It has felt like a long wait back to this point for fans and members of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The first home playoff game since last year’s collapse in the AFC Championship is finally here: the Chiefs are hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars for a Saturday kickoff — 3:30 pm Arrowhead Time. Kansas City heads into the weekend favored by 8.5 points, according to DraftKings SportsBook.
It’s the biggest spread of the weekend, with the oddsmakers weighing the rest advantage for Kansas City against the fatigue that a young Jaguars team could be facing in their third consecutive win-or-go-home scenario. On top of that, the forecast calls for a cold, wintery day for the team from Florida.
I have five things to watch in the divisional round showdown:
1. Starting hot out of the blocks
The cardiac Jaguars have come from behind in the fourth quarter to win four of their last eight games. Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw four interceptions to put them in a 27-0 hole last weekend, but he also brought them out of it once he settled in and played more comfortably.
That poise in the second half may not wait long to show up this weekend. There’s no reason for Lawrence to feel any real pressure in a game that many won’t give him a chance in. That could combine with the confidence gained from a historic postseason comeback to make a full four quarters of high performance from the No. 1 overall pick.
This wouldn’t be coming back against Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill or the combination of former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and quarterback Deshaun Watson. This offense is efficient enough to score in spurts AND hold a lead, so the Chiefs can’t mess around out of the gate as they have in many postseason games.
2. Matching up with Jaguars wide receivers
The first time these two teams matched up, the Jaguars’ offense did not have its most impressive day. The big plays they did have came from slot receiver Christian Kirk beating slot cornerback L’Jarius Sneed in coverage.
According to PFF, Sneed covered Kirk on four targets. Kirk turned those into 54 yards, three first downs, and two touchdowns. The shiftiness and quick change of direction was getting the best of Sneed, who covers best when he gets hands on and is physical with a receiver.
That game was only the second in the return of rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie from his Week 1 injury. In the time since, the Chiefs have trusted McDuffie more in the slot — pushing Sneed to the perimeter in those instances.
That changeup is perfect for matching up with Jacksonville. Kirk plays over 75% of his snaps in the slot, and McDuffie is a better fit for defending Kirk’s play style. It also allows Sneed to match up and potentially have the edge over solid, veteran receivers like Marvin Jones Jr. and Zay Jones.
3. A scrambling Mahomes
In Week 10, the Jaguars used their front to create pressure without relying on the blitz. The unit only blitzed Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice.
It’s what they will likely want to do again — trust that the playmakers they have in their front can create enough havoc to make it difficult to pick apart the coverage in the back end. There were some cluttered pockets in the first matchup, but Mahomes negated them by scrambling effectively. He earned 40 yards on five scrambles, and that has become a trend of his down the stretch of this year.
Patrick Mahomes has scrambled 119 consecutive times without being sacked, the longest streak in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 19, 2023
Mahomes is very efficient with his decision-making to scramble, proven by the fact that he has not scrambled into a sack since the AFC Championship in 2021 — two years ago!
That skill will be important against Jacksonville, especially on obvious passing downs when the Jaguars send four edge-rushing types at once. Scrambling can not only negate that pressure but relieve Mahomes from forcing a throw that isn’t there against seven in coverage.
4. Sack watch for Chris Jones
In Week 10, Chris Jones was in on two sacks against Jacksonville — and he’d really, really like to get another one this time.
It would be Jones’ first sack of his NFL playoff career. In those 12 career playoff games, he has 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, nine passes defended, four hits on the quarterback… but no sacks. He’s tired of hearing about it from a writer like me.
With playful tone, we note, Chris Jones says he had hoped could avoid the question but plans to get his first career playoff sack “this go-round just to shut you guys up.”
— Vahe Gregorian (@vgregorian) January 19, 2023
He has a good matchup to do so. The Jaguars’ offensive line ranked 31st in ESPN’s team pass block win rate this season. They’ve allowed a sack to a defensive tackle in each of their last two games. Watch for Jones to finally get his postseason takedown.
5. Playoff-debut jitters
The Chiefs will be asking a lot from players who are making their NFL postseason debut on Saturday. Rookies like McDuffie, defensive end George Karlaftis, running back Isiah Pacheco, and cornerback Jaylen Watson are all in key positions while also dealing with the added pressure of the playoffs.
On top of that, an X-factor playmaker in wide receiver Kadarius Toney will be on the postseason stage for the first time in his career.
It adds up to the Chiefs relying on a lot of postseason inexperience to succeed:
- They’ll need pressure from the edge, and Karlaftis has three more sacks than veteran edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Frank Clark combined since Week 12.
- Pacheco has 98 more carries than any other Chiefs’ running back this season. He has become the workhorse back that the team leans on but has also fumbled four times.
- Watson was in and out of the starting lineup all season before solidifying himself as the third cornerback over the last quarter of the regular season. The seventh-round rookie will be up against veterans on the outside.
- With the news that wide receiver Mecole Hardman won’t play, Toney will play a very key role in the misdirection aspect of the Chiefs’ offense; he will also be vital in the red zone.