NFL Playoff Preview - Kansas City (11-5) at Indianapolis (11-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - In today's NFL, heating up in December generally means things go pretty well in January.
The Kansas City Chiefs are hoping to turn that kind of thinking on its head by doing something they have never done before, beat the Indianapolis Colts in the postseason.
The AFC South champion Colts come in hot, having won three straight in which they allowed a total of 20 points, a span that included an impressive 23-7 triumph at Kansas City back on Dec. 22.
"I think if you check the last six Super Bowl winners, they got hot at the right time," Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis, a serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate, said. "That's what it's all about, getting hot at the right time."
The Chiefs, on the other hand, have limped into the postseason by losing two in a row and stumbling to a 2-5 finish after their impressive 9-0 start.
Kansas City, though, completed the regular season with an 11-5 record a year after compiling a dismal 2-14 mark, the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history thanks in large part to a new head coach and quarterback combo, Andy Reid and Alex Smith.
"It's the start of a new season. That's how the playoffs work," Reid said. "You're in the dance, as they say. It's another phase of the season. You've worked very hard as a team to get into this position. Now it's important that you make sure you get it right."
Part of the problem for the Chiefs in the latter half of the year was health, particularly on defense. During its 9-0 burst out of the blocks, Kansas City's "D" allowed just 12.3 points per game compared to the 27.7 ppg it allowed in the past seven.
Linebacker Justin Houston was the lynchpin of that early run, amassing 11 sacks in 10 games before going down with a dislocated elbow.
"It's very tough knowing that if you were out there, you can make a difference," said Houston, who is expected back this weekend.
Reid also chose to rest the majority of his starters in Kansas City's disputed season-ending 27-24 overtime loss in San Diego last week.
Whether that helped or not remains to be seen but the Chiefs expect to also have wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (concussion) and left tackle Braden Albert (hyperextended knee) back in the lineup as they attempt to halt an ugly seven-game playoff skid.
Signs also point to Houston's running mate at linebacker, Tamba Hali (knee) playing, while right tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, could be sidelined with a groin problem.
"Obviously, guys are going to be feeling pretty fresh, so that's a good thing," Smith said when taking about the extra rest he and some of his teammates got. "It will really help us as far as the week goes, having a great week of preparation."
The Colts ended things in the regular season with a rather easy 30-10 home win over Jacksonville as star quarterback Andrew Luck completed his sophomore campaign on a up note, completing 26-of-37 passes for 282 yards and a touchdown.
Luck tossed 23 TD passes for the second straight year and really improved his decision-making, throwing only nine interceptions after being well into double-digits during his rookie campaign. He also finished the regular season with 8,196 career passing yards, the first player in NFL history to crack the 8,000-barrier in just two seasons.
Kansas City, the AFC's fifth-seed, has faced No. 4 Indianapolis on three prior occasions in the playoffs (1996, 2004 and 2007) with the Colts coming out on top each time: a 10-7 victory at Arrowhead Stadium in a 1995 AFC Divisional Playoff Game (Jan. 7, 1996), a 38-31 win at Arrowhead in a 2003 AFC Divisional Playoff Game (Jan. 11, 2004), and a 23-8 victory at the RCA Dome in a 2006 AFC Wild Card Game (Jan. 6, 2007).
Since the AFL-NFL merger, Kansas City and Indianapolis have squared off 23 times overall, with the Colts holding a 15-8 advantage.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Chiefs are one of the most talented teams in football as evidenced by the fact that eight members of Kansas City's roster were named to the 2014 Pro Bowl, tying San Francisco for the highest amount of players from a single roster in the NFL.
The Chiefs have excelled at times in all three phases this season. Smith pilots an offense that is keen on taking care of the football while the defense has been extremely opportunistic. Kansas City's plus-18 turnover differential (36 takeaways and only 18 giveaways) leads the NFL. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have outscored opponents by an impressive 430-305 margin and led the league in return touchdowns with 11.
The special teams have also been special. K.C. is tops in average starting field position, beginning at the 33.4 yard line and also ranked first in average opponent starting field position at the 23.2 yard line. A major reason for that is the fact that the Chiefs kick return team set a new NFL record by averaging 29.9 yards per return.
