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Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) (Pick’em) at Indianapolis Colts (13-3), Saturday 4:35PM ET

The Chiefs have the talent edge, but the Colts have one big advantage

The Chiefs have the talent edge, but the Colts have one big advantage.

Among the four games this weekend, this one figures to be the most competitive: I would be surprised if this isn’t a one possession game in the fourth quarter. The Colts rank 13th in Football Outsiders DVOA, courtesy of the 13th-ranked offense, the 16th-best defense, and the 17th best special teams. Kansas City is 7th overall, thanks to a 15th-place ranking on offense, a 9th-place ranking on defense, and the top special teams in the NFL. And while the Colts beat the Chiefs two weeks ago, I don’t put much stock in that for a couple of reasons.

One, the Chiefs were missing two key players, left tackle Branden Albert and pass rusher Justin Houston. Two, I suspect that Kansas City called a very vanilla game plan in the first meeting. The Chiefs knew that Indianapolis was the likely first round opponent in the playoffs, and a win would have been meaningless for Kansas City unless Denver would lose to either Houston or Oakland. In retrospect, had the Chiefs kept their cards close to the vest (a luxury the Colts couldn’t afford), it would have been wise.

That’s just my view, of course. For what it’s worth, teams like Kansas City — i.e., teams that lost at home to a non-division opponent that they then faced on the road in the playoffs — are just 10-24 since 1970. On the other hand, it’s happened happened each of the last two years, with the Giants upsetting the Packers in 2011 and the Ravens shocking the Broncos last year. And a 10-24 record isn’t that bad considering that each of the teams in this study was an underdog,1 with an average spread of 6.5 points. Meanwhile, the Chiefs game is a push, and none of the other examples had a spread of fewer than 3 points. If you want to use this ‘can a team that lost at home then beat that team on the road’ theory, the better example is on Sunday, with San Diego being a 7-point dog in Cincinnati after losing at home to the Bengals earlier this year.

So let’s assume a clean slate for both squads.  What should we expect to happen? With the Colts, probably the unexpected. Indianapolis ranked as the 4th most volatile team this year according to Football Outsiders, behind only the Eagles, Rams, and Jets. Philadelphia’s variance is a function of the split between Michael Vick and Nick Foles, while St. Louis and New York were legitimately wacky teams just like the Colts.

As you know, Indianapolis beat the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos this year…. and was blown out by the Rams, Cardinals, and Bengals. Let’s investigate each of those games using PFR’s Expected Points Added by unit:

  • Against San Francisco, the Colts get positive grades in passing, rushing, and pass defense. This was the most complete game Indianapolis played all season. The defense held Colin Kaepernick to a QBR of just 11.8, one of his three worst games of the year.2 On 37 dropbacks, Kaepernick produced just 169 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and one fumble. Andrew Luck’s raw passing numbers are unimpressive, but he had a QBR of 79.5, in part because he picked up several first downs via penalty and because of his work on the ground. Ahmad Bradshaw rushed 19 times for 95 yards, although he’s now on injured reserve.
  • Against Seattle, one unit carried the team: the pass offense. Luck averaged 8.00 ANY/A, easily the best performance by any quarterback against the Seahawks in 2013. The wide receivers beat Seattle deep: T.Y. Hilton caught touchdown passes of 73 and 29 yards, while Reggie Wayne caught 19-yard passes on both sides of the field. Hilton was also responsible for first downs on 3rd-and-22 and 3rd-and-10 via pass intereference penalties. The running game was mediocre, and the pass defense and rush defense weren’t impressive, either. The other key unit was the special teams, which produced a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. Adam Vinatieri also hit a key 49-yard field goal with two minutes left.
  • Against Denver, two units carried the Colts to victory: the run defense and the special teams. Knowshon Moreno had 15 carries for just 40 yards, and failed to convert on all three of his 3rd-and-short carries. Ronnie Hillman lost a fumble on the Colts goal line in one of the pivotal plays of the game. Meanwhile, Pat McAfee’s nine punts picked up an average net of 47.7 yards, including net gains of 66 yards (after a penalty), 52, 51, 50, 50, 48, and 47. Trindon Holliday also fumbled on one punt, setting up a short Colts touchdown. McAfee also made sure that 6 of his 7 kickoffs placed Denver inside the 20, with the exception being a long Holliday return where he was tackled by… McAfee. If anyone is familiar with watching the running game and special teams cost Peyton Manning a victory, it’s Indianapolis fans.

