The Kansas City offence is terrifying. A monstrous unit that led the league in total offence and points scored, with the likely league MVP under centre, two top-ten receivers on the outside, and boasting the league’s second-best third down conversion rate, and third-best fourth-down percentage, the Chiefs can put up as many points in four quarters as some teams do in four games. Even in their four losses this season, the team scored enough points to make each defeat a one-possession game, with three of them decided by three points or fewer, and the team has scored at least 26 in every game this season.
But while The Narrative has been that the Chiefs are an offence first-and-only team, with the kind of hilariously imbalanced squad not seen since the Sean Payton-Rob Ryan vintage of the early tens Saints, their defence stepped up against the Colts on Saturday. While the unit hardly as the quality of the Bears or the Ravens, who stifled opposing offences all season, the Chiefs defence gave up just 13 points to the red-hot Colts, good enough for its third-best scoring performance all year, and could be a crucial element going into Championship Sunday, which features the league’s top four scoring offences all playing for a place in the Super Bowl for the first time in the big game’s history.
The unit started strongly, forcing the Colts to go three-and-out, and from there, its few stars took over the game. Justin Houston, Dee Ford and a flying Allen Bailey conspired to keep luck from picking up a first down with his legs in the first quarter, keeping the Colts’ heads under water, and their team in a 14-point hole, early on. Even as the visitors looked to rally, the Chiefs defensive stars took over; the former first-team All-Pro Houston made a back-breaking third-down sack in the third quarter to kill a promising Colts drive with the score at 24-7, and hamstring any chances of a Colts comeback. Just minutes later, Dee Ford stripped Andrew Luck on the Chiefs 28, again driving a knife through the Colts’ offence, and giving possession back to a Chiefs attack that really didn’t need the extra scoring opportunities.
The Chiefs posted a hat-trick of sacks, including the strip sack, against a vaunted offensive line that had given up a league-leading 18 sacks all season.
But the Chiefs also displayed a strength in depth that had been noticeably lacking since Eric Berry first left the field in December 2014. Rookie cornerback Chavarius Ward recorded four passes defended, including a key third-down breakup in the first quarter to stall the Colts offence before it could even get going. Fourth-year defender and former third round pick Steven Nelson followed up a career year, in which he featured in every game, broke up 15 passes and snagged four interceptions, by denying Mo Alie-Cox a touchdown at the end of the first half, forcing the Colts to kick a field goal, which Adam Vinatieri somehow sliced against the upright.
Most of the Chiefs defence this season, and indeed since Berry first began his battle with cancer, has been emotional, rather than functional. It’s been Comeback Player of the Year honours; scrappy, hearts-in-mouth defending that has done just enough to keep games close enough for the offence to win them; big plays in key moments to turn the tide of games, rather than a consistent stifling of opposing offences (squashing the useless Raiders in Week 17 to the tune of giving up just three points notwithstanding).
Saturday’s game was a completely different story. In order, the Colts offensive drives ended in the following plays: punt, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt, fumble, punt, touchdown, end of game. That’s eleven drives, with seven ending in punts, two in turnovers, and just one in a score.
The Chiefs’ stand at the end of the first half was particularly impressive; on a drive following the Colts’ blocked punt leading to a touchdown, the visitors were in a prime position to capitalise on this sudden shift in momentum, and put points on the board ahead of halftime, catapulting themselves to exactly the kind of comeback they had pulled off five years ago, a heroic 28-point swing against the same Chiefs in the Wildcard round.
But these aren’t the 2013 Chiefs; having Patrick Mahomes under centre certainly helps, but having a defence that can hit a high level late in the season, and consistently shut down a dangerous offence as they just did, makes a huge difference. Next week’s showdown with the Patriots could be a significant test for the unit – we’re just three months removed from these Patriots putting up 43 points against the Chiefs to hand them their first loss of the season – or it could be a victory lap against an offence that has struggled to complete throws downfield, and protect their star quarterback, both areas the Chiefs defence excelled in on Saturday.
If the Chiefs go on to win it all, much will be made, and quite rightly so, of the performance of Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and Andy Reid’s stellar work in putting the team together; but, after Saturday, this defence isn’t just a footnote in Chiefs history, an overmatched unit hanging onto the coat-tails of a historic offence that looks to single-handedly drag Kansas City to the Super Bowl. The defence stepped up on Saturday, and Chiefs fans will hope the unit can repeat its performance on Sunday.