With the Colts preparing to face the Chiefs just two days from now, the pressure is on for both teams to come out with their absolute best in this contest. The Colts have been rolling, winning 10 of their last 11 games, while the Chiefs have experienced a bit of a lull after the bye, losing two critical pieces of their offense which has taken them from historically great to just regular great.
Today we are going to take a look at some of the critical matchups in this game and how they will impact its outcome. With two teams like this, you can bet there are a lot of them.
Colts offensive line vs Chiefs pass rush
This is probably the most important matchup in this game. The Chiefs have a solid pass rush, tied for first in the league in sacks with 52. While there is more to the pass rush than just sacks, it is certainly the primary goal, and indicates they are capable of getting after the passer.
It is important to remember that most of the teams the Chiefs have faced have been forced into passing the ball early, which creates the opportunity to get after the quarterback when the running game is less of a concern. If the Colts can keep the game close, it will help negate the pass rush to some degree.
Even if they are not able to keep the game terribly close, they should be able to handle this pass rush fairly effectively. The Colts offensive line has been one of the best in football, and Andrew Luck gets the ball out on average in 2.63 seconds. That is good for fourth fastest among playoff QBs and is part of what has kept him upright all season.
Ultimately, the pressure will be on Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, Braden Smith, Mo Alie-Cox, and the running backs to communicate effectively inside what will be a raucous Arrowhead Stadium and make sure they pick up their matchups. If they can neutralize that pass rush, the offense should have little issues moving the ball all day.
T.Y. Hilton vs Chiefs secondary
T.Y. Hilton has been a major factor in the Colts late season success, and it has come in spite of his ankle being in rough shape. Now though, he has said it is improving and he felt better in the Texans game than he had against the Titans the week before. With another week spending time on rehab and missing practice, he is likely to be feeling even better. That’s good, because he’ll be facing a secondary that is nowhere near equipped to deal with him.
They play man coverage, which is tough to do against Hilton unless you are an elite cornerback. Frank Reich puts his players in situations where the secondary has to make no-win decisions, and when you couple that with Hilton being prodigiously skilled, it makes for a long day. I would look for him to be involved early, because if he is moving the ball well, it will mean the defense needs to make adjustments for him. That opens up guys like Dontrelle Inman, Eric Ebron, and Nyheim Hines, who are every bit as capable of doing damage.
If the Colts are going to get a win, they need to dominate the Chiefs’ secondary. They’ll have to score points to counteract the potent offense of the Chiefs, and Hilton’s success is a critical part of that.
Marlon Mack vs Chiefs front seven
Marlon Mack has had a breakout year in 2018. His playoffs started with a bang as well, rushing for 148 yards and setting a new franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game. Mack has improved across the board this season, and will be running the ball behind the full starting offensive line and against a run defense that has been poor at best.
It will be critical to have success running the ball early and often for this team, and Mack is where that starts. The offensive line should be able to create running lanes for him, and Mack is capable of making guys miss and gashing teams for big plays. If he is able to do that and let the offense remain balanced, this team should be able to hang in a high scoring game.
Colts pass defense vs Travis Kelce
Perhaps the most influential matchup in this game will be between the Colts defenders and Travis Kelce. Kelce is a dangerous weapon in the passing game and has caught at least 5 balls in every game but their week 1 matchup. He has 1336 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. That’s 60 more yards than T.Y. Hilton has. In other words, he is essentially like a massive # 1 wide receiver. He averages 92.4 yards per game, and 17 yards per reception.
While the tendency given his crazy speed is to worry about Tyreek Hill, this is the guy the Colts need to focus on. They haven’t really been beaten up by deep plays all season and I don’t really expect that to be a major storyline in this game either. They have, however, struggled against tight ends. If they hope to slow the Chiefs’ offense, it starts with slowing down Travis Kelce. That means good communication, making sure they know their assignments, and playing heads up football.
Quincy Wilson has had some luck in physical man coverage against bigger receivers, and he may see usage in coverage on Kelce at times. Anthony Walker has had several very near picks because Leonard or one of the corners has gotten a hand in a passing lane going to a tight end in the middle of the field. In the playoffs, that needs to be a pick, not a near pick. This will be a major matchup if the Colts hope to get out with a win.
Matt Eberflus vs Patrick Mahomes
The big one. Patrick Mahomes has had an insane year. In his first year as a starter, Mahomes has thrown for 5097 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he did that surrounded by the best offensive skill position players in the league and a head coach who has a knack for brilliant offensive play calling, but ultimately he has to get them the ball, and his play has been brilliant and he deserves credit for it.
Matt Eberflus has been an excellent calling the Colts defense this season, and has gotten better as the season has gone on. He has clearly gotten a feel for his players and how to best use them. This matchup will be by far his toughest of the season. Mahomes is unlike any quarterback he has faced in his ability to extend plays and make ridiculous throws.
One of the most significant talents Mahomes possesses is his ability to extend plays. He has incredible arm strength and is able to throw the ball from a variety of arm angles, and that ability paired with his feel and mobility allows him to roll out when under pressure and create opportunities for his skill players. Time and time again this season he has done this and converted on third downs or for touchdowns because of it.
To win this matchup, Eberflus needs to get pressure from his interior defensive linemen. They need Margus Hunt and Denico Autry to be consistently collapsing the pocket from the inside. However, that alone will not be enough. They will need to do that in conjunction with sending a timely blitz or simply making sure the linebackers or defensive ends are keeping contain so that Mahomes cannot roll out and burn the coverage by extending plays.
The Chiefs’ skill position players are too talented to make the cornerbacks cover them for 4-5+ seconds, and if the Colts defensive line can’t get pressure, that spells a really bad day for them. I anticipate that Eberflus will attempt to mix up his looks to keep the young quarterback on his toes and try to get pressure inside consistently using stunts and twists to minimize his need to send more than 4. He will need to have his players playing disciplined, penalty-free football as well, because this offense doesn’t need any freebies.
Ultimately, this game will require defenders stepping up and getting takeaways. Kenny Moore and Darius Leonard have been two of the Colts strongest defenders over the back half of the season. Now is the time for them to do what great players do in huge games. Go out and make game altering plays for their team.