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The Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Exorcism

Something transformational happened to the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday, and this change was crucial—so important that it overshadows all the demons they purged with their playoff win.

The Chiefs played defense. And for the remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, that is horrible news.

There was no shortage of reasons for why Kansas City’s 31-13 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday was cathartic. Chiefs fans have seen their team blow playoff leads in recent seasons—18 points in a loss to the Titans last year, 28 points to the Colts five years ago—but it was a drama-free second half this year, with Kansas City holding on with ease.

But the evolution that affects the playoff picture more than any has nothing to do with that historical torture and has everything to do with the way the Chiefs tortured Andrew Luck.

The Chiefs have spent most of the season as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl, but there was always a healthy degree of skepticism. That’s because no matter how well quarterback sensation Patrick Mahomes played, no matter how many passes he completed that seemed to defy both gravity and human capability, the Chiefs struggled on defense. And whether or not the “defense wins championships” mantra holds true in the modern game that’s increasingly come to be defined by offense, there were justifiable questions about whether Kansas City played even close to enough defense to win in the playoffs.

Kansas City, during the regular season, gave up 26.3 points per game—the most of any playoff team. The Chiefs gave up 405.5 yards per game, the second most in the entire NFL and just under the league-high 425.6 yards per game their offense averaged. In effect: their defense made opposing offenses nearly as good as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes-led one.

And in Chiefs lore, this would have been a fitting downfall to crush a brilliant season. This is the same franchise that had lost its last six playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium, not having won there since Joe Montana was their quarterback. Two of those losses came to the Colts. The Colts had won as many playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium as the Chiefs.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston.


Photo:

tyler smith/Shutterstock

But that downfall never came because Kansas City’s glaring flaw became a glittering strength. Throughout the game, the defense harassed Luck, who through the course of the season had returned to form and been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Luck finished the game 19 of 36 for a measly 206 yards and one touchdown, with that one score coming in the fourth quarter. Indianapolis’s only other touchdown came on a blocked punt.

It wasn’t just their ability to cover receivers, either. They bothered Luck the entire game, chasing him around the snow-dusted field. The Colts, who gave up just 18 sacks during the regular season, the fewest in the NFL, gave up three on Saturday. On other plays, the Chiefs’ pressure forced Luck into incompletions or they got so close to him that they tipped a series of passes at the line.

The performance sent a clear message: Ignore Kansas City’s playoff demons. And the Chiefs may actually have a defense that is, at least, good enough to give Mahomes a chance in every game.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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