March 9, 2021

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Chiefs defense is flying, NFL playoff picture and…

8 min read
Chiefs defense is flying, NFL playoff picture and...


The Kansas City Chiefs beating the New England Patriots is noteworthy. However, it’s the manner in which they did so that should scare the AFC.

Frank Clark couldn’t stop vomiting. Throughout the week, Clark was taking IVs, dehydrated and dealing with a wicked strand of the flu. Then came Sunday.

On gameday, the defensive end strapped on the pads and led the Kansas City Chiefs to a 23-16 upset win in Foxborough over the New England Patriots. For Tom Brady and Co., it was the first loss at Gillette Stadium over the last 19 contests.

After the game, word got out about Clark being significantly ill, and yet he ended the day with a sack of Brady. On the game’s final play, Clark beat left tackle Isaiah Wynn off the edge and created pressure. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer threw quickly to Julian Edelman, but the ball was knocked away by Bashaud Breeland to ensure a Kansas City victory.

Clark’s effort is symbolic of what has become a rapidly-improving Chiefs defense.

Under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City struggled in the early going. In Weeks 3-6, the Chiefs averaged allowing 190 rushing yards and 27 points per game.

Over their last three games — wins over the Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Patriots — Kansas City surrendered an average of 103 rushing yards and 14 points per game. On Sunday, New England running backs gained 66 yards on 19 attempts. Against the pass, Brady threw for 169 yards on 4.7 yards per attempt. On third down, the Patriots were 2-of-12.

While understanding and adapting to Spagnuolo’s scheme is partially responsible for the improved play, it’s also the coordinator himself. The Chiefs have increasingly played heavier looks with a pair of young defensive tackles in econd-year man Derrick Nnadi and rookie Khalen Saunders. The duo combines for more than 650 pounds in the middle. Fellow defensive tackle Chris Jones has been moved all over the line, while Clark sets one of the best edges in football. It’s a deep group rounded out by Mike Pennel, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Alex Okafor, keeping the bodies fresh.

Behind them, Spagnuolo went from viewing linebacker Reggie Ragland as a healthy inactive to using him as a vital thumper on the second level. Ragland, alongside middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens, has provided attitude and the gap-shooting absent for Kansas City in years past.

In the offseason, general manager Brett Veach took big swings. He traded away Dee Ford and released Justin Houston and Eric Berry. He acquired Clark for first and second-round picks, then paid him $105 million over five years.

Veach also shrewdly signed Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million deal. Clark, after dealing with a pinched nerve in his neck throughout the season’s first two months, is beginning to dominate. Mathieu has been the chess piece Berry was in his halcyon days, giving Spagnuolo the ability to disguise his intentions.

In tandem with standout rookie safety Juan Thornhill, Kansas City routinely creates big plays on the back end. Against the Chargers, Mathieu had a key interception, setting up a touchdown. Last week, Mathieu ended Oakland’s first drive with a pick at midfield. In the second quarter, Thornhill jumped a slant route and raced to a pick-six. Against New England, Mathieu consistently helped to double Edelman, while Thornhill roamed over top.

At 9-4, Kansas City clinched the AFC West for a fourth consecutive season. Still, the road ahead is difficult. The Chiefs will likely host a Wild Card and should they win, go back to Foxborough in the Divisional Round. After that? The Baltimore Ravens could be waiting.

Last year, Kansas City came into the postseason with a super-powered offense and no defense.

This time around, a more complete team will be coming to January.

Power rankings

Potential coaching vacancies, ranked by desirability 

1. Dallas Cowboys – Franchise QB, good roster
2. Atlanta Falcons – Franchise QB, great ownership
3. Cleveland Browns – Excellent GM, potential franchise QB, talented roster
4. Carolina Panthers – New ownership, ability to rebuild without pressure
5. New York Giants – Young QB, high draft pick, good cap; Gettleman?
6. Detroit Lions – Franchise QB but questions abound on roster
7. Jacksonville Jaguars – Young QB, high draft pick; cap situation is murky
8. Washington Redskins – Dan Snyder

Quotable

“Heartbreaking, because 6-7 could easily be 10-3 or 11-2.”

– Indianapolis Colts running back Nyheim Hines on the team’s fortunes

No team had a crazier path to this point than the Colts. Andrew Luck’s calf. Andrew Luck’s retirement. Jacoby Brissett taking over and guiding the team to big wins over Kansas City and Houston. Brissett getting hurt with subsequent losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins.

Indianapolis fought valiantly all season, but it ran out of gas.

Podcast



Random stat

Andy Reid became the Chiefs head coach in 2013. Since then, Kansas City is 2-1 at New England in the regular season. The entire AFC East is 2-18 in the same span.

Info learned this week

1. 49ers get Garoppolo effort that shows his vast potential

Last week, I wrote about the San Francisco 49ers needing Jimmy Garoppolo to play better: 

Against the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and other top NFC competition, Garoppolo making a few splash plays isn’t enough. He needs to make the hot read before the snap. He needs to have the courage of his convictions. He needs to be a consistent positive.

Maybe he read the column?

