There is no roadblock in their way. There is nobody to fear. After 49 years, the coast seems clear.
The top-seeded Chiefs and their top-ranked offense are favored to return to the Super Bowl nearly five decades after their last appearance. They have a wunderkind quarterback in MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes, a cadre of playmakers around him, a fierce pass rush and a veteran coach.
The Patriots are considered a soft No. 2 seed. The third seed, the Texans, already lost. The Steelers failed to reach the playoffs.
Except, it never is simple for the Chiefs, is it? This is a franchise that has lost 11 of 12 playoff games and failed to even reach the AFC title game the past four times it received a first-round bye into the divisional round.
“A playoff run in general would mean a ton to everyone in this community, including us,” said Mahomes, the second-year pro who threw for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in his first season as a starter. “I know the history, but at the same time, we are a different generation.”
The Chiefs stumbled late in the year, losing two of their final three games, and lost some of their invincibility with the release of star running back Kareem Hunt following a domestic violence incident. And Kansas City may not have caught a break with its opening-round opponent.
The Colts are seeded sixth, but they didn’t look like a sixth seed in dispatching the Titans, 21-7, last Saturday. Three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck regained his health this year behind one of the most improved offensive lines in the sport, and a young defense contributed to the Colts turning a 1-5 start into a playoff berth. Nobody is hotter than this team, which has won 10 of 11 games.
“You have to bring your best,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
Colts offensive line vs. Chiefs front seven
Sure, everyone will be tuning in to see Luck, Mahomes and all their dynamic playmakers, but the battle in the trenches, especially when the Colts have the ball, is just as intriguing. Indianapolis’ rebuilt offensive line — fortified by rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith — led the league in fewest sacks allowed (18), a major factor in the team’s six-win turnaround.
But the Colts’ line will have to deal with one of the sport’s premier pass rushes in this meeting. The Chiefs, led by Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones, were tied with the Steelers for most sacks (52). Something’s got to give.
“You’ve got the team that leads the NFL in sacks and the offensive line that leads the league in fewest sacks, so a great challenge, good on good,” Colts coach Frank Reich said.
Karma: Kansas City fans would be nervous anyway, facing a red-hot quarterback and a team entering this showdown on a 10-1 streak. Add the horseshoe on the side of the opposition’s helmets, and it’s easy to understand the concern.
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The Colts have owned the Chiefs in the playoffs, going 4-0 all-time. Twice the two teams have met in the division round, with the Colts the wild card and the Chiefs the favorite, only for Kansas City to come up short. They last faced one another in the 2013 postseason, a 45-44 Colts victory in which the Chiefs blew a 28-point, third-quarter lead in Andy Reid’s first season as coach. It remains the second largest comeback in playoff history.
“There are some really good memories from that game,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck recalled.
But the most frustrating moment for the Chiefs against the Colts has to be the 10-7 setback on Jan. 7, 1996, when Lin Elliott missed three field goals, sending the No. 1 seed home.
Play keep-away: How do you stop the best offense in the sport? Keep it on the sidelines. QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce can’t hurt the Colts if they’re not on the field. That’s where Marlon Mack comes in. The Colts running back has gained more than 100 yards in three of his past four games and had a touchdown in his past five contests. The second-year back has come on after missing four games due to a hamstring injury and drilled the Texans for 148 yards and a score last Saturday, becoming the first 100-yard rusher Houston allowed this season.
The Chiefs’ 27th-ranked rushing defense (132.1 yards per game) is susceptible to the run. Just look at some of Kansas City’s defeats: The Seahawks ran for 210 yards, the Chargers 119, and the Patriots 173. It can be pushed around, and the Colts are coming off a performance in which they bullied a premier defense.
A hole at safety: Chiefs safety Eric Berry didn’t look quite like himself after returning from a nagging heel injury that cost him the first 13 games of the season, and, according to reports, the team isn’t expecting to have the five-time Pro Bowl er at its disposal. Kansas City struggled covering tight ends all season, allowing 10 touchdowns, and the Colts have a dynamic one in Eric Ebron (14 touchdown catches). Berry is listed as questionable, though he didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday. He played in two games and notched 11 tackles before sitting out the regular season finale.
“It’s difficult from the standpoint of he’s a real critical part of our team,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said.
Indy ‘D’ steps up: Somewhat lost in the Colts’ furious finish are the strides the defense has made. Once of the worst units in the NFL a year ago, it is playing like one of the best now. It held five opponents to single figures, allowed just 12 points per game over the past six weeks and didn’t allow a rusher to reach 100 yards once this season.
Now comes the Colts’ biggest test, in the Chiefs. The best offense they saw all year belonged to the Patriots, and New England put 38 points on them back on Oct. 5. This group is playing very differently now, however.
There will be tense moments for the Arrowhead Stadium faithful. Periods of doubt. But Mahomes didn’t throw 50 touchdown passes by accident. He has a big second half after some early jitters and the Chiefs pass rush gets to Luck three times, creating one timely turnover, as the floodgates open late.
Chiefs 41, Colts 27