By Sam McPherson
The Houston Texans have now won three of the last five AFC South Division titles, and Head Coach Bill O'Brien has posted two consecutive 9-7 seasons with the Texans. However, as winners of the weakest division in the conference, no one is giving Houston much credit for its strong finish to the 2015 regular season. The Texans won seven of nine to close out the season and claim their playoff spot, but their first-round playoff opponent has that beat: The Kansas City Chiefs started the season 1-5 before winning their final 10 games.
Taking on the hottest team in the NFL isn't an easy task, even if the game is on Houston's home field. The Chiefs also are very focused on winning their first postseason game since 1993, especially after blowing a 28-point lead in their last playoff outing (2013 against Indianapolis). Kansas City wants this game badly, and the Chiefs have extreme momentum on their side as they prepare to play at NRG Stadium against the Texans.
Kansas City finished 11-5 this year, winning its final 10 games of the season. After beating Houston at NRG in Week 1, the Chiefs then lost five straight games. Three of those losses came by a touchdown or less, and four of the losses were to playoff teams: Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, and Minnesota. However, K.C. recovered to go on its semi-historic roll, and the Chiefs posted wins over playoff-bound Denver and Pittsburgh in the process. After finishing 9-7 last year and missing the postseason, Kansas City matched its 2013 record and once again earned a playoff berth out of the AFC West Division.
Chiefs on Offense
Quarterback Alex Smith is one of those players that experts either love or hate. Once the overall No. 1 pick in the draft, he has found a steady groove over the last five seasons, throwing for 91 touchdowns and just 30 interceptions. Smith is reliable and steady, and hard to rattle. He also has posted a career 108.6 QB rating in the playoffs (9 TDs, zero INTs). Even without explosive running back Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs offense has thrived behind Smith's brains and leadership.
Two young RBs—Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware—have stepped up to replace Charles, while Smith's receiving corps has improved from past seasons in Kansas City. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin cleared 1,000 yards receiving and caught eight TD passes, while tight end Travis Kelce recorded 875 yards in receptions. The offense is dynamic, and it's run by one of the smartest QBs in the league.
Chiefs on Defense
Kansas City allowed the third-fewest points this season in the NFL, including just 12.8 points per game during its 10-game winning streak. That's dominant and very similar to what the Texans were able to accomplish down the stretch themselves. Linebacker Derrick Johnson made 116 tackles this season, while seven different players registered at least four sacks. The Chiefs come at you from every angle on defense, and they're hard to stop on every play.
Defensive back Marcus Peters posted eight interceptions, returning two of them for TDs. Overall, he had 280 return yards on those eight picks. Six other players had at least two INTs each, as well. Unlike the defense two years ago that led K.C. to the postseason, there's more than just LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston now to account for every play. That makes the Chiefs very dangerous.
Chiefs Players to Watch
If the Texans want to beat the Chiefs this weekend, they will have to slow down the Kansas City running game. The Chiefs have averaged almost 144 yards on the ground during their 10-game winning streak, and that makes Smith a more dangerous QB throwing downfield to Kelce and Maclin. Smith himself ran for almost 500 yards this year, so Houston's defense has its work cut out for it. On the other side of the ball, Johnson is the primary defender the Texans will have to block on every play. If he's not blocked, he will bring down anyone in the backfield.
This is a tough draw for the Texans, as the Chiefs are hot and hungry. Expect a defensive battle that could go either way late, with the winning team being the last one to have the ball on offense. It will be a low-scoring affair decided by a last-minute field goal, so hopefully the Houston crowd will be able to make a difference and vault the home team to the divisional playoff round.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.
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