The Colts versus Chiefs matchup might be the most intriguing game of the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, at least if you like innovative offense. After Indianapolis thumped Houston in the wild card game, the Colts look like contenders. They have won five straight games and 10 of their last 11. They’re outscoring opponents 302-171 in that stretch, and quarterback Andrew Luck — finally healthy — has been a revelation.
Indianapolis’s defense held Houston’s tailbacks to 29 total yards on eight carries and forced Deshaun Watson to be a scrambler, then an unwilling runner. The improvement of the defense, in addition to that of the offensive line, has been a major story this season, highlighted by the success of 2018 draft picks Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard. Nelson, a guard, and Leonard, a linebacker, became the first rookie teammates to be named first-team all-pro since 1965.
The Colts will face a big challenge this week in trying to contain Chiefs’ gunslinger Patrick Mahomes. He leads an explosive offense that averaged an NFL-best 35.3 points per game, and he threw for a league-leading 50 touchdowns. He is considered the favorite to win league MVP in just his first season as a starter.
But Kansas City’s defense, which allows 26.3 points per game, could be a major liability if the Colts get rolling.
“Will the Chiefs’ defense cost them a championship?” NFL analyst John Clayton asked in his weekly column. “I think it will, and so do many people around the NFL I’ve spoken to. They believe in Mahomes. They believe in [Chiefs Coach] Andy Reid. But the defense can’t stop the run, and it has major problems in pass coverage.”
Kansas City also doesn’t have history in its favor. The Chiefs’s last home playoff win came against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991.
And teams with playoff newcomers at quarterback have often struggled in such situations. As The Post’s Matt Bonesteel noted this week, teams with first-time playoff starters have gone 8-15 this decade, and 14-32 since 2002.
One thing we can be sure of is that the elements will play a factor come kickoff. It’s been snowing in Kansas City since Friday night, with anywhere from 4.5 to seven inches of accumulation and light snow expected throughout the day, per The Kansas City Star. Wind chills at Arrowhead Stadium could drop into the lower to mid 20s.
When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Eastern.
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City.
How to watch on TV: NBC.
How to stream online: NBCSports app.
Odds: Chiefs -5.
What’s next: The winner advances to the AFC championship game on Jan. 20, playing the winner of Sunday’s matchup between the Chargers and the Patriots. If the Chiefs win, that championship game would be in Kansas City. If the Colts win, that game would be on the road.
Matchup to watch: Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill vs. Colts defensive backs Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker
Don’t be surprised if the Colts don’t even attempt to play man coverage on a single snap against the Chiefs this weekend. The played 65 snaps of man coverage during the regular season, the second-lowest total in the NFL, and unless you have cornerbacks who can run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, that’s usually the correct coverage to play against Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs’s speedster racked up 562 yards against man coverage this season — third-most in the NFL — at a ridiculous 19.4 yards per catch.
It’s not like teams fared amazingly against Hill playing zone, either, though. The Chiefs will regularly counter soft zones by sticking Hill in the slot and letting him get a free run at the safeties. The speed with which he gets to the second level of the defense and quickness with which he breaks off his routes is a nearly impossible task for most safeties to match. He racked up 597 yards from the slot against zone coverage — the most in the NFL.
Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker have been successful matching up with slot receivers down the field so far this season, having allowed all of five catches between them. Hill presents a rare challenge, however, and on one play he can completely change the game. — Mike Renner, Pro Football Focus
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