Friday, December 25, 2015

These stats do not lie

When perusing the statistics of the Kansas City Chiefs, it’s easy to see why they take an eight-game winning streak into Sunday’s meeting with the Browns at home. The stats tell the whole story.

After winning their season opener, the Chiefs dropped five straight games and became somewhat of an afterthought in the AFC West as it appeared Andy Reid’s coaching magic had lost its power.

During that trying five-week period, the Chiefs scored just 100 points and gave up 139. And then Reid magically found his wand and the winning returned. In the eight games since, the Chiefs have scored 238 points and permitted just 98.

When a team averages nearly 30 points a game over a two-month period and permits just 12, good things happen. And when that team scores 29 or more points and allows 14 or fewer in six of those games, really good things happen.

With the Browns squarely in the Chiefs’ crosshairs, the distinct possibility of that winning streak reaching nine games Sunday afternoon is as likely as the sun raising in the morning and setting in the evening.

Just the Browns’ luck they are required by National Football League mandate to finish the 2015 season, which has been miserable at best up to this point, against three of the hottest teams in the league.

Last Sunday, it was a beatdown in Seattle. A week from Sunday, the piping hot Pittsburgh Steelers roll into Cleveland to help the Browns close out the season. Playing the Steelers in the final game of any season since the resurrection is fraught with peril for the Browns, which means another beatdown lurks.

Since 1999, they have concluded their regular-season schedule with the Steelers six times – four in Pittsburgh – and are still looking for their first victory. On four of those occasions, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski coached their final games in Cleveland. Watch out, Mike Pettine.

But we digress. First, the Chiefs and their dramatic comeback from what seemed like certain disaster nearly halfway through the season. It’s quite simple really how they did what the Browns couldn’t and turn it around.

They had to do it the hard way, too, after Jamaal Charles, arguably the best running back in the NFL, went down with a torn ACL in game five against the Chicago Bears. At the time, both sides of the football struggled.

Instead of feeling sorry for themselves with the prospect of playing the rest of the season without their best offensive weapon, the Chiefs shocked many observers by stringing together a few victories. And then it became contagious.

After floundering in that five-game stretch, everything that went wrong in that period started going right. Both elements of the team began playing opportunistic football.  

The offense, led by quarterback Alex Smith, rarely turned the ball over. The defense cooperated by piling up takeaways at a furious pace to get the ball back into the hands of the offense.

No one will confuse Smith with the best the NFL can offer at quarterback. If anything, he is pedestrian in running a well-balanced attack for an offense that won’t scare anyone. His numbers don’t blow anyone away.

He has thrown a meager 16 touchdown passes this season, six to favorite receiver Jeremy Maclin. That pales in comparison to his four interceptions, three of them in the first three weeks. He went nine straight games without a pick and has been picked off just once in the last 11 games.

His favorite targets are Maclin, who has hauled in 79 passes for 985 yards, and tight end Travis Kelce with 65 catches for 822 yards and four scores. Maclin, signed as a free agent, has been a godsend for Smith, who went the entire 2014 season without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.

In Charles’ absence, the Chiefs have relied on Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, a couple of second-year bruisers who have combined for 850 yards and nine touchdowns.

With Smith playing almost mistake-free football and the defense compiling takeaways (27) at a brisk pace, no wonder the Chiefs have climbed into contention for the postseason. That defense has created turnovers in all but two games and recorded nine games with at least two.

Only Denver and New England are better at rushing the passer – the Chiefs have dropped opposing quarterbacks 41 times – all of which means Johnny Manziel can expect plenty of company Sunday, especially with backups playing at both guard positions.

However, the Browns could catch a small break here. Outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, two of the best pass rushers in the league and the Chiefs’ leading sackers, might not play. Houston is out with a hyperextended knee and Hali is questionable with a thumb injury.

When he puts the ball up, Manziel will do so against a defense that has swiped 20 passes, led by rookie cornerback Marcus Peters’ seven. Overall, the Chiefs’ +15 turnover ratio ranks second behind unbeaten Carolina in the NFL

The Kansas City secondary, which gives up 261 yards a game, nonetheless should feast against the Browns, whose injury-riddled wide receivers corps does not conjure up thoughts of Dave Logan, Webster Slaughter and Reggie Rucker.

Running against the Chiefs’ defense is even tougher. They have held 10 of 14 opponents under 100 yards.

When looking for Achilles’ heels, the Chiefs are vulnerable in only one vital area. The young offensive line has coughed up 44 sacks. Unfortunately, the Browns are incapable of taking advantage. The Cleveland pass rush has produced 28 sacks, which isn’t really awful until you realize 16 were rung up in two games.

Add it all up and it looks as though the Browns are headed for another shellacking. Their only chance to keep it close is to harass Smith with a relentless blitz package and make him either throw before he wants to or force him out of the pocket.

Look for a lot of rollouts from the Cleveland attack to avoid the KC pass rush. And maybe offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will finally take advantage of Duke Johnson Jr.’s unique talents and get him at least 20 touches to offset the Chiefs’ quickness on defense.

In the end, though, talent always wins out in the NFL. Smith and Maclin will hook up for a couple of touchdowns, West and Ware will each score once, while the defense will pick off Manziel once, drop him five times and recover two fumbles in a game that will be over by halftime. Make it:

Chiefs 38, Browns 6

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