Why Patrick Mahomes can pierce Colts and avoid Chiefs' dreaded January flop

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

You have to go back to the 2012 NFL playoffs to find a No. 1 seed in the AFC that had its fan base as collectively worried about its team as Kansas City Chiefs fans are right now.

Come back with me to that postseason, when the New England Patriots won the AFC East behind the strength of one of the league’s best offenses, one that was so good it camouflaged a smoke-and-mirrors defense that ranked 31st in yards allowed per game on the way to a 13-3 season (sound familiar?) and a Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots had Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but they hadn’t beaten a single team with a winning record all season.

This season’s Chiefs boast a similar duo in coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, with the latter somehow managing to pull off the greatest statistical second-year season of any passer since Dan Marino. (In 1984, Marino became the focal point of the Miami Dolphins’ offense and went nuts, completing 64 percent of his passes for 5,084 yards, 48 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, an un-godly stat line at the time that propelled him to be named league MVP.)

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Patrick Mahomes had an MVP-caliber season in his second year in the NFL. Will that performance carry over to the postseason? (Getty Images)
Patrick Mahomes had an MVP-caliber season in his second year in the NFL. Will that performance carry over to the postseason? (Getty Images)

Mahomes’ stat line this season is eerily similar, as he completed 66 percent of his passes for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions to carry a Chiefs team that features the league’s 31st-ranked defense to a 12-4 record and the conference’s top seed. And chances are, if the Chiefs are going to make the Super Bowl (despite their inability to stop the run), it will be because Mahomes,  like Marino in ’84, puts his team on his back and carries them.

That’s why the first topic in this week’s “Things I Enjoyed” column is …

1. Why the deep ball might be a factor for the Chiefs against the Colts

The Chiefs host the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round on Saturday afternoon, a proposition that makes most Chiefs fans sick. That’s understandable because of the Chiefs’ miserable playoff history against Indianapolis and the Colts are, well, not a great matchup.

For one, they feature a strong and varied running game that should stress one of the league’s worst run defenses. What’s more, their running game opens up a well-schemed passing attack that features deep passes off play-action and a tough-to-stop short game. Plus, the one strength of the Chiefs’ defense is the pass rush, which could be negated by the fact the Colts feature one of the league’s best pass-blocking offensive lines.

So yeah, whether the weather on Saturday in Kansas City is fair or foul — and early forecasts call for a “wintry” mix — it’s hard to imagine the Colts not putting up some points, unless they inexplicably turn the ball over a bunch.

But the good news for the Chiefs is that their offense, led by Mahomes, is uniquely primed to score against the Colts. And all K.C. has to do is go at one of the Colts’ greatest strengths, something the Houston Texans tried to do but failed in the wild-card round.

I explained it all in the three-minute video atop this page, so give it a watch.

2. Shades of the ’74 Steelers

Wait! We’re not done with the Colts’ defense yet. One of my favorite moments from the Colts-Texans broadcast was when ESPN analyst Booger McFarland explained where the Colts’ unique two nose-shade tackle front came from.

Turns out Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, back when he was Dallas’ linebackers coach, was watching “A Football Life” episode on former Pittsburgh Steelers star Joe Greene when he saw the alignment, which featured two defensive tackles lined up in the “A” gaps (to the left and right of the center).

In the absence of a dominant interior defensive lineman (in today’s game), this front prevents the center and guards from getting much push up the middle. That’s why the Colts use it so much, especially on early downs. By my count, the Colts lined up this way on 25 of the Texans’ 55 offensive plays, and for the most part, it prevented the Texans’ running backs from getting going, as Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue and D’Onta Foreman combined for 29 yards on eight carries.

However, there may be a vulnerability to the front, as the Texans rushed seven times for 40 yards on the front using zone-read concepts. Their mobile quarterback, Deshaun Watson, did most of the damage, but Miller got 8 of those yards, as well:

 

The Chiefs run lots of zone-read, though Mahomes (60 carries, 272 rushing yards) is far more likely to throw than Watson (99 carries, 551 rushing yards). But throwing against the Colts’ two nose-shade front is also an option, as the Texans completed 11 of 18 passes for 87 yards when the Colts were lined up this way.

Just a dorky trench trend to keep an eye on as you watch the game Saturday.

3. Derwin James is awesome and I hope he sees Gronk 

First of all, shoutout to the Los Angeles Chargers, who played three safeties at inside linebacker to match the speed of dynamic rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and ended up holding Baltimore’s league-best running attack to a mere 90 yards in their 23-17 wild-card victory last weekend.

In fact, it seems like the only one who wasn’t super impressed by that was New England coach Bill Belichick, who reiterated that it wasn’t that different from what the Chargers have been doing all season long defensively.

“They played mostly six DBs against us last [season], so they’ve been doing a lot of it this [season],” Belichick explained. “They went with the seventh guy against the Ravens, but it’s been a lot of six defensive backs the last, I don’t know, month or so. Jatavis Brown played a lot in their six d-back system, so they just kind of replaced him with [Jahleel] Addae or with actually the safety, [Rayshawn] Jenkins. Jenkins didn’t play down — Jenkins played back, Addae played down, but it was essentially the same defense with Addae taking Brown’s spot.”

Belichick seemed to be much more impressed with Chargers rookie Derwin James, one of the three safeties who helped shut down the Ravens last weekend. James, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound ball of speed, power, ball skills and charisma, lived up to his first-round status this season, racking up 105 tackles, 13 pass deflections and three interceptions on the way to being named a first-team All-Pro. He once again impressed against the Ravens. Even though he finished with only five tackles, James (No. 33) made his impact felt on a handful of plays:

“This guy’s a tremendous football player — he’s good at everything,” Belichick said. “He usually plays around the line of scrimmage. I think he leads their team in everything — tackles, assists, pass break-ups, interceptions, big hits. He does play away from their line of scrimmage at times. He’s good back there, too. He’s got good range, good speed, he’s long, he’s hard to block, very instinctive, good tackler, good blitzer.”

