Luck vs. Talent And The Chiefs' Ninth Victory
Week after week in this space I have mentioned how the Kansas City Chiefs’ schedule has been incredibly easy and how lucky that has been for them. The Chiefs were “lucky” for another reason on Sunday even if the Buffalo Bills aren’t a very good team.
Heading into the game, the Bills were only 3-5, surely not too much trouble for the NFL’s lone remaining unbeaten team. But that record covers up the fact that the Bills have played well at times and have had some near misses when it comes to wins. However, the Bills had undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel making his first career start against one of the league’s best defenses.
And that’s where the Chiefs “luck” for this game comes into play. The Bills put up one of the best fights against the Chiefs so far this season. The combination of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson gashed Kansas City’s run defense, the Chiefs’ weakness on that side of the ball. Spiller and Jackson ran for 193 yards and added 61 more yards in the passing game.
But the thing that brought the Bills down was the play of Tuel. After completing a gorgeous 59-yard pass to Marquise Goodwin for the game’s first touchdown, Tuel struggled. He threw two interceptions, one of which was returned 100 yards for a touchdown by Sean Smith. That play shows the damage of having a quarterback who is not very good (or at least very experienced). Tuel had Stevie Johnson wide open in the back of the end zone but instead stayed focused on T.J. Graham, who had no shot at catching anything. Tuel stared down Graham, and Smith stayed right where he was (instead of chasing Johnson). The result nullified a great drive that included a 61-yard run by Spiller and a handful of Jackson runs to give the Bills in a great scoring opportunity.
Not only does a better quarterback not make the throws that resulted in Tuel’s two interceptions, but he might have been able to hit a couple of bombs that Tuel just couldn’t complete. Multiple times Goodwin had gotten past the secondary, but poor throws resulted in incompletions instead of huge gains.
The reason I have put the word lucky in quotation marks is because forcing opposing quarterbacks into difficult positions is a great strength of the Chiefs defense. Kansas City been slightly vulnerable to the rush, something exploited by Buffalo on Sunday, but incredible against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have completed only 53.5% of their passes against the Chiefs, the lowest rate in the league. Yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdowns allowed, and interceptions are all near the league lead.
The Chiefs had the league’s easiest schedule in the league heading into Week 9 (I can't imagine it would change too much after this game). That schedule got even easier when they faced the third-string quarterbacks from the Texans, Browns, and Bills. But with those teams in particular, how much success would their first-string QBs really have? Yes, Kansas City has had an Easy schedule, but the Chiefs also have a talented defense.
In recent weeks, Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell have talked about teams employing a “David” strategy on Grantland’s NFL podcast. Bill Simmons also calls a similar strategy a “kitchen sink game”. Essentially, it's when underdog teams -- knowing they are outmatched -- play more aggressively than they usually do.
On Sunday it appeared that the Bills were employing a strategy that was at least David-esque. The most obvious application was the handful of deep throws. It’s certainly risky to require your inexperienced quarterback to hold onto the ball longer when facing a great pass rush. A great performance from Buffalo’s offensive line kept Tuel upright all game long. Kansas recorded neither a sack nor a hit on Tuel. Buffalo’s explosive running attack forced the Chiefs to focus on the run more than they may have wanted. This, along with how speedy Goodwin is, may be the reason for how open he was on those deep passes. Unfortunately for the Bills, they were able to connect only once on those long routes. A severe underthrow by Tuel allowed two Chiefs defenders to make up ground on one of these plays, and the other pass forced Goodwin into a difficult catch that he couldn’t quite make (this was the play that Buffalo challenged and lost).
It appears a David strategy could have worked in beating Kansas City. What ultimately pushed the Chiefs toward their ninth victory was their employment of a Goliath strategy, something they’ve done all year long. Kansas City hunkered down and waited for its opponent to make mistakes and beat itself. And that’s what happened. The defense scored two touchdowns, one on the Tuel interception and another when Tamba Hali recovered a fumble for an 11-yard score.
The Chiefs kept the score close in the first half when they were decidedly outplayed. Capitalizing on turnovers allowed the offense to stay conservative and forced Buffalo to move away from its offensive strength once it needed to play catch-up.
Even though each team nearly had the ball for the same time, all of the important moments happened when Buffalo was on offense. That portion of the game provided the plays where Buffalo was close to being the first victor over Kansas City, but also featured the Bills’ failure to do so. And Kansas City’s offensive performance shouldn’t be devalued. Once again, when it mattered, the offense’s last meaningful drive took more than four minutes off the clock and put three points on the board, making it a two-score game. The ability of the offense to take time off the clock at the most important times is an undervalued strength.
What percentage of the Chiefs nine wins are due to luck or talent doesn’t really matter. Those wins are in the record books. We’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see what the defense can do against Denver’s offense, Kansas City’s toughest test. However, on Sunday the defense led the Chiefs to another victory once again.