How Chiefs can win 2023 Super Bowl: Simplified pass game; All-Pro production from Travis Kelce and Chris Jones
The Kansas City Chiefs are back in the AFC Championship Game, the fifth consecutive year the franchise will be playing for an appearance in the Super Bowl. Kansas City is the first team in league history to host five consecutive conference championship games, and they'll be playing in a stadium where Patrick Mahomes has lost in the postseason just twice, both in overtime -- the 2019 AFC Championship against Tom Brady and the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and last season's AFC Championship against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kansas City appears to be in a strong position to win the Super Bowl again, having the head coach-quarterback combination in place with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes (although Mahomes' injured ankle could certainly make it more difficult). The Chiefs also have one of the best postseason pass-catchers in NFL history in tight end Travis Kelce, along with the most disruptive defensive tackle in the NFL this season, first-team All-Pro Chris Jones.
The Chiefs thought they had the pieces to return to the mountaintop as Super Bowl champions last season, but they fell flat in the AFC Championship, squandering a 21-3 lead. Those issues for this talented Chiefs team may be corrected, though, as Kansas City is two wins away from winning its second Super Bowl in four years.
Here's how the Chiefs can finish the job this time:
Patrick Mahomes keeps it simple
So much of the likely 2022 NFL MVP's magic comes from his ability to get outside of the pocket, extend plays, and then make the miraculous throws seem routine. However, Mahomes might have to make do with playing a quarterback play style reminiscent of a bygone era, playing like a statuesque pocket passer given he will be playing through a high-ankle sprain on Sunday. It will be a significant adjustment given that his 15 postseason touchdown passes outside of the pocket comprise 41% (15 of 37) of the entire NFL's touchdown passes outside the pocket in the last five postseasons. No quarterback has thrived more than Mahomes outside in the pocket when the lights shine brightest since 2018, when he became the Chiefs' full-time starting quarterback.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, he got a head start on adjusting to life without his trademark mobility in the divisional round against the Jacksonville Jaguars, throwing zero passes outside of the pocket after his ankle was rolled up on by two Jaguars defenders.
Mahomes dealt with a somewhat similar situation in the 2020 postseason following a toe injury against the Cleveland Browns in the divisional Round that season. He didn't have great success adjusting, as he had a putrid 18.2 passer rating outside the pocket the rest of that postseason. His passer rating outside the pocket is 117.8 in all other playoff games.
Mahomes is better positioned to withstand this injury than in the 2020 postseason because the 2020 Chiefs had lost both starting offensive tackles, left tackle Eric Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, to season-ending injuries. Between better health up front and his adjustment to a style of play with less improvisation thanks to the loss of All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill, there shouldn't be as much whiplash.
In terms of expected points added -- the measure of success which defines the value of each play by the effect it has on an offense's likelihood to score -- Mahomes' values were the best in the entire NFL in quick passing situations as well as when facing coverages with more defenders dropped back into coverage -- looks he'll likely see with less movement outside the pocket.
Mahomes has made these adjustments appear seamless, as the Chiefs led the entire league in scoring this season, 29.2 points per game, despite losing Hill, the NFL's best deep threat, to the Miami Dolphins, and by relying on his tight ends and running backs at a historic level: Mahomes' 28 passing scores to running backs and tight ends tied the NFL single-season record set by Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle in 1963 -- three years before the Super Bowl Era.
Mahomes' average pass length, 7.24 yards downfield, was the lowest in his career, but the scoring stayed up despite this transformation because the Chiefs were third in the NFL in yards after catch per reception (6.6) -- a byproduct of putting the ball in the hands of their shiftiest players, running backs and Travis Kelce, at such a high rate.
As long as Mahomes continues to remain patient within the pocket and takes the shorter, underneath routes, defenses will likely continue to concede to him, allowing the Kansas City offense to continue marching up and down the field even without its quarterback's supreme scrambling skills.
Feed Travis Kelce
Speaking of Mahomes' reliance on running backs and tight ends, there's no tight end better in today's NFL -- and perhaps in the history of the position when his career comes to a close -- than Travis Kelce. He led all tight ends in catches (110), receiving yards (1,338) and receiving touchdowns (12) this season, and he's en route to becoming one of the most prolific postseason pass-catchers in NFL history.
His 120 playoff receptions are the second-most all-time behind only the receiving G.O.A.T Jerry Rice (120); his 1,389 playoff receiving yards are tied for the third-most all-time with Rob Gronkowski; and his 14 receiving touchdowns are the third-most all-time, but he'll leap into second behind only Rice in that category with just two more scores.
In order for the Chiefs to beat the Bengals and go on to win the Super Bowl, they'll need more Kelce like Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken needed more cowbell. Kelce's stat line of four catches for 56 yards didn't cut it in a 27-24 loss to the Bengals in Week 13, and even his 10-catch, 95-yard, one-touchdown performance wasn't enough in Kansas City's 27-24 overtime defeat in last year's AFC Championship, also against Cincinnati.
Across those two losses, Kelce had 17 targets. He needs more. The Chiefs' goal for the rest of the postseason should be to target him like he needs to break the NFL's single-game catches record (21) set by former Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall back in 2009. The Chiefs also need to utilize him at an increased rate out of the slot. Just eight of those 17 targets in those last two losses against Cincinnati occurred when he was lined up in the slot. When he's in the slot, that forces defenses to show earlier who they're going to cover him with, whether that's a linebacker, safety or cornerback. That extra information is only a plus for his quarterback.
In addition to targeting him more, head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy need to line their superstar up in the slot at a higher rate, as he's been the most prolific tight end when in the slot of any in the entire league since Mahomes became his quarterback in 2018, according to NFL NextGen Stats. Throwing to Kelce at a historic volume is the best for this Chiefs offense to continue moving the chains while also opening up the rest of the field for everyone else.
Chris Jones takeover
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the two-time Super Bowl-winning defensive play-caller, is notorious for his love of the blitz, but Kansas City blitzes at the 14th-lowest rate in the NFL in 2022 because it allows the sixth-highest passer rating (104.4) when blitzing.
He should continue to resist the urge to do so against Joe Burrow, since his passer rating when blitzed (118.1) is the second-highest in the entire league. However, if the Chiefs advance to the Super Bowl, Spagnuolo can do what he wants, as both the Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts (93.0 passer rating) and the San Francisco 49ers' Brock Purdy (91.8) rank in the bottom half of the league in passer rating when blitzed.
Either way, in order to lift the Lombardi Trophy once again at season's end, the Chiefs need Chris Jones to dominate. He was this regular season's top defensive tackle, leading the position in sacks, quarterback hits and pressures. Jones had 14 more pressures than the next-closest defensive tackle, Dexter Lawrence of the New York Giants.
Oddly enough, though, Jones doesn't have any sacks in 13 career playoff games, and his 560 playoff snaps without a sack are the most among defensive linemen without a playoff sack in the last 10 seasons. Sacks aren't the end-all measurement for a player's pass-rush effectiveness, but in order to topple Burrow and either Hurts or Purdy, Jones needs to come through like the 2022 first-team All-Pro selection that he was.
The Chiefs secondary allowed the most passing touchdowns (33) in the league this regular season and the second-highest red-zone touchdown rate (67.3%), ahead of only the Indianapolis Colts (67.9%). Jones needs to wreck the opposing offensive lines in front of him in order to compensate for a lackluster back-end defense. If he does, it's very easy to envision the Chiefs as NFL champions once again. Read More