It’s impressive that in each of the three Colts wins, they were able to lean on a different portion of the team. Against the 49ers, it was the running game and the pass defense; against Seattle, it was Luck and the long passing game; against Denver, it was the run defense and special teams. What about the losses?

  • A 30-point home loss to the Rams remains among the most inexplicable games of the year, as the Rams held an average lead of 23.2 points. The Colts struggled to pass, to run, to stop the pass, and in the punting game, as Tavon Austin returned a punt 98 yards return and caught two touchdown passes. The Rams rookie picked up 236 yards on his touchdown plays alone, the second most in NFL history. Andrew Luck had another ugly game without Wayne around: in addition to 3 interceptions, a Robert Quinn strip/sack/fumble was recovered and returned for a touchdown by Chris Long. In the first half, Luck picked up just 72 net yards on 25 dropbacks, an anemic 2.88 NY/A average. By the time Luck took his first snap of the second half, the Colts were down 35-0. As for the running game? Trent Richardson and Donald Brown rushed 7 times for just 1 yard.
  • Against the Cardinals, the culprits were the passing game and the pass defense. The Cardinals led 34-3 after three quarters and posted a Game Script of 18.6. Through 3 quarters, Luck had gained just 80 yards on 28 dropbacks (2.86 NY/A) and he threw a pick six, while Carson Palmer averaged 8.30 ANY/A on 33 pass plays and converted on 3rd-and-8 and a pair of 3rd-and-14 situations.
  • Cincinnati was another game that got out of hand early. Andy Dalton averaged 9.57 ANY/A on 35 dropbacks and Giovani Bernard rushed for 99 yards on 12 carries. Luck finished the game with 300+ yards and 4 touchdowns, but that’s a bit misleading. Through 3 quarters, Luck was just 12 of 26 and converted just 1 of 8 3rd down opportunities.3 The Colts were shut out in the first half and did not get the ball until down by 21 in the second half, which is when Luck did most of his damage.

Andrew Luck is fantastic, of course, but he’s also inconsistent. Over the course of the year, he actually was below the league average in terms of Net Yards per pass Attempt, and the Colts have a negative Net Yards per Attempt differential. One reason for that is the philosophical change in Indianapolis: in 2012 under Bruce Arians, Luck’s average completion traveled 8.02 yards in the air, the largest distance in the league. This season, playing for Pep Hamilton, Luck’s average completed pass traveled just 5.62 yards in the air, the 31st lowest rate. The Colts don’t get a ton of yards after the catch, either (just 14th best in the league), which means Indianapolis needs to complete a high percentage of its passes for the offense to be humming.

You already know the biggest issue Luck will face: Kansas City’s outside linebackers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Houston was a defensive player of the year candidate through 11 games, with 11 sacks and two fumble recoveries. He missed the final five games of the year with an elbow injury, but he will be back on Saturday. Hali has 46.5 sacks over the last 4 years and 13 forced fumbles, but is questionable for the game with a knee injury. His presence could be the deciding factor: Luck can use his pre-snap recognitions to mitigate the effect of one monster edge rusher, but the presence of both players will be tough for an underwhelming offensive line. I expect the Colts to continue to use the short passing game — especially if both Houston and Hali are healthy — which means the onus will be on Luck to post a high completion percentage. I’m skeptical that will happen, as the Chiefs allowed the 2nd lowest completion percentage in the regular season. 4

When the Chiefs have the ball, the game figures to be less exciting. As I wrote in the New York Times this week, Kansas City’s offense is predictable and conservative. Jamaal Charles led the team with 1,980 yards from scrimmage, while Dwayne Bowe was the runner-up with just 673 yards. That means Charles gained 2.94 as many yards as any other Chief, making Kansas City one of the more star-dependent offenses in NFL history. The table below shows all teams5 where the leader in yards from scrimmage gained at least 2.75 times as many yards as the second-leading player on the team:

