I know that statement will draw the ire of fans of the Patriots, Broncos and Bengals, but the fact is, the Chiefs have all of the core components needed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film to see how coach Andy Reid has turned Kansas City's season around and discovered the following three reason to believe the Chiefs might be the best team in the AFC:
1) Alex Smith has evolved into a championship-caliber quarterback.
Skeptics might question whether Smith is elite based on his production and reputation as a conservative game manager, but there's no disputing his ability to win games as an opportunistic playmaker for the Chiefs. The 11th-year pro has guided the team to 29 wins in three seasons as the starter, displaying outstanding management skills as the director of Reid's quick-rhythm offense. Smith is an ideal point man for the scheme due to his high football IQ and athleticism. He efficiently works through his progressions to hit the open receiver based on the reaction of the coverage. Although his penchant for taking the checkdown has drawn criticism, Smith's reluctance to put the ball in harm's way has been critical to the team's success.
In 45 career regular-season games with the Chiefs, Smith has recorded just 22 giveaways (18 picks, four lost fumbles), and his superb ball security makes Kansas City a tough out in a league where games are routinely decided by the turnover battle. In fact, one of the keys to the Chiefs' recent hot streak has been Smith's low interception rate. He leads the NFL in interception percentage (1.1), which places him ahead of "elite" quarterbacks like Tom Brady (1.2) and Aaron Rodgers (1.3). Granted, Smith has attempted significantly fewer passes (446 vs. 603 for Brady and 528 for Rodgers), but it doesn't change the fact that he has protected the ball and avoided the costly mistakes that keep teams from winning at a high level.
Smith's numbers during the Chefs' nine-game winning streak (68.6 percent completion rate, 12 passing touchdowns, two picks, 26 attempts per game) are pedestrian in a fantasy football sense, but a quick study of the All-22 Coaches Film reveals a quarterback with a keen understanding of how to play the game based on his own individual talents. Smith is a deadly accurate intermediate passer with a terrific feel for throwing the ball between multiple defenders on passes directed between the numbers. He displays nice anticipation and timing on seam routes, short and intermediate crossers and spot routes near the hashes.
As I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film, I was impressed with how Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson have featured Smith's favorite routes prominently in the game plan. Smith is absolutely torching opponents down the seams; the coaching staff has done a great job of dictating the terms to the defense to create big-play opportunities. This is particularly apparent in the red zone, where the Chiefs are wearing opponents out with various seams and skinny posts against single-high coverage (Cover 1 or Cover 3) or blitz pressure.
Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15, the Chiefs ran a version of F-short post to create a touchdown opportunity for Maclin down the seam, as you can see in the play below. After breaking the huddle aligned in a dubs formation, with Maclin positioned in the slot, Smith sends Charcandrick West in motion to the left, outside of Maclin. The 3x1 formation overloads the Ravens' coverage and isolates Maclin on a defender in the slot. Maclin is adept at running a precise skinny post, and Smith is able to anticipate when and where his WR1 will come open despite facing blitz pressure. The veteran delivers a perfect ball to Maclin for a 13-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 16, the Chiefs used the same concept (F-short post) from a different alignment to score another touchdown with Maclin, as you can see in the play below. The team aligns in an empty formation, with Travis Kelce and West positioned outside of Maclin to the left. The 4x1 set overloads the Browns' coverage, leaving Maclin isolated on a defender in the slot. The crafty pass catcher runs a nifty route to cross the face of the defender. Smith anticipates the move and delivers a dart to a perfect spot in the end zone for an 11-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
While Maclin has been a huge beneficiary of clever play design in the red zone, the Chiefs' coaching staff has also placed Kelce in a position to make plays within Smith's sweet spots on the field. The big, athletic tight end is a "box out" specialist in the red zone; his size makes it nearly impossible for defenders to make plays on the ball when he works down the seam on skinny posts or bend routes.
In the play below, from the win over the Browns, the Chiefs align in a trips bunch formation, with Kelce positioned on the back side. The 3x1 formation forces the Browns to overload their coverage to the offensive left, leaving Kelce isolated in one-on-one coverage. Browns CB Tramon Williams is aligned on the tight end's outside shoulder. Kelce pushes the defender to the outside with his initial stem before breaking across his face on the skinny post. Smith anticipates the move and delivers the ball just before his young tight end makes his break. With a perfect throw delivered away from the defender, Kelce hauls in the pass for an easy touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Chiefs' coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for designing a passing game around Smith's strengths as a passer, but the veteran has also tapped into his athleticism and mobility to keep the offense on schedule. Smith has rushed for 437 yards this season on a variety of impromptu scrambles and designed quarterback runs that exploit overaggressive defenses. As a collegian at Utah, Smith directed Urban Meyer's spread offense as a nifty dual-threat playmaker. Thus, he is comfortable using his legs to extend plays or avoid trouble in the pocket.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I repeatedly watched Smith flee the pocket when he spotted a crease in the middle of the rush when his primary reads were blanketed, as evidenced in the video clip below:
Most coaches don't want their star quarterback to be exposed to unnecessary hits on the perimeter. But Smith's mobility adds another dimension to the offense and alleviates pressure on the play caller to script a perfect game.
