Are the Kansas City Chiefs This Season's Playoff Sleeper?
After Week 5, the Kansas City Chiefs were 1-4, and they had just lost their star running back, Jamaal Charles.
All hope appeared lost for their season when they lost in Week 6 and fell to 1-5 due to a five-game losing streak.
However, Ralph Carpenter popularized the phrase, "[it] ain't over till the fat lady sings."
The Chiefs quickly turned their season around through Week 12, as they went on a five-game win streak. The win streak moved them back over .500 to 6-5.
As fate would have it, the Chiefs ran their win streak to 10 games and now enter the playoffs red hot. During the 10-game win streak, the Chiefs have allowed only 12.8 points per game to finish third in scoring defense (17.9 points per game) for the year. For context, Seattle is first in scoring defense (17.3 points per game), and they allowed 15.2 points per game over their final 10 games.
Needless to say, the Chiefs' defense is scorching of late.
Just how far can they go in the playoffs?
While we are in a time where offenses are the talk of the town because of prolific passing games with big name quarterbacks, 11 of the playoff teams rank in the top-12 for scoring defense.
As we know, defense has been crucial the Chiefs' success this season. During their five-game losing streak, the Chiefs allowed 27.8 points per game. Had they maintained that pace, they would have ranked 30th to end the year.
Looking at our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric tells the same story as the scoring defense.
Through Week 6, the Chiefs' Adjusted Defensive NEP (33.04) and Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (42.55) both were struggling, and they were allowing a lot of points above expectation-level. The Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP (-12.83) made the run defense the only part of the unit that maintained some level of quality defensive football.
Entering the playoffs, the Chiefs rank fourth in Adjusted Defensive NEP (-28.93). Although their pace for Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP (-17.15) slowed, they still finished ninth in the category. Their passing defense fully turned their season around, as they finished the year ranked fourth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (-19.93).
The Chiefs improved their overall defensive numbers immensely from last year as well. Overall, they finished 13th in Adjusted Defensive NEP (35.26), 9th in passing (25.88), and 24th in rushing (13.10).
Two of the biggest reasons for improvement on defense this year were the return of Eric Berry and the selection of Marcus Peters. Berry returned this year after beating cancer, and his presence alone is a big reason the Chiefs' defense improved. Peters might be a lock for Defensive Rookie of the Year as he tied Reggie Nelson for the league lead with eight interceptions.
Houston has been out since Week 12, and he had 7.5 sacks in 11 games played this year. His presence can only boost what already is a top-notch defense.
The Chiefs' offense ranked second to last in offensive plays this year, but they ranked 12th in running plays and 26th in pass to run ratio. The Chiefs played to their strength on offense: their Adjusted Rushing NEP (39.40) ranked third this year.
Charles ran for 364 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 4 touchdowns on 71 carries.
Based on our NEP values, Charles finished with the 10th best Rushing NEP (6.93), 4th best Rushing NEP per play (0.10), and 10th best Rushing Success Rate (45.07%) among the 58 running backs who had a minimum of 70 carries this year.
West took 160 carries for 634 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and 4 touchdowns, and Ware had 72 carries for 403 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 6 touchdowns.
West has the 32nd ranked Rushing NEP (-5.62), 33rd ranked Rushing NEP per play (-0.04), and 24th ranked Rushing Success Rate (41.25%).
Ware ranked fourth (14.14), second (0.04), and third (50%), respectively.
Combined, these two make a good duo of backs to replace Charles successfully.
Playoff Dark Horse
Kansas City enters the playoffs with the eighth best odds of winning the Super Bowl (4.4%), per our algorithms. They are a team founded on a dominant defense and successful running offense. While their passing offense is not as potent as the running offense, it features Alex Smith, Jeremy Maclin, and Travis Kelce.
In the wild card round, the Chiefs face the Texans, who they beat in Week 1. Both teams are playing much better than they did at the beginning of the year, but the difference for the teams is on offense. Kansas City has the 15th ranked offense while Houston has the 25th ranked offense.
If Kansas City defeats Houston, then they will face either Denver or New England. Kansas City split their meetings against Denver in the regular season, showing that their team can play with some of the best teams in the league.
The Chiefs have the seventh ranked nERD among the playoff teams, implying they would be favored by 5.41 points against an average team at a neutral site.
This team has the key components of a playoff dark horse with their defense, and they can run the ball to maintain time of possession and keep the other team's offense off the field.
The Kansas City Chiefs are this year's playoff sleeper team.