The Kansas City Chiefs have a few days to heal their afflicted offense before opening the postseason against Miami on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
We shouldn’t rule out a high-scoring performance by the Kansas City offense in this one. Injuries have severely damaged Miami’s pass-rush strength and made their secondary more vulnerable. And the Dolphins are pliable on the road, ranking 27th in points allowed per game (29.3) when away from South Florida. Perhaps the Chiefs can get well by attacking a breakable defense. The opportunity should be there.
But after all of the incredible success of the Kansas City offense from 2018 through 2022 – the first five seasons of the Patrick Mahomes Era – it’s unusual to view the Kansas City offense with skepticism and suspicion. But here we are.
At least the Chiefs have an aggressively disruptive defense that can thrive in any stadium or setting, home or away. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s pugnacious pack has shown that it can handle just about anything. The only inherent weakness is a KC run defense that’s rated below average in too many statistical categories. And the Dolphins can hurt any defense with a scary combination of running backs – the power of Raheem Mostert, and the lightning-flash speed of rookie De’Von Achane.
Mostert was banged up late in the regular season and missed the final two games. His status for Saturday’s game at KC is uncertain. Miami’s two most dangerous wide receivers – Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle – are coping with injuries, and that’s a problem for innovative head coach Mike McDaniel.
Needless to say, Spags has enjoyed a fantastic career rebound after getting sacked as the St. Louis Rams head coach following a 2-14 season in 2011. His career record in St. Louis was 10-38. In retrospect, Spagnuolo never had much of a chance to win because of faulty roster construction that was an ongoing mess. And front-office dysfunction was a terrible problem.
Spags is beloved in Kansas City — as he should be. This season Spagnuolo’s defense ranked second in the league to Baltimore for fewest points allowed per game at 17.3. The Chiefs under Spanuolo have ranked in the top 10 for fewest points allowed for five consecutive seasons.
During the 2023 regular season only three NFL defenses yielded fewer average yards per play. The Chiefs led the NFL in quarterback pressures and sack percentage and were third in giving up only 1.5 points per opponent possession. Spags’ crew ranks among the league’s top 10 defenses in blitz frequency, quarterback knockdowns, prevention of red-zone touchdowns, net passing yards per attempt and lowest opponent passer rating (83.6). There were other impressive deeds by this defense but I digress.
The Kansas City defense must come up big this postseason to cover for a diminished offense that could prevent the Chiefs from playing in a sixth consecutive AFC championship game or capturing a third Super Bowl trophy in the last five seasons.
With future Hall of Fame coach Andy Reid designing the plays and Mahomes installed as the league’s best quarterback, the Chiefs averaged an astonishing 31.7 points per game in going 11-3 in their 14 postseason games from 2018 through 2022.
An offense that led the NFL in regular-season scoring average (30.1) over the previous five seasons sputtered to 15th this season with an average of 21.8 points per game.
The problems on offense range from having the most dropped passes in the NFL, an inexperienced and mostly undependable cast of wide receivers, the plague of penalties, too many turnovers, the slowdown of tight end Travis Kelce, and extreme chaos and confusion at the line of scrimmage.
The messiness has put an enormous load on Mahomes, who had the most attempts and completions by an NFL quarterback this season until sitting out of Sunday’s 13-12 road win over the LA Chargers. (Way to go, Blaine Gabbert!)
Mahomes flung a career-high 14 interceptions during the 2023 regular season. As a sixth-year starter, he established new single-season lows in passer rating (92.6), yards per passing attempt, yards per completion, overall passing success rate, average passing yards per game and percentage of passing attempts that went for touchdowns.
Reid reluctantly put more emphasis on the run game late in the season – and Isiah Pacheco is an exciting back – but the Chiefs scored 19 or fewer points in four of their final six games. This will not work in the postseason.
Can Mahomes and his mates warm up a freezing-cold Saturday in Kansas City? As of Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service was forecasting a high temperature near 14 degrees on Saturday. But the temperature will likely be colder than 14 degrees by the 7 p.m. kickoff.
The frigid conditions would be drastic for a hot-weather Miami team. But should the Chiefs prevail Saturday, their mission will likely become more difficult. As the Kansas City Star noted: “The Chiefs’ most likely route to the Super Bowl — not guaranteed, of course, but about 70% likely— would include the home date with the Dolphins, followed by road trips to play the Bills and then the Ravens.”
Mahomes has never played an AFC playoff game on the road. And he’s never gone into a game as the betting-line underdog. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), the Chiefs have an 8.2 percent shot of making it to the Super Bowl.
Chiefs backers would point to this team’s championship pedigree and point to it as an advantage at this time of the year. Maybe. But doubtful. So many things have gone wrong for this offense this season, and there is too much to fix. The NFL’s most trustworthy offense over the past five seasons can no longer be trusted. For the Chiefs to survive the AFC playoffs, the Spagnuolo defense will have to come to the rescue … again and again. And that’s a tough ask.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from Football Reference and Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.