The Chiefs guaranteed their place in the 2021 playoffs in Week 16 – when they won the AFC West crown for the sixth consecutive year. However, this is the first time we’ll see Patrick Mahomes play in a wild card game after a turbulent season for Kansas City. So, with more playoff doubt surrounding the Chiefs than ever during the Mahomes era – how can this team reach the Big Dance for the third straight year?
Experience matters in the playoffs
It’s fair to say the Chiefs have had success during Andy Reid’s nine years as head coach. They’ve only missed the playoffs once, won their division for the past six years, and the AFC title game has also been played at Arrowhead for the past three seasons.
This head coach and quarterback duo knows how to win, especially in the playoffs. The Chiefs are 6-2 in the playoffs since the 2018 season and are looking to grow that impressive record this year against their AFC opponents – who can’t boast the same success. Joe Burrow, Mac Jones and Derek Carr have never started a playoff game before this year while Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill both entered 2021 with a 2-2 playoff record. The Chiefs also beat the Titans and Bills in back-to-back AFC Championship games. When it counts, Kansas City most often comes out on top.
The outlier is Big Ben Roethlisberger who is 13-9 in January and February – but the future Hall of Famer’s best days now seem behind him. And can Bill Belichick take this new Patriots team away after his historic run with Tom Brady?
The toughest challenge for the Chiefs could end up being the Super Bowl itself – with Dallas, Green Bay, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay all posing sizeable threats in their conference. But the Chiefs are 3-0 against NFC playoff teams this season, two of which were mentioned above (the Packers and Cowboys).
Development over the season
The start of the season has not been ideal for the Chiefs. After week seven, they were 3-4 and were in last place in the AFC West. The defense couldn’t get saves and the offense was prone to turnover. Predictions that Kansas City would miss the playoffs were heard from afar. But then they decided to continue an eight-game winning streak that saw the team climb back to the top of the division and be one game away from the lone seed.
This team has gotten better and better as the season progressed. The attack seems to have understood the struggles that their opponent’s defenses were giving them early on. The two-high looks will no longer fool Mahomes’ unit, as they stuck to the short-range throws rather than trying to force the splashing game that dominated their game plan at the start of the season.
Defensively, they also turned a corner – sliding Chris Jones inside combined with the addition of Melvin Ingram showed how Spagnuolo’s side of the ball can cause problems for opposing quarterbacks and offenses in general. He has also proven to be a coordinator who can learn from his mistakes. If he sees Cincinnati somewhere down the line, he won’t leave Chase on an island like he did in Week 17.
Patience is the key
This goes for both sides of the ball. On offense, the Chiefs proved they could methodically move the ball upfield in the second half of the season. Mahomes takes what the defense gives him and their backfield is varied enough to play hard on the field. If they can limit turnovers by not forcing the ball down or fumbling it, this team can keep opposing quarterbacks on the sidelines and sap energy from defenses.
Speaking of defenses, Spagnuolo needs to force opposing attacks into long-range situations on second and third downs and then use the blitz sparingly in those situations. In Week 17, Ja’Marr Chase burned Chavarius Ward down the right sideline on the 3rd and 27th setting the game-winning field goal because the defense blitzed zero – leaving Ward one-on-one with the rookie catcher. The Chiefs need to be more patient on those big downs and trust their strong four-man pass rush to do its job while the secondary sits.
The playoffs are never easy, but this Chiefs team has certainly had its fair share of success over the past three years. Can they continue like this in 2021? If they do, that’s how they do it.