Kansas City Chiefs 28, Denver Broncos 24
I think the thing I appreciate most about the NFL playoffs is that there is nowhere left to hide. During the regular season people call certain teams soft. Others lament various teams and how poorly a job they did of living up to expectations or covering spreads. We talk about which clubs had easy schedules. On and on we go.
When it comes to the playoffs, everyone is trying to win. It doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season anyone; all that matters is winning football games. You either win and advance, or you lose and go home.
The 2021 Kansas City Chiefs had a weird and, in many ways, rough regular season. We don’t usually say things like that about a team who finishes with 12 wins and captures the number two seed in their conference, but it goes to show just how high of a bar they set for themselves. They dealt with more adversity on the field than they have at any point of the Patrick Mahomes era.
The fruits that that’s going to bear will likely be felt more in years to come than this one. The once quick-strike offense that fans grew accustomed to over the last three years suddenly, in 2021, morphed into a more traditional unit. Whether due to an adjusted blueprint of how opposing teams defended them, a brand new offensive line, or a lack of receiving weapons, this year’s Chiefs have basically had to reinvent who they are and how they do it.
Given that there are a finite amount of games in an NFL season, and thus a finite amount of reps for all these (new) players to gain experience together, I am very much looking forward to seeing what they can accomplish in Year Two and Year Three — speaking particularly about Mahomes and his offensive line — but even with that, we’ll again be in a new year, and opposing defenses will again come up with new ways of trying to stop them.
For now, the Chiefs finished the regular season with a record of 12-5. It’s the fourth consecutive year they have won at least 12 games, and the fourth straight season they have been either the one seed or two seed in the AFC. The team now marches on to attempt to reach the AFC Championship for the fourth time in a row, and reach the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
To do so, they are going to have to play (and defeat) some teams they have already played this year. Out of the 13 playoff teams in both conferences — not including themselves, obviously — the Chiefs have played 7 of them (and the Raiders twice). Of those 8 games they went 5-3, with wins against the Cowboys, Packers, Steelers and Raiders (twice), and losses to the Bills, Bengals and Titans.
In other words: there are going to be some payback games assuming they take care of business against Pittsburgh, who Kansas City are a 13-point favorite against. Crazy shit always happens during the NFL playoffs so I don’t want to count my chickens too quickly, but there is a realistic scenario that the Chiefs will have to play the Bills in the Divisional Round and Titans on the road in the AFC Championship if they want to make it back to the Super Bowl.
My back-of-the-napkin math tells me that Kansas City would be around a 3-point favorite in both of those contests, which would be challenging to say the least. But this shit is never easy. My thoughts on the Chiefs can be summed up by former NFL offensive lineman (and brother of former Chiefs all-pro right tackle) Geoff Schwartz in this tweet:
In my head, I keep coming back to the image of last year’s Super Bowl. Of Patrick Mahomes scrambling around on seemingly every drop back, victim to playing quarterback behind an offensive line missing basically everyone of consequence. The Chiefs figured to make amends for that during the offseason when they traded a first round pick for Orlando Brown Jr., signed the best free agent guard available in Joe Thuney, and drafted both Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith.
Despite opposing defenses playing soft on almost every play, forcing the Chiefs to produce long drives to score points, I still believe the key to beating Kansas City is generating a worthy pass rush with only four players. If a team is going to beat them now — when it matters the most — it’s going to be pressuring Mahomes and playing coverage against all his weapons.
That may sound like a simple recipe, but at this stage of the year it’s often simplicity that beats the complex. It’s man winning against man, and may the best win. For the last three years the Chiefs have had the talent edge, and they have used it to get to three straight conference championships and back-to-back Super Bowls. They might have to do it a bit differently this year, but the Chiefs can absolutely still do it.