Garoppolo was sublime in New Orleans on Sunday, beating the Saints with 349 passing yards and four touchdowns. The 49ers won a wild 48-46 decision at the Superdome, keyed by Garoppolo making clutch throws time and again. None were bigger than on the final drive, when the veteran found tight end George Kittle for a 39-yard catach-and-carry on 4th and 2 in the final minute.

With the win and the Seattle Seahawks losing to the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco moved back into the NFC’s top seed. The 49ers still have work ahead including games with the two aforementioned NFC West foes, but they control their destiny with three tilts remaining.

If Garoppolo plays anywhere near the level he did on Sunday, San Francisco is the team to beat in the conference.

2. Lock shines for Broncos, perhaps giving Elway hope of a hit

The Denver Broncos are downright giddy. They ought to be.

Drew Lock came off Injured Reserve two weeks ago, and he’s now 2-0. After beating the Chargers with a middling effort, the second-round rookie torched the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Lock amassed 309 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-27 passing in a 38-24 win.

General manager John Elway has been maligned for his quarterback misevaluations. Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch were both high draft picks who busted badly. Lock represents the latest hope, and early returns are quite positive.

Lock’s development also has a profound impact on the draft. Denver is 5-8 and likely getting a top-10 pick in April’s draft. This upcoming class is loaded with signal-callers, from Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa to Justin Herbert, Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm, Jordan Love and others. If the Broncos don’t need a quarterback, it’s good news for teams looking for a fresh start under center.

3. Texans loss opens up wild race in AFC South with Titans

Houston had momentum after pounding the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. Uncle Mo is now long gone.

The Texans’ 38-24 loss to Denver combined with the Tennessee Titans winning 42-21 over the Oakland Raiders has the two teams tied atop the AFC South with matching 8-4. While Houston owns the tiebreaker based on divisional record, the crown will be determined over the final three weeks. Why? Because the teams play each other in Weeks 15 and 17.

Tennessee is 6-1 since Ryan Tannehill relieved the ineffective Marcus Mariota. Between he and running back Derrick Henry, the Titans are a revitalized group trying to win the division for the first time since 2008.

Only a month ago, it seemed the Colts and Texans would battle for the AFC South. Suddenly, it’s the hard-charging Titans who look to take control next week.

4. For first time, Ravens will be No. 1 seed in AFC

Barring disaster, the Ravens will see the road to the Super Bowl go through Charm City.

At 11-2, Baltimore essentially has a two-game lead on the Patriots due to its head-to-head tiebreaker. The Chiefs are also two games back, and with the Ravens playing the Jets, Browns and Steelers over the final three weeks, it’s hard to find a pair of defeats.

Lamar Jackson struggled throwing for the second straight week, but he and the Ravens did enough to beat the Buffalo Bills, 24-17. Baltimore has now won nine straight, the latest victory largely due to a swarming defensive front which notched six sacks and a dozen hits on Josh Allen.

The Ravens have been playing 23 seasons in Baltimore and have never hosted an AFC Championship Game. A win in January, and that likely changes.

5. NFC playoff picture gets interesting with Rams win

The Rams won. The Minnesota Vikings won. The Chicago Bears won again.

All of this leads into an intriguing Week 15. Minnesota leads Los Angeles by one game for the sixth and final Wild Card spot. The Vikings remaining schedule includes the Chargers (away) before a pair of home games with the Green Bay Packers and Bears. The Rams travel for the Dallas Cowboys and 49ers before hosting the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17.

Should the Rams win out and the teams be tied at season’s end, the tiebreaker goes to Los Angeles. Of course, Los Angeles finishing 11-5 is still a tall order.

Meanwhile, the Bears are hanging on to relevance. Chicago needs to run the gauntlet of Green Bay (away), Kansas City (home) and Minnesota (away) before getting help elsewhere. Not probable, but technically possible. However, with a loss to the Packers and either a Minnesota or Los Angeles victory, and the Bears are eliminated.

History lesson

Twenty-five years ago, the Miami Dolphins and Jets played one of the most memorable regular-season games in history.

Entering the tilt, both teams were in playoff contention. Miami was 7-4 while New York was 6-5. Trailing 24-6 late in the third quarter at the Meadowlands, Dan Marino brought the Dolphins back with 21 unanswered points. The final seven came with 22 seconds remaining, after faking a spike to stop the clock before finding Mark Ingram in the front right corner of the end zone. The play is arguably the most famous of Marino’s Hall of Fame career.

The moment sent each team in opposite directions. Miami reached the playoffs before losing to the San Diego Chargers in the Divisional round. New York lost 32 of its next 36 games before hiring Bill Parcells prior to the 1997 season.

Parting shot

A few weeks ago, the Raiders were authoring a wonderful closing chapter for Oakland before leaving for Las Vegas. The ink exploded all over the pages.

Sunday’s loss to Tennessee, combined with the pair of blowout defeats against the Jets and Chiefs in the two weeks prior, has ended postseason dreams. At 6-4, the Raiders were vying for the AFC West crown. At 6-7, they are on life support.

Moving forward, the big picture doesn’t change. The franchise is headed to Vegas, Derek Carr has likely done enough to keep his job, and Gruden will continue using extra picks from the Khalil Mack trade to add young pieces to an ascending roster.

Still, one must feel for Oakland, which will only see one more home game — next Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Unfortunately, it’s a meaningless one.

Chiefs defense is flying, NFL playoff picture and more



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