With Smith fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses as a player, the Chiefs have the perfect quarterback in place to lead a deep playoff run in Reid's system.
2) Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce are thriving on the perimeter.
The changing dynamics of the NFL make it imperative to have multiple pass catchers on the roster capable of acting as the No. 1 target in the passing game. Opponents will frequently use double coverage or bracket tactics to neutralize the WR1 or TE1 on the perimeter, leaving one-on-one coverage for multiple receivers on the back side. If an offense lacks a complementary playmaker capable of winning against isolated coverage, the unit is rendered helpless against creative defensive coordinators intent on forcing the quarterback to find other targets on the perimeter.
Maclin, a seventh-year pro, was signed in the offseason to serve as the Chiefs' WR1 after flourishing under Reid's tutelage in Philadelphia during his early years -- and he has been as good as advertised. Maclin leads the team with 84 receptions for 1,034 yards and seven scores. Most importantly, he has quickly developed a chemistry with Smith that has encouraged the veteran to lean on him in critical situations.
Smith's production when targeting Maclin has been astonishing. The quarterback has completed 70 percent of his passes directed towards Maclin, while posting a 7:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and, most impressively, compiling a 108.8 passer rating on those targets.
From a scouting perspective, Maclin is a talented playmaker with superb running skills. Although he has grown into an effective route runner, he is at his best when given the ball in space on quick-rhythm plays. The Chiefs have tapped into his skills by frequently getting him touches on bubble screens and isolation routes (quick outs, hitches and hinge routes). The bubble screen, in particular, has allowed Maclin to use his balance, body control and athleticism to run away from defenders on the perimeter. The video clip below, of Maclin's 13-yard score against the Oakland Raiders in Week 13 showcases his skills on the perimeter:
Kelce has been just as impressive as a TE1 for the Chiefs. The 6-foot-5, 260 pounder has become a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, exhibiting exceptional athleticism, ball skills and playmaking ability. Kelce is a unique, big-bodied tight end capable of running away from defenders or posting them up between the hashes. The Chiefs have taken advantage of his skills by frequently targeting him on various seams, quick hits and crossers designed to get him the ball on the move.
Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 12, the Chiefs ran a triple slant concept with Kelce at the WR3 position, as you can see in the play below. The 3x1 formation leaves Kelce isolated on a slot defender, and it creates an easy outlet against a potential blitz. When the Bills bring pressure, Smith simply fires the ball to Kelce and allows his big-bodied pass catcher to work his magic over the middle. This results in a 38-yard gain for the Chiefs(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Smith growing increasingly comfortable with Kelce as a feature player in the passing game, Reid has made it a point to get the ball to his young pass catcher all over the field. The results have been impressive, with Smith compiling a 108.7 passer rating when targeting Kelce. Given the success the Chiefs have enjoyed with Maclin and Kelce playing prominent roles, opponents must gear up to stop dynamic duo in the postseason.
3) The Chiefs' defense is peaking heading down the stretch.
For all of the impressive performances Reid has gotten from his unsung offense, it has been the Chiefs' defense that has sparked the team's impressive run. Kansas City has surrendered just 13.2 points per game since Week 5; no opponent has scored more than 22 points during that stretch. While the pass rush has certainly played a role in the effort (the Chiefs have averaged 2.9 sacks over the past 11 games), it has been Kansas City's ability to generate turnovers that should make opponents wary.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I've been most impressed with the suffocating coverage in the back end. The secondary has blanketed top receivers with air-tight coverage, forcing quarterbacks to fit balls into tight windows. With most interceptions derived off tips or overthrows, the superb coverage from Eric Berry, Sean Smith and Marcus Peters has fueled the solid play from the Chiefs' defense.
Peters in particular has been a surprising standout as a rookie starter at left cornerback. He has eight interceptions, tied for most in the NFL, and has tallied 25 passes defensed as the league's most targeted defender (131 targets, 25 more than the next-most-targeted player, the Steelers' Antwon Blake). Measuring 6-foot, 197 pounds with long arms, Peters is a versatile technician capable of utilizing press, bail or traditional backpedal techniques. He displays impressive confidence and recognition jumping routes in his area, yet he is also disciplined enough to avoid falling prey to double moves. My colleague, Brian Baldinger, illustrates how well the rookie is playing in the below video clip from "Around the NFL":
With Peters and Co. suffocating opponents on the perimeter, the AFC's most explosive offenses could have problems moving the ball consistently through the air. In a league built around the passing game, the Chiefs' stingy defense could make them a nightmare to deal with in the postseason.