(Longtime Chiefs fan. I write this weekly and email to friends, but thought I'd share with the larger Chiefs community given the criticality of this one!)
It's been over 6000 days since the Chiefs won a playoff game and I can think of no better time than the inaugural season at the New Arrowhead to bring a playoff victory to KC. Sure, I have concerns: the Ravens have won on the road this year and in recent playoffs, a flu virus is making the rounds in KC (Waters and Bowe both missed practice), the Raiders loss looms. But, I also have reason to be excited: the Chiefs coaching staff has combined appearances in 29 Super Bowls, there are no new flu reports, and we are at home! And not only are we at home, but the Ravens actually returned a number of tickets (that will be sold to Chiefs fans), so our blessed football sanctuary will be even more rapturous!
But make no mistake: this is a tough wildcard draw. The Ravens have weapons on their underachieving offense and their defense, despite its age, continues to dominate opponents (holding road opponents to 17 points per game). But, I've seen enough Ravens football to know that this is a team that the Chiefs can beat. Here's what we'll need to do:
- Win the TO battle. This is what dictates Ravens wins or losses: in the past two playoff seasons, the Ravens have lost games in which they lose the TO battle. And the Chiefs have statistics on their side: the Chiefs at home have a +4 TO margin, while the Ravens on the road have a -2 margin. That turnover differential is explained entirely by fumbles (where the Chiefs have only lost 2 at home all season while recovering 4, and the Ravens have lost 6 on the road while recovering 2). TARGET: recover 2 fumbles and finish at least +1 in TO ratio.
- Do not give up big plays. The Ravens offense is average at best and their rushing attack is anemic on the road (they average 96 yds/road game), despite all the big talk in the media about Rice. If we eliminate big plays (whether deep passes, long runs/returns, TOs that lead to Ravens points, TOs that wipe out Chiefs points...), then we force their anemic offense into long drives and earning points. TARGET: max 1 big play (it'll likely be by the defense).
- Use the 12th Man. The Chiefs at home committed nine more penalties than the Ravens on the road. That speaks to the Ravens discipline and experience vs ours. But they've not been to Arrowhead. With Stealth bombers flying overhead, messages to fans to enter the stadium 30 mins early (sorry, this is the playoffs: end those tailgates), and the first home playoff game since 2003, this crowd will hit 125 decibels. And it's not just the noise, but the intelligence of the noise -- silent on offensive series, loud in defensive series, deafening on defensive 3rd/4th downs. Put that struggling Ravens offense into holes with false starts; and give your offense short yardage downs with hard counts. TARGET: +5 in the false start and offsides penalties.
- Sack!!! The Chiefs at home are +9 in sack margin; the Ravens on the road, conversely, are -3 in sack margin. That is a tremendous difference and one that the Chiefs will need to exploit. The 12th Man should help them, as should AFC sack champ Tamba Hali. After TOs, this is probably the most important key, as sacks drastically increase the defense's ability to stall a drive. TARGET: 5 sacks.
- Make Ed Reed hit. Sounds crazy, right? But it's not: he injured his rib last week and has been limited in practice. If we punish that rib, we limit his aggression. And how important is he? Well, he missed the first six games of the year and still led the league in INTs. If I'm Haley, I get TEs in crossing patterns with the intent to 1) catch the ball, 2) initiate contact with Ed Reed. And I tell Charles/Jones to initiate contact with Reed anytime they see him nearby. TARGET: by the 4th Q, Ed Reed is sitting out on running downs. (Sorry, it's the playoffs -- expose any weakness, even if injuries. And FWIW, I wrote this before news of his brother surfaced.)
- Finish each half strong. Both of these teams score huge in the 2nd Q; if the Chiefs win this quarter, they should be in a position to win the game. Of course, the most important quarter is the 4th. The Chiefs at home have outscored the Ravens on the road in every quarter except the 4th. There's a reason for that -- the Chiefs at home often are protecting big leads -- but it's worrisome, as it could also suggest that the Chiefs have depth/conditioning problems. Chiefs players will need to dig deep, tap into adrenalin, and finish the game strong. TARGET: outscore Ravens in both 2nd and 4th Q.
I wouldn't be surprised if Haley's got a trick or two up his sleeve for this one. Hopefully we can save the tricks for next week (when we'll need them). I expect this will be a tight one, the Chiefs D thwarts a late 2-point attempt, and that 20-18 is enough for the Chiefs to squeak through to the next round in Pittsburgh (thank you Jets!).