Chiefs at Texans (4:20pm ET Saturday, ESPN)
Show of hands – who thought after Week 7, when the Chiefs and Texans were both 2-5, that they’d then go a combined 16-2 and be meeting in the playoffs? Not one of you. Nice work, people.
The 2015 Kansas City Chiefs are a tale of two seasons: They started the year 1-5, scoring 21.2 points per game, while giving up 26.5. The following week they began their current 10-game winning streak, during which they’ve outscored the opposition 27.8-12.8. What kind of change precipitates a 20.3-point swing? Head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson retooled the offense following the loss of running back Jamaal Charles in a Week 5 defeat at the hands of the Bears; Charcandrick West and Spencer began sharing the running duties, and after a week of finding themselves – in what would prove to be their final regular season loss – the ground game took off. The Chiefs’ rushing average went from 101 yards a game to 144. The improved running game put less pressure on QB Alex Smith, who was given more freedom to call audibles, and promptly saw his pass completion percentage jump from 62.4% to 67.7%, while his TD-to-INT ratio climbed from 2-to-1 to 3.5-to-1. Despite averaging 70 fewer yards per game, Smith’s rating popped from 88.8 to 100.7.
“For coach, where he had come from, that was a little foreign to him,” Smith told Sports Illustrated. “And it was something I want. You see things better the older you get, and when you do see things, you want to take advantage and strike.”
On the defensive side, the Chiefs went from forcing one turnover a game through six weeks to forcing 23 in their final 10 games. Cornerback Marcus Peters led the secondary with 8 of the team’s 17 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. That improved play translated into 70 fewer passing yards a game by their opponents, which in turn led to a huge dropoff in points allowed.
At just 9-7, the Houston Texans are the luckily beneficiaries of a questionable playoff seeding system that has them hosting a playoff game against a team with 22% more wins.
To give you an idea of how important the QB position is to the Texans, they are just the sixth team since 1960 to have four different quarterbacks start and win a game, only one of two to have a winning record, and the only one to make the playoffs. Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weedon and someone named TJ Yates each won a game for the Texans, combining to make for an admirably average passing attack that ranked 18th in yardage and 15th in TDs. Unfortunately, Hoyer – or whomever the Texans find to start at QB – may be without the services of the team’s second- and third-most productive receivers, Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts, who are dealing with a bad hip and a bad hamstring, respectively. But they will have breakout star DeAndre Hopkins available. Hopkins has pulled in 111 passes for 152 yards and 11 TDs this year – he’s kind of important to their offense.
It’s the Houston defense, led by J.J. Watt, that has done the heavy lifting this year, ranking 3rd in yards allowed, 5th in sacks, and 8th in points. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Watt once again led the league in sacks with 17.5, to spearhead a pass rush that was instrumental in holding opponents to the third-fewest passing yards. The Houston secondary is dealing with its own injury issues, as linebacker Jadeveon Clowney’s foot has forced him to miss the last two games and remains questionable.
The Chiefs beat the Texans 27-20 in Week 1, a game that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest, as Houston scored 10 points in the final 4:07 and still lost by 7. That was a long time ago, and both the teams have gotten a lot better, but it looks like the better team got betterer.