The Colts, though, figure to come in with the confidence of a home team and the knowledge they already handled the Chiefs pretty easily in Arrowhead, a difficult environment to play in.
Luck, who is 2-0 against Kansas City, finished 26-of-37 for 241 yards in the meeting back on Dec. 22 while Smith was 16-for-28 for just 153 yards and an interception.
"It's tough right now," Smith said after that game. "I didn't think that we played very well in any facet of the game, certainly not good enough especially on offense. We didn't have the production and with the turnovers, you make it about impossible to win. We're going to have to learn from it."
Neither team is apt to give anything away. Indianapolis has an NFL-low 14 turnovers on the season while the Chiefs are next at 18 and that entire difference came at the hands of Indy two weeks ago
"That's a challenge I think both ways - both offensively and defensively," Reid said. "(The Colts are) efficient with the ball, they don't have a lot of penalties that are called against them and they don't turn the ball over much. That's this time of the year, you've got to eliminate mistakes."
Smith is usually the definition of a signal caller who doesn't shoot himself in the foot. Since 2011, he is 30-9-1 as an NFL starter and he's 6-1 as the Chiefs' leader on the road this season, throwing 11 TDs in those games compared to just one pick with a solid 94.6 passer rating.
The Indianapolis defense, led by Mathis, who won the NFL's inaugural Deacon Jones Award with 19 1/2 sacks, has been humming recently, forcing eight turnovers in the current winning streak while allowing just nine third-down conversions in 37 attempts.
"We finished December strong," defensive lineman Cory Redding understated.
The Colts will certainly be keying on Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, who makes the Chiefs offense go. Charles led the AFC in rushing for the second consecutive season, has an NFL-best 19 total TDs, and averaged 132 scrimmage yards per game in 2013, best in the conference.
"As a coordinator and as a staff, offensively, every week we say, 'Ok, how can we get 25 (Charles) the football?' Whether it be from the backfield, empty it, motion, how can we do that," Kansas City offensive chief Doug Pederson said. "He is an explosive player, we know that, everybody knows that and we understand that people and defenses are going try to take him away and target him so we have to be creative with him and continue to find ways to get him the football in space."
For Indy much has been made about all the upheaval and the lack of continuity on the offensive line but Luck has only been sacked three times in his last 152 pass attempts despite eight different starters playing over that time frame, a testament to the Stanford product's quick release and understanding of the offense.
"He's a really good football player," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said when asked about Luck. "He's a very talented guy, there's not a throw he can't make. I think the thing that impresses everybody is when you play him; he's a big man that can run. He's a lot faster than people realize. He can run, and I think he's done a tremendous job."
The K.C. defense is spearheaded by the pass rush of Houston and Hali, who both finished with 11 sacks this season, along with the playmaking ability of safety Eric Berry on the back end.
"I don't know how much it changes (what we do offensively), but certainly we know that both of those guys have 11 sacks apiece," Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. "With Tamba (Hali) on one side and Justin (Houston) on the other, it's a great duo ... our tackles have played well, for the most part, all season so it will be a huge challenge for both of those guys (Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus) and to get those guys blocked."
Something has to give here as the two teams come in with a combined 10 straight postseason losses.
The Chiefs haven't tasted victory in the playoffs since a road win in the 1993 AFC Divisional round with a 28-20 victory at Houston on Jan. 16, 1994. Indianapolis, conversely, has dropped three consecutive in the postseason after last season's 24-9 wild-card loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Reid's playoff experience could be the difference here. While Indy is in the postseason for the 11th time in 12 seasons, this is only Pagano's and Luck's second time on the big stage. Conversely this will be Reid's 20th postseason game as a head coach.
"We want to win," Houston said. "Everybody knows it's playoff time. Win or go home. Everybody's mindset is we are not ready to go home. As long as we keep practicing the way we are practicing and everybody is putting in extra work in the film room, we are going to be alright."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 21, Colts 20
01/02 12:09:45 ET