A dreadful 1-5 start and the season-ending injury to running back Jamaal Charles should have completely derailed the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5), but head coach Andy Reid’s squad ripped off a 10-game winning streak to close the regular season and now sit as three-point road favorites over the AFC South champion Houston Texans (9-7) in Saturday’s wild-card matchup at NRG Stadium.
Owning the NFL’s ninth highest-scoring offense and the third stingiest defense, the Chiefs are seeking their first playoff victory since 1993, the last year they reached the AFC title game. But ever since, Kansas City’s fallen flat in their seven previous playoff appearances.
Thanks to quarterback Alex Smith and a defensive unit that wreaks havoc on opposing quarterbacks and forced the fourth-most turnovers in the league, the Chiefs may just snap their 22-year playoff losing streak.
Smith hasn’t been nearly as careful with the ball the last two games, tossing three interceptions compared to just four in 14 other starts this season, but he still guided the Chiefs offense with a career-best 3,486 passing yards and topped out at 20 touchdown passes for a 95.4 passer rating. Smith also enters the fourth playoff start of his career, going 1-2 with the last loss coming in 2013 when Kansas City coughed up a 28-point, third-quarter lead and fell to Indianapolis 45-44.
Reid spelled the loss of Charles, one of the NFL’s most versatile and game-changing backs, by inserting his pair of second-year backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware with Smith racking up a career-high 498 rushing yards.
Splice in receiver Jeremy Maclin, who became the first Chiefs wide out to break the 1,000-yard barrier since 2011, and tight end Travis Kelce’s 72 receptions for 875 yards and five touchdowns and the Chiefs will severely test a Houston defense that ranked No. 3 overall during the regular season.
Powered by NFL sack leader and defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans also managed to shake off a poor 1-4 start by going 7-2 over the final nine games of the season despite a quarterback carousel that continues to spin and spin.
Houston and head coach Bill O’Brien managed to wrangle the division away from long-time leader Indianapolis for the first time since 2012, which also stands as the last time the Texans hosted and won a playoff game.
The Texans got opening-day starter Brian Hoyer back in their 30-6 victory over Jacksonville to close out the regular season, but he was dealing with his second concussions in the last month. Hoyer was one of four quarterbacks to start under center for Houston this season, and the squad already had to deal with the season-ending injury to running back Arian Foster.
But it didn’t seem to matter to receiver DeAndre Hopkins who was under center. The third-year wide out set new career marks with 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns off a 192 targets, the third-highest mark in the NFL as he served as Houston’s only reliable offensive weapon.
Concern over Hoyer, with former Dallas Cowboy Brandon Weeden next up on the depth chart after Ryan Mallett’s release and T.J. Yates season-ending knee injury, should only intensify after starting left tackle Duane Brown tore his right quadriceps tendon against Jacksonville and underwent surgery to prepare the damage.
Houston added veteran tackle Andrew McDonald to roster as Brown’s replacement, but a Texans offensive line that allowed 36.0 sacks (No. 17 in the NFL) will be a major factor against a Chiefs pass rush that generated 47.0 sacks.
Betting Odds: Kansas City -3
Over/Under: 40 points
Prediction: Kansas City over Houston, 24-14