By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For a moment there on Saturday night, it looked like the Patriots would be gifted a divisional round visit from Marvin Lewis and the Bengals. That looked promising for the Patriots, of course, because the Bengals just have a way of imploding every January, and the idea of either an injured Andy Dalton or an inexperienced A.J. McCarron waltzing into Foxboro and stealing a playoff win seemed far-fetched, to say the least.
Alas, as you well know, the Bengals went ahead and hit that self-destruct button on Saturday night, thereby punching the Chiefs’ tickets to Gillette Stadium. This was not a positive development for the Patriots.
Of course, the Patriots are still considered the better team heading into Saturday afternoon’s divisional round showdown. Vegas has the Pats as five-point favorites, in fact. So, just because the Patriots drew the toughest possible matchup out of the three potential opponents does not mean that their season is going to end on Saturday.
It does, however, mean that the Patriots will need to play their very best, and they’ll need to answer a number of questions that remain regarding several players’ health in order to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
Understanding that, here are seven stats from the Chiefs that particularly stand out as the Patriots prepare for their playoff opener.
As in, 17.9 points allowed per game, which ranked third-best in the entire NFL. That number suggests that the game that plays out on Saturday afternoon will not be a shootout, so any one mistake will be magnified. (Think: An overthrown screen pass intended for BenJarvus Green-Ellis that gets picked off by David Harris and returned 58 yards, immensely changing the entire game in an instant.)
The follow-up to this stat is this: zero, aka the number of points the Chiefs allowed on Saturday, albeit against an admittedly dreadful Texans offense.
This stat comes with a caveat, however, as the Chiefs didn’t really face any of the top-five scoring offenses. They did face the fourth-ranked Steelers, holding them to 13 points, but that game featured Landry Jones at QB. The Chiefs did allow 36 to the Bengals, who ranked seventh in scoring, and 38 points to the Packers, who ranked 15th, proving that points can be put on the board. But at the same time, those games took place all the way in late September/early October, so they’re not necessarily relevant to the mid-January Chiefs.
If there’s any way to stymie a potentially potent Patriots offense, it is to get pressure. And it just so happens that the Chiefs are pretty darn good at getting to the quarterback.
The 47 sacks for the Chiefs have them ranked fourth on the season, and they were split among Justin Houston (7.5), Tamba Hali (6.5), Jaye Howard (5.5), Ron Parker (5), Allen Bailey (4.5), Derrick Johnson (4), Dee Ford (4) and six others. In that sense, it’s not one threat for which the Patriots have to game-plan, a la J.J. Watt. Instead, it’s a multi-faceted front that can cause a lot of headaches and disruptions.
This is where Sebastian Vollmer’s status comes into play. By all accounts, the tackle is going to give it a go. But just how effective he is may well be the factor that decides this game. With Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming manning the tackle positions, the once-soaring Patriots offense has come crashing down over the past month. It’s looked to be a case of Tom Brady simply not having any time in the pocket or not feeling comfortable or safe when he does actually have a spare second or two. And obviously, it was these Chiefs who helped force Brady into arguably the worst night of his professional career in September of 2014. Vollmer is not a perfect player, and in fact if you watch this video you can see exactly what Hali is capable of doing to him. But if he isn’t fit to play at a high level, thereby forcing Cannon and Fleming to handle a ferocious outside pass rush, it could be a treacherous night for Tom Brady.
Ah yes, the complement to those sacks numbers would be this, 22. The interception total.
That was the second-highest pick total in the league, trailing only Carolina (24). Like the sacks, the picks were spread out. Rookie Marcus Peters had eight, which left him tied for the NFL lead. Ron Parker had three, Eric Berry and Sean Smith each had two, as did three others.
That nose for the ball on defense obviously played a big role in the Chiefs’ wild-card win last weekend, when they picked off Brian Hoyer four times. (You could argue that Hoyer was the main reason for the majority of those, and you wouldn’t be wrong.)
Of course, the Chiefs didn’t face a murderer’s row of starting quarterbacks this season, as they only faced three QBs who ranked in the top 10 in passer rating. Of those three, Matthew Stafford struggled mightily (6 sacks, 2 INTs) but Andy Dalton (17-for-24, 321 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 0 sacks) and Tyrod Taylor (21-for-38, 291 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 sack) fared quite well.
As mentioned earlier, we’ve all seen a Patriots playoff game get flipped on its head when the underdog opponent picks off Tom Brady. The Patriots’ always value ball security among all else, but that focus will take on added importance this week.
Speaking of which …
One. That’s the grand total of interceptions thrown by Alex Smith in his four career postseason starts. Ten touchdowns, one interception.
At this point, in year 10 of his career, we know what Alex Smith is. He’s a guy who hardly ever throws the ball downfield, instead preferring to make passes behind the line of scrimmage. He’s someone who’s grown to prefer the safe pass over the high risk/reward pass, as evidenced by his completion percentage climbing from 59.5 percent in years 1-8 to over 65 percent in the past two seasons.
He’s not imposing. But he doesn’t screw up.
Even that one interception, which came this past weekend, wasn’t entirely his fault, as he threw slightly behind Jeremy Maclin over the middle, leading to a tipped ball that hung up long enough for Brian Cushing to make a diving pick.
The fact that Smith is unlikely to make a bad pass that leads to an interception again underscores the importance of ball security. The Patriots themselves thrived quite a bit on the turnover this year, as their plus-7 turnover differential was fifth-best in the NFL. But that’s nowhere near the Chiefs, whose plus-14 differential was best in the AFC and second-best in the NFL. (The Chiefs only lost eight fumbles, which tied them for seventh-fewest, so there won’t be a lot of opportunity there, either.)
The Chiefs had the second-best third-down defense in all of the NFL, allowing conversions just 33.2 percent of the time. Only Houston was better.
The Patriots’ defense is certainly a top-10 unit, full of playmakers like Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, and Rob Ninkovich. The secondary — Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung — is one of the better groups in the league. In a normal game, the Patriots’ defense will be able to limit what Smith and the Chiefs can do.
Yet, if Brady’s offense can’t keep drives going and maintain possession, it’ll force the Patriots’ defense to work overtime. And losing a lopsided battle in time of possession is never a recipe for success in January.
Pay extra attention on third downs, because that’s where this game way be won and lost.
Yes, it was a long time ago, and yes, many of the players involved that night will not be playing this Saturday. Yes, that was Week 4 of the regular season, whereas this is now the playoffs. Yes, yes, yes.
Obviously, a victory from September 2014 won’t actually help the Chiefs when they take the field this weekend in Foxboro. But what it does provide is some confidence, which comes from knowing they can beat the Patriots. That’s something that some teams just don’t have. It’ something that the Bengals wouldn’t have had if they were the ones coming to Foxboro, and it’s certainly something that the Texans would be lacking if it were them on the way.
Even accepting all of those caveats, it cannot be denied that Andy Reid’s Chiefs issued the Patriots one of the worst losses of the entire Bill Belichick era. That’s something that will unquestionably give many of the players in the Chiefs locker room a boost as they hit the practice fields this week.
The Chiefs haven’t lost since Oct. 18. As has been the case with most of the numbers presented here, this one comes with an asterisk to note that the combined record of the teams beaten by K.C. over the past three months is 76-100 Of the nine teams, only the Steelers, Broncos and Texans finished the year with winning records.
But an 11-game win streak is an 11-game win streak, and no matter who you’re playing, maintaining such consistency is an achievement. Five of those wins came on the road, and one came in London.