NFL wild card weekend kicks off Saturday afternoon as the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Houston to take on the AFC South champion Texans. Both clubs overcame the common obstacle of extremely unsuccessful starts to the 2015 season; Houston did not win their second game of the year until Week 6, and KC did not get their second victory until the following week. To accomplish that rare feat both teams leaned heavily on their defenses, both of which ranked in the top ten in the league in points allowed. After a five-turnover debacle against Denver in Week 2, the Chiefs gave the ball away just ten times over the next fourteen games, and finished with a plus-14 turnover differential – second best in the league this year. On December 27 the Texans lost to the Patriots to drop to 6-7 and their playoff chances appeared bleak. Houston’s defense forced ten turnovers over the next three games to carry the team to an improbable comeback, and into the post-season.
Who: #5 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at #4 Houston Texans (9-7)
What: AFC Wild Card Game
When: Saturday, January 9 at 4:35 pm ET on ABC
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TX
Odds: Kansas City opened as 3-point favorites and as of Friday afternoon that number still holds, though a few outlets now have the Chiefs at -3½. The over/under is 40, and most venues currently have their Money Line set at KC -180 and Houston +160.
Head-to-Head Record: The Chiefs defeated the Texans in Houston back in Week One by the score of 27-20. Kansas City also won in their prior meeting, 17-16 in 2013. All-time the Chiefs hold a 4-3 all-time series lead; this is the two teams’ first encounter in the playoffs.
Kansas City was handed a difficult schedule to begin the season, so it was not a surprise that the Chiefs stood at 1-3 after losses to Denver, Green Bay and Cincinnati. However, after scoring a combined 27 points in losses to the Bears and Vikings, KC dropped to 1-5 – and with Jamaal Charles on Injured Reserve, their season appeared to be over. As we all know since then the Chiefs have won ten in a row, and they enter the playoffs with fewer question marks than any AFC team. Similar to the Patriots in 2014, the Kansas City offensive line jelled and became a very effective unit after a rough start. Odd as it may sound, the loss of Charles may have made this team better. Andy Reid was over-reliant on his star running back, and his absence forced the offense to open up and diversify. Jeremy Maclin, Travis Kelce and Charcandrick West are all dangerous in open space, and that opens lanes elsewhere. When nobody is open Alex Smith can take off and run effectively. The quarterback rushed for 498 yards at 5.9 yards per carry, running for 30 first downs with three rushes of 20+ yards.
While KC’s offense should not be overlooked – they did finish ranked ninth in scoring, with 25.3 points per game – it is their defense that has carried the team to the post-season. The Chiefs have allowed 20 or fewer points in twelve of their 16 games this year, and are averaging 11.7 points against over the last four weeks. Safety Eric Berry has made a miraculous comeback from chemotherapy, and ILB Derrick Johnson’s play has progressed over the season. CB Marcus Peters (8 picks for 280 yards and 2 TD) has stepped up to fill one void the Chiefs had on defense – a shutdown corner – and should be NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. ROLB Tamba Hali was able to play last week after breaking his thumb, and LOLB Justin Houston is listed as probable after missing four games due to a hyper extended knee.
In Week One J.J. Watt was able to get to Alex Smith for two sacks, but the Chiefs were without LT Eric Fisher for that game. HC Bill O’Brien faces a difficult task of finding a way to disrupt the Kansas City passing game, because Smith gets rid of the ball quickly and rarely turns it over. Since the fumble fest in Week 2 against Denver, KC has turned the ball over just ten times; the Chiefs ranks second in the NFL with 15 giveaways, just one behind New England. Overall KC has a plus-14 turnover differential, best in the AFC.
For Houston to win this game their star players on each side of the ball – Watt and WR DeAndre Hopkins – must come through with big days. The Texans were able to sack Smith five times in their opening game loss to KC, but were unable to take the ball away. Cliché as it sounds, Houston cannot afford to lose the turnover battle in this game.
On the other side of the ball is a matchup that all football fans should watch and enjoy, WR DeAndre Hopkins versus CB Marcus Peters. Despite the four-headed monster of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden at quarterback throwing him the ball, Hopkins finished third in receiving yards (1,521), third in receptions (111), third in first downs (83), seventh in receiving touchdowns (11), and seventh in reception of 20+ yards (19). Hoyer may as well throw it to Hopkins early and often because it is doubtful that Alfred Blue (698 yards rushing, 3.8 ypc), or Chris Polk (334 yards rushing, 3.4 ypc) will be able to get much done on the ground.
If the score is close in the 4th quarter then Houston has an excellent chance to win, because history tells us that we can count on Andy Reid to mismanage the clock and his team’s time outs. A late rally could also put Reid and his players in a trance, recalling the 45-44 meltdown two years ago at Indianapolis. However, I don’t think it will come down to that, and the Chiefs will walk away with their first playoff victory since 1993 – when the soundtrack to the Bodyguard was the number one album and Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to get out of a record deal.
Prediction: Chiefs 24, Texans 13
Despite their being on the road, take Kansas City minus the points.
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