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AFC Divisional Round preview: Colts-Chiefs

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The Backstory


For the first time since 1995, the Chiefs are chiefs atop the AFC with a No. 1 seed and a unique home-field advantage at football's loudest venue. So it's a damn shame that their opponent in Saturday's Divisional Round opener is the one team, the one franchise that has given them outsized hell over the years. Sure, this season Kansas City boasts an historic offense with a half-froed renegade under center, but on Saturday afternoon, with the Colts on the opposing sideline, it will be staring down a red-hot opponent and the barrel of its own unfortunate history.

The Colts and Chiefs have met four times in the postseason, all since the mid-90s, and K.C. has lost every time, including twice in the Divisional Round. The most recent defeat featured some familiar players. Andy Reid, in his first season at the helm in K.C., had coached the Chiefs to a 38-10 lead over Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton's Colts in the the third quarter in Indianapolis. And then the second-largest comeback in postseason history happened. Despite all their regular-season success, the Chiefs are just 1-4 in the postseason under Reid. The wounds are fresh, because they're annually ripped open.

But that's not even the most ominous record on Kansas City's, er, record heading into this weekend. That would be this: The Chiefs are 0-6 in their last six postseason games in Kansas City. Winless at Arrowhead since the 1993 season.

Perhaps the tone of this intro reeks of too much doom and gloom, and not enough boom and zoom, which are more accurate onomatopoeia to use when talking about Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the juggernaut Chiefs of 2018. Kansas City has been so prolific and provided so few slip-ups in regular-season play this year that the only conceivable way for this offense to not achieve a glorious destiny is to give away games, right? Yes, but Chiefs know how to do that in the postseason all too well.

Under pressure


Pierre Desir, CB, Colts: Do it again. Matched up last week against one of the league's toughest tasks in DeAndre Hopkins, Desir played relatively lights out, allowing just two of Hopkins' five grabs for just 16 yards, per Pro Football Focus. Paired with Kenny Moore, Desir led an Indy secondary that shut down what turned into a one-dimensional Texans offense on Wild Card Weekend. The Colts face a different animal in Kansas City.

Though not expected to shadow Hill throughout the game, Desir will be tasked with manning up the big-play threat on occasion. Their matchup could be a microcosm of how things turn on Saturday afternoon. Indy plays unabashedly conservative pass defense, allowing the highest expected completion percentage (71.5) of any team this season, meaning the Colts give up the short throws. They balance that with a stiff deep-game defense; opponents attempt deep passes on just eight percent of throws against Indy. Mahomes and Hill are masters of breaking plays downfield; the former led the league in completions and yards on deep passes, while the latter paced professionals with 32 big plays in 2018 and has 16 career TDs of 50 yards or more.

Eric Berry (or whoever fills in for him, gawd forbid), S, Chiefs: I could use the same argument for Berry that I used for Desir and just swap out some words or figures. This game figures to be an Annie Oakley downfield shootout: Any pass you can hit, I can hit farther. For Berry, the concern lies in his health or lack thereof. After finally returning from a nagging heel injury, he looked unlike himself in the one-point-five games he participated in and has missed practice in the lead-up to Saturday's game. With the league's top tight-end corps rolling into town, now is the worst time for Kansas City to start hemorrhaging secondary talent again. Colts tight ends caught 21 TDs this season, including 11 by Eric Ebron in the red zone, while K.C. allowed a league-high 10 TDs to tight ends. The Colts tight end-Chiefs safety matchup looks to be a flashpoint, and Berry, Kansas City's senior defensive back, is a threat to go AWOL.

Matchup to watch


Colts' offensive line vs. Chiefs' front seven: The on-field clash of Indy and K.C.'s titanic lines is far more exciting than the made-for-TV cruiserweight bout between Mahomes and Andrew Luck. Eighty-nine combined touchdown passes! Points aplenty! Extree extree, read all about it! That storyline is for the billboard barons. How about we focus instead on a more classic narrative: Unstoppable force meets immovable object?

Luck and his shoulder have been precious cargo all season, and Indy's offensive line has done more than enough this season to ensure the QB meets as little resistance as possible. The Colts have allowed league-low pressure and sack rates (7.4, 0.6, respectively) and surrendered a league-low 18 sacks.

Meet unstoppable force. For all of the Chiefs' issues on the back end, Bob Sutton's defense boasts a consistently great pass rush, led by Justin Houston, Dee Ford and breakout interior lineman Chris Jones. Jones and his 3.4-percent sack rate (second among interior DL) figure to be stymied against Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly, but the Chiefs have an advantage on the flanks. K.C. is the only team to boast two top-10 edge defenders in pressure rate (Ford, Houston), and Indianapolis is susceptible to pressure at the tackles. If K.C. can't get to Luck, then the Colts QB will have a field day in the Chiefs' secondary, so the war has to be won in battles at the line of scrimmage.

Prediction


Since Week 7, Indianapolis has allowed less than 15.5 points per game, but to whom? Not one of the Colts' opponents since their bye boasted a threatening, multi-dimensional attack even close to resembling that of Kansas City's. (Dallas, perhaps, but barely.) The Chiefs, meanwhile, are battle-tested, losing two of three to playoff defenses (BAL, LAC, SEA) by a margin of five points in December. Some clubs have the ability through skill and will to disregard superstition and the gravity of history. This Chiefs team, young and weightless, loose and free, is one of them.

Kansas City Chiefs 34, Indianapolis Colts 29

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