blockers as part of a 3-4 defense. Additionally, both middle linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry are adept blitzers, as shown by Johnson's 4.5 and Berry's 3.5 sacks. This pressure aided the Chiefs secondary in holding opposing quarterbacks to a 56.4% completion percentage and nearly as many interceptions (21) as touchdown passes (25). The Chiefs can certainly bring the heat, be it from the middle or the edges, and it will be a challenge for the Patriots to give Brady enough time to get into a comfortable rhythm in the pocket against them, particularly if Logan Mankins is still fighting through his ankle injury.
- Lack of weapons: Unfortunately for the Chiefs (and particularly for Smith), a significant aspect of Charles' MVP case is the lack of offensive weapons surrounding him. The Chiefs receiving core consists of the maddeningly inconsistent Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Dexter McCluster (all 5'8" of him) and first round bust AJ Jenkins. Their tight ends are Sean McGrath (great beard, limited receiver) and Anthony Fasano, who has battled some injury issues this year. The shortcomings of this group really came to head in their two showdowns with Denver, as several bad drops down the field were arguably the difference in games that were close throughout. They are good enough to supplement the running of Charles, especially when they have a lead, but the Chiefs simply aren't good enough throwing the ball downfield to score points in a hurry or play from behind.
- Vulnerable against the run: For a defense sending five guys to the Pro Bowl (with a sixth deserving of a berth in Derrick Johnson), the Chiefs aren't exactly stout against the run. In fact, the Chiefs allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season, an identical figure to the Patriots sieve-like defense (teams averaged four more carries per game against the Pats than the Chiefs, accounting for the difference in yards surrendered). The Patriots best hope on offense this postseason, regardless of the opposition, is to continue to ride their two-headed power rushing attack of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. Considering the pass rushing prowess of Chiefs, running right at them certainly seems to be the best strategy.
Fear Index: 8/10
A lot of people have written this Chiefs team off. Be it due to having Alex Smith as their quarterback (a handicap that didn't seem to hurt the 2011 Niners) or to the Chiefs late season swoon (which included two close losses to Denver), a lot of people "don't trust the Chiefs". Do so at your own peril. These Chiefs are built particularly well to match up with the Patriots, who will have a lot of trouble stopping Charles and their running game if this meeting comes to fruition. The strength of that running game and pass rush are the reason I have the Chiefs ranked an 8/10, slightly higher than the 7.5/10 given to Cincinnati. There are a lot of reasons to fear this team.