JAX2011Maurice Jones-Drew1980Marcedes Lewis4604.30
RAM1984Eric Dickerson2244Henry Ellard6173.64
TEN2009Chris Johnson2509Kenny Britt7013.58
BUF1973O.J. Simpson2073Jim Braxton5953.48
NOR1981George Rogers1800Wayne Wilson5213.45
BUF1983Joe Cribbs1655Frank Lewis4863.41
CHI1966Gale Sayers1678Jim Jones4973.38
RAM1983Eric Dickerson2212Mike Barber6573.37
NYY1946Spec Sanders968Eddie Prokop2883.36
BAL2003Jamal Lewis2271Todd Heap7143.18
GNB2003Ahman Green2250Javon Walker7173.14
MIN2012Adrian Peterson2314Percy Harvin7732.99
SFO2006Frank Gore2180Antonio Bryant7332.97
RAM1986Eric Dickerson2026Barry Redden6842.96
KAN2013Jamaal Charles1980Dwayne Bowe6732.94
CHI1989Neal Anderson1709Brad Muster5862.92
GNB1945Don Hutson894Clyde Goodnight3092.89
IND1998Marshall Faulk2227Marvin Harrison7762.87
PIT1992Barry Foster2034Jeff Graham7112.86
DET1982Billy Sims981Leonard Thompson3442.85
STL2009Steven Jackson1738Donnie Avery6192.81
NYG2004Tiki Barber2096Amani Toomer7472.81
CHI1984Walter Payton2052Matt Suhey7362.79
HOU1980Earl Campbell1981Mike Barber7132.78

Kansas City is also conservative, even though they are much more pass-happy than you might think. After adjusting for the score — and Kansas City was 4th in the NFL with an average points margin of 4.37 — the Chiefs were the 7th-most pass-heavy team in the NFL. But Alex Smith’s average pass this year has traveled just 6.63 yards in the air, the 2nd-lowest rate in the league. The Chiefs have one of the more vanilla pass-happy offenses you’ll ever see, and worship at the alter of the screen pass.

As a result, Smith averaged just 5.67 net yards per attempt, which ranked 28th among qualifying passers. Part of the blame falls on his receivers: among the 31 wide receivers who averaged 12 or fewer yards per completion (minimum 40 targets), Bowe ranked 24th in catch rate (notably, Colt Darrius Heyward-Bey was one of the few below Bowe). Dexter McCluster had a 63.9% catch rate, but among the 27 receivers with a catch rate over 63%, only Cole Beasley had a lower yards per catch average. I don’t like the statistic Yards/Target, but both Bowe and McCluster ranked in the 70s in that metric among the 89 receivers with at least 40 targets. Donnie Avery has slightly better numbers, but over the last 11 weeks of the season he had just 24 catches for 292 yards and 1 touchdown.

So how were the Chiefs so successful this year? Kansas City’s average starting field position was the 32.7-yard line, while Chiefs opponents began drives, on average, at the 23.1 yard line. That’s a difference of 9.6 yards provided to the red team before the start of each drive, easily the biggest advantage in the league. That, combined with the talent advantage the Chiefs have over many teams, provided the blueprint for the conservative offense to wind up winning 11 games. But against the top teams in the league, the offense needs to be more aggressive.

Ironically, I wonder how this game would look if the teams switched coaches. Chuck Pagano wants to run an old-school power offense, but Indianapolis’ offense is best placed in the hands of Luck. Andy Reid wants to run a pass-happy attack, but is stuck with an offense that saw its running back lead the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.

Neither team is particularly aggressive on 4th down. The Colts were 3-of-10 on 4th down, while the Chiefs were 4-of-11, putting both teams in the bottom quarter of the league in terms of both attempts and conversions. My prediction? Whichever team is more willing to be aggressive early in the game will avoid having to be ultra-aggressive late in the game. The Chiefs have more talent, but the Colts have the better quarterback. In a close game, it’s tempting to pick the quarterback who has been outstanding in those situations. But I’m going to go with the coach whose decision-making is less likely to drive me crazy. Shockingly, that guy coaches Kansas City.

Prediction: Kansas City 20, Indianapolis 17

  1. Well, each of the 29 teams since 1978, which is as far back as my points spread data goes. []
  2. The other two were in week 2 against Seattle and week 10 against Carolina. []
  3. He did gain 184 yards, a 7.1 average, but that was largely due to a 69-yard short pass and long run by Da’Rick Rogers. []
  4. Yes, this is the part where you say “but didn’t they face backup quarterbacks every week?” []
  5. Well, since 1932. And I didn’t check to see if any other 2013 team would make the cut. []
  • Ty

    What a game! I didn’t expect a high score.

    • Chase Stuart

      No doubt. One of the most entertaining games I’ve seen.