Last week, despite a loss, I moved Philadelphia into the top 10 in my power rankings, and predicted they would crush the visiting, spunky 2-0 Kansas City Chiefs, assuming they could regain the form they showed in the first half of their week one win over Washington. While I celebrate the picks I get right, I need to get called out on the carpet for the ones I miss – so here’s how the Chiefs managed to beat the Eagles. More importantly, here’s why the Chiefs aren’t just a spunky 3-0, but are actual serious playoff contenders in 2013.
Last season, the Chiefs turned the ball over 37 times. Through the first three games alone, it was nine – they simply kept giving the ball away, be it by throwing the ball into coverage or dropping the ball on the turf. So far this season, they haven’t turned over the ball a single time, and part of that has to fall on the shoulders of their new quarterback, Alex Smith. Smith’s turned the epithet ‘game manager’ into a badge of honor. While he was horrible in the red zone, going 0-for-4 with a sack, the fact that he kept the ball, and allowed the Chiefs to get some points out of those drives, is leaps and bounds beyond what they were able to do last season. Ideally, yes, you’d like to turn those goal line opportunities into touchdowns but let’s remember this was a 2-14 team last season and give them credit for taking baby steps forward. The Chiefs are the first team since the 1998 Patriots to have no turnovers in their first three games and the first team since the 2000 Broncos to have a +9 turnover margin in that time period. This won’t last forever – even Smith has thrown five interceptions a season the last two years and, at some point, a ball’s going to bounce on the turf and end up in the opponent’s hands. Still, that stat alone is enough to explain why the Chiefs are riding high, tied atop their division.
The Eagles, on the other hand, keep giving the ball over and the Chiefs defense was more than happy to take advantage of that. Justin Houston was insane – 4.5 sacks, three passes defended, a forced fumble, and two fumbles recovered. There’s a reason I named him to my all-budget team to start the season but I wasn’t expecting him to start off this strong – 7.5 sacks in three games, the most since 1984 and Mark Gastineau. The pressure caused by Houston and his teammates also forced Michael Vick into multiple bad throws, leading to two interceptions, which in turn led to 10 points – the margin of victory. The Eagles fast-pace offense can’t work if it’s not on the field, and with the Chiefs not turning the ball over, they held it for nearly 40 minutes. Time of possession isn’t the end-all-be-all of stats – you don’t need to hold the ball if you’re scoring quickly – but it certainly is indicative of other things, like converting on third downs and holding on to the ball. When you’re dominated by that much, you’ll find it difficult, though not impossible, to win.
A Tale of Two Receivers
One of the tough things a quarterback needs to do with a new set of receivers is develop chemistry – see how Tom Brady has struggled with so much change in New England, or Colin Kaepernick without Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Smith seems to have found a chemistry in this game with one receiver though – Donnie Avery. Smith to Avery was key in this game, as Smith targeted him seven times for seven completions, including four third-down conversions. While they’ve only hooked up once in the end zone so far this season, a game like Thursday’s is worth taking note of. It’s Smith’s style, too – he gets the ball to Avery and Jamaal Charles on short, high-percentage passes, and then they take off after the catch. Avery earned 98 yards after the catch against the Eagles. While they only hooked up four times before this game, it will be interesting to see if Thursday’s connection continues from here on out, or if they were just able to exploit the Eagles defense.
Underneath crossing patterns are not only Smith’s bread-and-butter, but also, apparently, Philadelphia’s Achilles heel. This is a problem they had last week against San Diego as well, missing tackles and letting those short routes end up five to ten yards further than they have any right to. The Eagles offense is alright – not perfect, still developing, but alright. Until they can solidify their defense, however, and limit those yards after catch, they’re in trouble. In their two losses, they’ve allowed almost 400 yards after the catch and with Peyton Manning and company coming to town, that’s got to change quickly.
In the fourth quarter, the Eagles had made it a game again when LeSean McCoy squirted through a hole for a 41-yard touchdown to make it a 23-16 game with 11:43 left in the fourth quarter – plenty of time for them to get the ball back and drive to tie the game. When Dexter McCluster muffed the ensuing kickoff, the Chiefs were pinned down inside their own five yard line. With field position like that, you’re actually expected to score negative points – that is, statistically, the next team likely to score is the defense, be it a safety, a turnover, or a punt from deep in your own end zone. The Chiefs were in a hole; even more so when Smith was sacked on second down, giving them a third-and-ten from their own five. At that point, the Eagles had a 23% chance to win; not great, but their highest since late in the third quarter. One more stop, and they’d be in business.
That’s when the short pass come back to haunt them, yet again. Smith found Avery short over the middle, and he was able to dash up the field for fifteen yards. The very next play, he hit Sean McGrath for eight more yards, followed by Jamaal Charles running off left tackle for another first down. They kept moving it up the field, slowly but surely eating away at the field and the clock. Smith completed short passes to Anthony Sherman and Dwayne Bowe for first downs and both Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis had success on the ground. By the time the drive finally petered out at the Philadelphia 20, there was only 3:24 left on the clock, and Ryan Succop’s field goal gave the Chiefs a two-score lead and killed the Eagles chances. The Eagles win chances had dropped to 7% and, forced to hurry, Vick threw his second interception of the game to ice the win for the returning Andy Reid.
I’d call the last two weeks upset losses for Philadelphia, but next week certainly wouldn’t be. If Alex Smith can find gaps in your defense, Peyton Manning and the Broncos can shred it. It looks like the Eagles are going to drop to 1-3 despite a very promising Week 1. With the NFC East in an off-year, it’s there for the taking, but they need to get right defensively if they want to have any success. That will probably have to start two weeks from now against the Giants, though.
As for the Chiefs, it’s still possible they’re the worst 3-0 team – but that still leaves them as a 3-0 team. They’ll come up against another NFC East team in the Giants, and if they continue to play their brand of mistake-free football, they should have little trouble picking through the Giants defense, as all of their other opponents have this year. Smith is going to throw an interception sooner or later – he nearly had one taken to the house last week – but given ten days to prepare for a struggling squad, I think they’ll handle the Giants without too much trouble. This is looking like a squad that could quintuple their win total from last season, and while I doubt they can hang with the Broncos in the AFC East, they could well compete for a wildcard, making games like Week 5’s matchup with the Titans very important.