This is why I can’t wait to see if the 22-year-old James will try to take away Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski when these two teams meet Sunday in Foxborough.

Gronkowski, 29, is having his worst statistical season since his rookie year, but there’s no doubt that he’s typically been reliable this time of year, and it’s hard to imagine the Patriots and Tom Brady going away from him, especially considering how much Cover 1 and Cover 3 the Chargers play. This single-high safety look invites deep throws down the alley to the tight end, which means the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski should have some opportunities to make big plays.

According to Football Outsiders, the Chargers are first in the NFL in DVOA vs. tight ends after finishing 18th last season, and a big reason for that is James, who they’ll sometimes stick on tight ends, often to good results:

Now, there’s also a chance the Chargers will stick James on running back James White — a super receiving option out of the backfield — but no matter what they do, whoever James takes on regularly will give us a pretty good indication of which Patriot they think can hurt them the most, which is interesting for anyone who appreciates the strategy of the game.

4. The way the Bears attacked the Eagles might resurface Sunday 

The Eagles’ banged-up secondary has been saved over the past month by fourth-round rookie Avonte Maddox, who has been a revelation for Philly due to his confidence, athleticism and versatility (he has played outside corner, nickel corner and even safety).

Maddox, a 5-foot-9, 184-pounder, fared well enough in the Eagles’ thrilling 16-15 wild card win over the Chicago Bears last weekend, finishing with five tackles and three pass deflections. The 22-year-old should be commended for playing through an oblique injury that rendered him questionable for the game. He’s a tough dude with good football character, and you can absolutely win big games with guys like that.

Maddox was targeted plenty against the Bears, as he yielded seven catches for 154 yards on 11 attempts (according to Pro Football Focus) as Chicago tested him with pump fakes and double moves:

The Eagles’ next opponent is the New Orleans Saints, a team quarterbacked by Drew Brees, aka The Pump Fake Master. His top target is Cris Carter clone Michael Thomas, who boasts elite double-move ability, and No. 2 target is running back Alvin Kamara, also known in some parts as The Best Receiving Back In Football.

It will take a big day by the Eagles’ youngish corners (which includes 24-year-old cornerbacks Cre’von LeBlanc and Tre Sullivan) for Philadelphia — which got blown out by the Saints 48-7 in the same building nearly two months ago — to prevail in this one.

5. Ezekiel Elliott’s cutback ability, and the problems it may cause the Rams

There was only one play in the Cowboys’ 24-22 win over the Seattle Seahawks that showed me how much the Los Angeles Rams’ spotty run defense could struggle in this looming divisional-round showdown.

The play, which went for only 6 yards, kicks off the six-clip montage below. It illustrates why teams absolutely have to have gap discipline against Dallas and the league’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott, 23, is a strong, fast, one-cut runner with terrific vision who can be a load to bring down when he has a head of steam going:

Elliott finished the Seahawks game with 137 yards on 26 carries, but to get a complete understanding of why he figures to be a problem for the Rams, let’s watch a six-play clip that shows why Los Angeles has the league’s 19th-ranked run defense.

Statistically, the Rams are a solid-tackling bunch (surprisingly, they’ve got the second-fewest missed tackles in football, according to Football Outsiders), but their linebackers are better in coverage than they are against the run, and they often overrun plays or get walled off from their gaps against inside running plays, leaving cutback lanes wide open for opportunistic backs:

The Rams rank 28th in the league in DVOA against the run, which is amazing considering they feature one of the league’s most powerful defensive lines in Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and of course, Aaron Donald. They’ve also surrendered 17 runs of 20 yards or more, which is the fifth-most in football.

Los Angeles better start fast on Saturday, or it may fall behind early and give the Cowboys a prime opportunity to establish their bread-and-butter running plays against a unit that hasn’t proven capable of stopping them.

THINGS I ENJOYED ARCHIVE
WEEK 17: Why Dak Prescott needed extra work in Week 17, plus more wild-card observations
WEEK 16: Here’s why Jadeveon Clowney is going to make a lot of money this offseason
WEEK 15: Colts proved they can protect Andrew Luck and plow way toward playoffs
WEEK 14: No-looks and sidearms — 7 more throws from Patrick Mahomes you missed
WEEK 13: Here’s what Seahawks have to do if they want Russell Wilson to keep rolling
WEEK 12: Bills QB Josh Allen is changing some skeptical minds
WEEK 11: Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Chiefs-Rams gave us glorious forecast of the future
WEEK 10: This is why Rams’ Todd Gurley is mentioned in MVP talk
WEEK 9: Here’s how Dez Bryant can make Saints scarier
WEEK 8: How Golden Tate, 3 others dealt at NFL trade deadline can impact their teams
WEEK 7: These Amari Cooper plays can help Dak Prescott, Cowboys soar
WEEK 6: Flying to the football, Steelers’ nasty blocking & Matt Nagy channeling Andy Reid
WEEK 5: A Tale of two Cams (Newton and Erving)

WEEK 4: The juice of Patriots RB Sony Michel and lineman who slowed down Von Miller
WEEK 3: Mahomes magic and Lane Johnson’s acting chops
WEEK 2: Dallas’ deep ball, and the ridiculousness of Mahomes and Saquon
WEEK 1: Andy Reid’s goal-line circus and more

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