1. Well-rounded vs. all-or-nothing
Note: aside from the overall DVOA and FPI ratings, the stats and rankings below come from the regular season only — not last week’s wildcard games.
Per both FPI and DVOA, the best team still standing in the AFC has the single weakest unit of any remaining teams in the AFC. Kansas City’s offense and special teams have been so dominant that they’ve been able to win the most games in the conference despite having, at best, one of the seven worst defenses in the league.
That makes the Colts an interesting foil. Frank Reich’s squad has maybe the most well-rounded remaining team here. They aren’t necessarily elite in many areas, but their biggest strength is that they don’t have a damning weakness. You can win a lot of playoff games with that trait.
AFC East champ New England is only hosting this game because the Chargers happen to share a division with the Chiefs. That gives the Pats their most defining advantage: home field. (Then again, Los Angeles might be the best road team in the league this year.)
The narratives in this game are off the charts — Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has a chance to actually beat Tom Brady for once, to totally redefine his legacy, etc. Narratives and losing streaks can be overpowering some times, but Los Angeles is the only team in this AFC field that ranks in the single digits in both offensive and defensive DVOA. They’ll never be more ready for this challenge.
2. Who makes the big plays at Arrowhead?
Saturday’s game in Kansas City could be decided by which bend-don’t-break defense breaks the least.
Indianapolis isn’t all that explosive, doing most of its damage with pass precision and solid red-zone offense, and Kansas City’s extremely flexible (to put it diplomatically) defense should be quite vulnerable to said efficiency. But the Chiefs will score enough to overcome that as long as they’re creating some gashes against the most gash-proof defense in the league and/or continuing their own red zone proficiency.
Breaking things down into run and pass, the matchups get even more interesting.
Kansas City’s defense is incredibly inefficient, yes, but most of that comes from the run defense. That’s good for them because Indy doesn’t run the ball efficiently. Meanwhile, Indy’s biggest strength (pass efficiency) is Kansas City’s only area of efficiency.
One of the biggest tension points in this game will come with Andrew Luck drops to pass on second- or third-and-long. For both Luck and any opponent facing the Chiefs, third-and-long is like third-and-3. Kansas City has a strong pass rush — Chris Jones, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston have combined for 37.5 sacks this year — but if they don’t get to the QB, the QB is finding an open man. The Chiefs don’t usually get gashed on passing downs, but they let you catch back up to the chains.
The Chiefs could find equal advantages on offense, though. They are second in passing marginal efficiency, and Indy’s defense is 31st. They are one of only two offenses better than Indy’s on passing downs, and the Colts’ defense is even less efficient than KC’s.
Granted, the Chiefs’ offense slid just a hair late in the year while dealing with receiver injuries (Sammy Watkins is listed as questionable for Saturday) and the release of running back Kareem Hunt. But they still have elite talents in receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. And, they still have Patrick Mahomes.
This is going to be a quarterback’s game, and that’s exciting. It’ll come down to which passer makes bigger plays under pressure and which offense executes better in the red zone. Can’t wait.
3. Passers and red zone, Part II
Really, I guess you could say that every game comes down to passers making plays and operating well in the red zone, huh? That will probably be the case at Gillette Stadium, too. Both the Chargers and Patriots are top notch on both sides of the ball in scoring opportunities, and, well, they have Rivers and Brady, respectively.
It’s hard not to notice Los Angeles’ offensive advantages, though, isn’t it? It’s been a while since New England’s defense was at its Belichick best, and in terms of possessing both efficiency and explosiveness, the Chargers have the most balanced offense in the AFC outside of Kansas City’s. They are built to take advantage of whatever defensive weaknesses you have. I’ll say it again: Philip Rivers will never have a better chance than this.
Like the Chiefs, the Patriots’ biggest defensive weakness comes on the ground. We’ll see if LA can take full advantage of that with Melvin Gordon seemingly battling an infinite number of lower-body injuries at this point.
Gordon missed four games late in the regular season and has averaged only 3.2 yards per carry since his return. The Chargers advanced in Baltimore last week even with him limping in and out of the game, but their red zone offense faltered, and their settling for field goals allowed the Ravens to nearly surge to a comeback win.
The Chargers will likely lean more on the pass, then, which plays into New England’s hands. Star safety Devin McCourty left the last game of the regular season with a concussion but returned to practice this week, and they will likely be full-strength.
Once again, the dichotomy on passing downs is most noticeable. New England takes a very bend-don’t-break approach there, and if the Pats can avoid some big-play touchdowns, they can take advantage of the Chargers’ weakening red zone offense. Meanwhile, the Chargers’ defense takes the opposite approach — attack, attack, attack — on passing downs, and they get good results.
But they’re facing Playoff Tom Brady. If you don’t bring him down on third-and-long, he’s going to beat you. The Chargers know that pretty well.
4. The home teams have the special teams advantage
In Desmond King, the Chargers have one of the most dangerous punt returners in the league. Unfortunately, I just listed all of their special teams strengths. New England is inefficient in the kickoffs game but solid at everything else, and unless King breaks a big one, if there’s an advantage to be gleaned in this matchup, it probably favors the Pats.
Back in Kansas City, special teams are just about survival for the visiting Colts. Hill is nearly as scary in the return game as he is on offense, and the Chiefs’ legs don’t give you many return opportunities.
5. New England is crazy-volatile
You would assume that a team led by maybe the greatest QB of all time would be pretty stable and reliable. In this instance, you would also be wrong to assume that. The Pats are fifth in the league in scoring margin, but they have the third-largest standard deviation as well. Contrast that with the Chiefs and Chargers, which are both top-6 in scoring margin and have among the nine lowest standard deviations.
New England won seven of its 16 games by at least two touchdowns but also lost by 24 to Tennessee, by 16 to Detroit, and by 11 to Jacksonville (average points scored in these games: 13.3) and let a pretty spectacular set of miscues lead to a loss in the most memorable finish of the regular season. Their top gear is as strong as it’s been in a while, but they have stalled out sometimes as well.
6. My predictions:
- Chiefs 31, Colts 24
- Chargers 27, Patriots 24
Honestly, it’s not hard to talk yourself into both road teams here. Indianapolis is smoking hot, and when you take Kansas City’s morbid home playoff history into account, it’s pretty easy to see a scenario in which the Chiefs’ defense can’t get off of the field early in the game, and the Arrowhead crowd — which can be so intensely joyful in certain moments — falls into a palpable “Here we go again” state.
Meanwhile, history is basically the thing the home team has going for it the most. These aren’t games Rivers and the Chargers tend to win, but they’ve already ended a long losing streak to the Chiefs this year, and they’ve handled massive road test after massive road test. And on average, they have simply been better and more consistent than New England.
I’ll split the difference, if only because I think a third Chargers-Chiefs battle this year would be incredible. History suggests we’ll gets a Colts-Pats conference title game, but I’ll go with the two best teams in the conference instead.