Game Day is finally here, and the Houston Texans travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face off against the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC Divisional Championship game, as the season is on the line.
Though the Houston Texans were able to overcome the odds and earn a road victory in Week 6, the Kansas City Chiefs are actually favored by nearly 10 points this time around according to The Action Network.
There are a couple factors leaning in KC’s favor, including the health of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, stud defensive lineman Chris Jones and the fact that defending MVP Patrick Mahomes is playing at full health.
With that being said, Texans fans will be happy to hear speedster wide receiver Will Fuller is back from a three-week groin injury, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph is returning to the lineup after dealing with hamstring issues.
After barely squeaking by against the Buffalo Bills in overtime, Houston needs to regroup and play like the team that showed up in the second half of their Wild Card win. The offensive line succumbed to seven sacks against a ferocious front seven, and they will face a similar threat in the Chiefs defense. Kansas City racked up 45 sacks in the regular season (one more than the Bills) and features playmakers Jones, Frank Clark, and Emmanuel Ogbah.
With various blitz packages expected, Watson will need to do a better job of finding receivers quicker. Watson is infamously one of the worst at holding on to the ball too long in the pocket, yet he also manages to extend and create miraculous plays with his legs.
The overtime play where he evaded two Bills defenders to set up the game-winning field goal was incredible, but there were many more negative plays that transpired before that one for the Houston Texans quarterback. If Watson is able to avoid pressure from the Chiefs’ front four, it will likely be because of his ability to work short plays into the offense and gradually wear them down.
In the Week 6 matchup, the Texans were not playing the cleanest football imaginable, as Carlos Hyde fumbled on his first play from scrimmage and Watson threw an uncharacteristic interception to rookie JoeJuan Thornhill.
Thornhill won’t be playing in this game due to a season-ending injury in Week 17, but the KC secondary has significantly improved their performance during the latter half of the season. The Chiefs actually have the NFL’s eighth-ranked pass defense with a mere 221.4 yards allowed per game, thanks to the superb play of the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu. The Texans know Mathieu all too well after he departed the team this past offseason, and he will be playing with a major chip on his shoulder against his former team.
When the Texans found success, it was mostly because of the time of possession battle and their ability to keep Mahomes on the sideline. Houston had one of their better running performances in the game, and they managed to keep the ball for 39 minutes and 48 seconds (66.3-percent of the game), thanks to Hyde’s breakout game with the team.
Obviously Mahomes leads a high-powered offense with stellar playmakers like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and Damien Williams. Though they have played well at times, the Texans’ pass defense has not been their strong suit this season, finishing at 29th overall and allowing nearly 4,300 yards through the air. The best things that Houston can do are mitigate the passing game by putting extra defensive backs on the field and prevent the Chiefs offense from even being on the field.
As for the Texans’ offense, it all revolves around No. 4. Watson is the most valuable player on the Texans, hands down, and he has to churn out an MVP-like day in order to keep their playoff dreams alive.
Though he was battered and bruised the week before, Watson actually completed 80 percent of his passes and put together one of the most efficient passing performances in playoff history. According to Zebra Technologies’ Next Gen Stats, Watson averaged 10.0 air yards per pass in the second half, as opposed to only 4.6 in the first half. It’s apparent that when the team airs it out and takes more risks, the offense flourishes due to his prowess with the deep ball.
Though he was held without a catch in the first half, DeAndre Hopkins exploded for six catches and 90 yards in the second half, further proving how valuable he is to the success of the offense. The return of Fuller is huge for the passing game, as ESPN stats point out that Watson’s QBR jumps tremendously from 64.4 to 77.3 when he is on the field.
Not surprisingly, the only quarterback in the league with a similar QBR to Watson (with Fuller) is Mahomes, who is also at 77.3 QBR overall. “The Andy Reid offense” works wonders with the defending MVP, who possesses the most sheer arm talent in the NFL and features the league’s fastest receivers by a mile. Though he didn’t throw for 50 touchdowns or 5,000 yards this year, Mahomes has cemented his place as one of the best three players at his position.
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The only real weakness of the Chiefs team is their rush defense, which is deceiving because of their high sack totals. They are significantly below average while allowing 4.9 yards per carry to opposing teams, which has proven to be their true Achilles heel in their four losses this year.
Statistically speaking, the Texans could run the ball on every play and still get first downs on every drive to drain the clock, keep Mahomes on the sideline and wear down the Chiefs as a whole.
Obviously that won’t be the case, but in the event of a run-heavy approach, the Texans need Duke Johnson to be used much more heavily than he was in their last matchup.
While the Texans are technically 9.5 underdogs, they have all the momentum in the world right now. One thing working against them is the fact that no team in NFL history has ever defeated the Chiefs in Arrowhead twice in the same season, but there’s a first for everything.
My keys to the game are to work Fuller back into the offense early, establish the running game but mix up the play calling by throwing in play-action on first down and let Watson go to work as a runner as well.
On defense, the Texans need to throw a couple of blitz packages into the game plan to get Mahomes on the ground and eliminate the easy running back passes that hurt them last time. Damien Williams and Darrell Williams are both deadly in the open field, especially when all of the focus is going toward Hill downfield and Kelce in the middle.
As for my official score predictions, I’m going to say a shootout is necessary to topple this offensive juggernaut.
The Week 6 win ended up 31-24, but this might have to be a 35- or 40-point type of affair to advance to the AFC Championship game. The Texans can’t settle for field goals or afford to fall into a large deficit early on, so if the offense gets rolling, I think the game will end up 35-31 in favor of Houston.
Regardless of the end result, Watson vs. Mahomes Part II will be one of the most entertaining games of the season and is almost assuredly the next great QB matchup of the decade.