By Sam McPherson
Everyone knows the Kansas City Chiefs haven’t won an NFL playoff game since Joe Montana quarterbacked the team to the 1993 AFC Championship Game. Since then, the Chiefs have lost seven straight playoff games, including a heartbreaker just two years ago on the road against the AFC South Division champions. There, Kansas City blew a 28-point, third-quarter lead in that 2013 wild-card round game to the Indianapolis Colts, and many of this year’s players still remember the sting of the loss.
As fate would have it, the Chiefs once again will go on the road to the face the AFC South Division champs. This year, it is the Houston Texans, however, instead of the Colts. Kansas City has won 10 straight games and enters the postseason as the hottest team in the league, but the Texans themselves won seven of their last nine to claim their third division title in the last five seasons.
The Texans finished with a 9-7 record, recovering from an ugly 2-5 start to the season that saw them switch quarterbacks multiple times. However, once Houston Head Coach Bill O’Brien settled on QB Brian Hoyer, the Texans came together as a team on the both sides of the ball to finish strong. Despite Hoyer missing time with two concussions, the Houston defense carried the team down the stretch—winning three division games in a row to finish the season atop the standings.
A Week 10 win over the then-undefeated Cincinnati Bengals on the road was the launching pad to the second-half success of the Texans, and O’Brien’s ability to nurture backups QBs T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden to three starts and wins in Hoyer’s absence helped Houston overcome the injury to offensive star Arian Foster. The win over the Bengals is the only win the Texans have over a 2015 playoff team, as they lost to the Chiefs in Week 1 at home, the Carolina Panthers on the road in Week 2 and the New England Patriots at home in Week 14.
Texans on Offense
Houston finished the season with some offensive inconsistency thanks to Hoyer’s concussion problems. However, the Texans have their starting QB ready for the postseason. Hoyer threw 19 touchdowns this year and only seven interceptions, while completing 60.7 percent of his passes. Handing the ball off to a trio of solid running backs—Alfred Blue, Chris Polk, and Jonathan Grimes—gives Hoyer the chance to take advantage of secondaries with wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins (111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 TDs) and Nate Washington (47 catches, 658 yards, four TDs).
When the Texans rushed for 100-plus yards this year, they posted a 6-1 record. Look for Houston to try to establish the run at home and then exploit the deep passes to Hopkins. The Texans have offensive weapons, and Hopkins will get his looks no matter what. However, if Houston’s running the ball well, it really gives Hopkins the chance to demonstrate how good he’s become in just a few years of NFL play.
Texans on Defense
Houston’s defense finished seventh in the NFL for points allowed (313 overall, less than 20 points per game), but as the season progressed, the Texans really clamped down on opposing offenses. They gave up 10 points or less six times in the last nine games, including just six points in five different wins. Yardage-wise, Houston surrendered 268 yards or less in seven of the last nine games—all seven of those games were victories.
Defensive end J.J. Watt is the dominant force on the Texans defense, of course. But linebacker Brian Cushing led the team with 110 tackles, and the secondary is full of playmakers. Also, it’s an opportunistic defense that registered 45 sacks and three TDs directly off turnovers. Even though Houston didn’t face too many great offenses down the stretch, the defense is a very dangerous one, especially at home.
Texans Players to Watch
Hopkins quietly is establishing himself as one of the best WRs in the NFL. He’s only 23 years old, but he can get open and make plays all by himself. With four different QBs throwing him the ball this year, Hopkins still had a statistically dominant season. None of those QBs are Pro Bowlers, either. The Chiefs have to keep their best corner on him throughout the game. Meanwhile, Watt has demonstrated he can be a one-man wrecking ball to opposing offenses, so Kansas City will have to account for him on every offensive snap.
The Texans won the weakest division in the AFC, and even though the Chiefs finished with two more wins, they have to travel to Houston. Kansas City Head Coach Andy Reid and his team remember what it was like to lose to the Colts two years ago, and that memory will fuel the Chiefs to a playoff victory this time out. It won’t be easy, because the Texans play tough defense at home.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.