|Orlin Wagner / Associated Press|
|Matt Cassel's dramatically improved play is a big reason for the Chiefs' run to the postseason.|
If you're looking for a darkhorse to emerge out of the AFC, you might want to cast your eyes on the Kansas City Chiefs. The AFC West champions are one of the hottest teams in the league, and have an offense built for the rugged play of the postseason.
When thinking about the formula for winning in January, it is imperative that an offense features an elite quarterback, a dynamic playmaker at receiver and a strong running game. The Chiefs surprisingly feature each of these critical elements, and the collective production will make them a difficult opponent in the postseason.
In looking at Kansas City's run to the division crown, it has been the dramatically improved performance of Matt Cassel that has fueled the turnaround. He has played at an MVP-like level this season by completing 60.2 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Those numbers represent a significant improvement from his first season as the Chiefs' starting quarterback where he only completed 55 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a dismal 69.9 passer rating.
Even though his production is way up, it is what Cassel has put on tape that suggests he can lead the Chiefs on a postseason run. He looks more decisive in the pocket and is throwing with velocity. His ball placement has been superb, and his ability to connect with open receivers has made the passing game lethal.
Part of Cassel's improvement can be attributed to the arrival of Charlie Weis. The savvy play-caller implemented the original scheme that Cassel thrived in during the 2008 season as Tom Brady's fill in for the Patriots, and the familiarity with the system has undoubtedly led to success. In addition, Weis has gotten his star quarterback to avoid negative plays. Cassel has only turned the ball over six times, and is one of the fewest sacked quarterbacks in the league.
Although opponents have frequently dialed up the blitz to harass Cassel, he has repeatedly punished foes for their aggressive tactics. He quickly gets the ball out of his hands and his heady decisions have kept the Chiefs out of negative situations.
Of course, every quarterback needs an explosive primary target in the passing game, enter Dwayne Bowe. The fourth-year pro has blossomed into a Pro Bowl-type receiver this season. He leads all receivers with 15 touchdown grabs, and has emerged as a force on the outside. At 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, he overpowers defenders in one-on-one matchups and is a big target over the middle. Cassel has taken advantage of Bowe's size by frequently targeting him on inside routes, and the receiver's ability to run after the catch has led to big plays.
In looking at the Chiefs' 34-14 win over the Tennessee Titans, Bowe's 75-yard touchdown catch illustrates his dynamic skills. He catches a deep dig route over the middle, and runs through and around defenders on the way to the end zone. With Bowe capable of turning short passes into big gains, Cassel has become more comfortable allowing his playmakers to do their job instead of trying to shoulder the entire burden of carrying the offense.
While some will point to the Chiefs' rejuvenated passing game as a key component of their offensive success, it is their punishing ground attack that has propelled the unit. Led by the electrifying tandem of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs are averaging a league-leading 167.5 rushing yards per game. As an explosive inside-outside combination, Jones and Charles share the workload evenly, but each brings unique skills to the table.
Jones, who has rushed for 879 yards on 235 carries, is a rugged inside runner with outstanding vision and quickness. Though he no longer possesses the breakaway speed, his experience allows him to remain productive despite diminishing skills. In studying Jones' game this year, his uncanny ability to avoid free hitters in the hole stands out. He quickly anticipates open lanes and still retains the burst to get in those alleys. With the Chiefs' zone-based scheme dependent on runners finding cracks in the defense, Jones' cutback skills make him a valued commodity.
In Charles, the Chiefs have a speedster capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. He excels at getting to the corner and they repeatedly feed him the ball on a host of outside zone runs. By design, those runs direct him toward the inside foot of the play-side offensive tackle, but Charles' speed, vision and explosiveness allow him to bounce to the outside or burst through cracks created by overaggressive defenders pursuing the play.
Throw in a physical offensive line capable of dealing with the heavyweight defenses featured by the Ravens, Steelers and Jets, and the Chiefs suddenly have a recipe that could lead to an extended postseason stay.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.