Playoff Primer: Chiefs @ Colts

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When two playoff teams faced each other in the regular season (which is true in three of the four wild card weekend matchups), that’s where the focus lies, especially when the environment is the same. And especially when that meeting took place only a few weeks ago, making it still fresh and crispy.

Which brings us to the Chiefs and Colts, a matchup of one team that’s trying to win its first playoff game since 1993 — a time when Sonic the Hedgehog was the coolest — and another that’s now advanced to the post-season in both post Peyton Manning years.

The Chiefs were the far more confusing team during the regular season. They brought those in Kansas City both glee (nine straight wins to start the year), and dismay (only two more after that). That start was swell, but the ending led to furrowed browns when their two post-bye wins came by a combined score of 101-41, and there was also this unfortunate distinction…

Their game in Indianapolis was part of that late-season befuddling, and it wasn’t at all close. A 16-point defeat (23-7) was easily the most lopsided of the Chiefs’ five losses, and the primary puncher in that trouncing is a little troubling. On that day just two weeks ago, Donald Brown finished with 110 total yards, which is usually good though still pretty meh. But it’s how he accumulated most of those yards that matters: on a 51-yard touchdown run, and a 33-yard score after a catch and run.

The math on that adds up to 84 yards on just two plays (and 14 of the Colts’ 23 points). Here’s what we’re left to decide then: was Browns’ performance that day an anomaly for a running back who averaged only 42.7 total yards per game throughout the rest of the season while in a platoon for much of the year? Or is it a hint of what’s to come?

Before we go about the business of attempting that answer, some more bare bones-y numbers.

Chiefs offense Colts offense
Total yards P/Game 337.2 (21st) 341.8 (15th)
Passing yards P/Game 208.8 (24th) 232.8 (17th)
Rushing yards P/Game 128.5 (10th) 108.9 (20th)
Chiefs defense Colts defense
Total yards P/Game 367.8 (24th) 357.1 (20th)
Passing yards P/Game 247.6 (25th) 231.9 (13th)
Rushing yards P/Game 120.2 (22nd) 125.1 (26th)

The surface layer shows separation in some places, but few overwhelming gaps. Huh, about that.

The other numbers that matter: Pro Bowler Brandon Flowers struggled with injuries, which contributed to the disturbing amount of chunk yardage through the air the Chiefs surrendered. They allowed 16 passes for 40 yards or more (ahead of just the Falcons and Ravens, who allowed 17 apiece), and 63 for 20 yards or more (ahead of just the Jaguars and Cowboys). But while supported by a pass rush that hurt many a man as Tamba Hali and Justin Houston combined for 22 sacks even though they both missed time (Kansas City had 47 sacks overall), this is very much a secondary that does its bending, but not much breaking. The Chiefs allowed only 19.1 points per game, tied for an AFC low, and they picked off opposing quarterbacks 21 times, tied for third.

But that ball hawkin’ may not be a problem for Andrew Luck, particularly if Hali isn’t healthy (more on that forthcoming). Luck threw only nine interceptions this season, with just one multi-pick game and eight games — also know as half the season — without competing a pass to the other guys. More recently, he’s thrown just one interception over his last 152 pass attempts. And although he gets whacked often (he sustained 107 hits), Luck’s mobility contributed to Indy allowing the sixth fewest sacks in the league (37). That includes only one by the Chiefs in Week 16, with Luck feeling mighty cozy as he completed 70.3 percent of his passes, far above his overall season rate of 60.2.

The injuries that matter: As mentioned, Tamba Hali being either limited or absent is massive. He didn’t practice all week due to a knee injury, though Josina Anderson reports that he was on the field for Friday’s walkthrough, and he’ll likely play in a limited capacity. The Chiefs will also be without right tackle and first-round pick pick Eric Fisher after he suffered a groin injury in practice. But they’ll get a healthy Branden Albert back to protect Alex Smith’s blindside, which is far more important with Fisher struggling through his first season even when he’s been healthy.

With the exception of Wayne, the Colts remain healthy, and saw the return of Darrius Heyward-Bey to practice Thursday. He’ll provide depth beyond T.Y. Hilton, Da’Rick Rogers, and LaVon Brazil.

The difference maker: Whether he sizzles again or he’s stuffed, I keep coming back to Donald Brown as the difference here, and to a lesser extent also Trent Richardson depending on how much he’s used. If we exclude Week 17 when their all-August squad almost won, the Chiefs gave up 405 rushing yards to running backs over their last four games. That sounds not great but not horrible until you see that 91 of those yards and two touchdowns came from Rashad Jennings even in a blowout Chiefs win, and 117 yards came from Montee Ball, who averaged 34.9 per game throughout the season.

The matchup to watch: Flowers vs. T.Y. Hilton. The Colts’ passing game has predictably suffered after Reggie Wayne went down in Week 7, with Luck’s passer rating falling below 70.0 in three games, and his yards per attempt either at or below 6.5 in five games. Hilton was always his deep threat, but Wayne was the reliable and cuddly safety blanket. If Flowers takes Hilton away (he had a decent 52 yards on five catches in Week 16), we’ll then see the Da’Rick Rogers show.

The Chiefs will win if… Houston and a gimped up Hali can generate enough of a pass rush to keep the game close, and ensure the offense can still run through Jamaal Charles. I’ve done some lede burial here with him. You know he’s something above human, as we all do after his 1,980 total yards this season, an average of 132 per game. But with Andy Reid’s west coast system and Alex Smith (who had a passer rating of just 57.6 in Week 16 while being sacked five times) rarely throwing a pass that travels more than 15 yards in the air, this isn’t an offense that’s built to come from behind. It’s designed to run through Charles, and through long, grinding drives with screen passes and crossing routes, all things that require a favorable scoreboard.

The Colts will win if… They can somehow keep Charles to a more moderate explosion (he had 144 total yards in Week 16, so no dice), while Luck manages the pocket pressure and continues to limit his mistakes against a secondary that will devour them quickly.

Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): Colts 17, Chiefs 14