Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- One team that should move on from its franchise QB.
-- Why kickers (yes, kickers!) deserve a spot in the MVP conversation.
But first, a look at the five teams most likely to prevent a Chiefs repeat ...
With the playoffs just a few weeks away, the Kansas City Chiefs are primed and ready to defend their title. Andy Reid's team boasts the NFL's best record at 12-1, and there are only a few teams with the talent to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champs.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the Chiefs' most recent games, I believe there are four essential traits a contender must possess to knock off the reigning Super Bowl winners:
1) A versatile offense, whether by ground or through the air. Coaches facing the Chiefs must determine whether to utilize a keep-away strategy or engage in a shootout with the defending champs. If opponents opt to follow a ball-control game plan, they must be able to run against loaded boxes to string together first downs and score from inside the 10-yard line when everyone knows the tailback is going to tote the rock. Obviously, success in a ground-and-pound attack allows a team to control the clock and shorten the game. If opponents attempt to set the pace by turning the game into a fast break on grass, the offense will need the quarterback, pass catchers and general playmakers to put points on the board in bunches. Considering the challenge posed by Kansas City's high-octane offense, the teams with the best chance to upset the champs will possess a versatile scheme and a stable of playmakers to hang with with Patrick Mahomes in a playoff battle.
2) A playmaking quarterback with the experience, poise and clutch factor to win a playoff game in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs' explosive offense has the potential to light up the scoreboard with Mahomes and Co. playing at the highest level. With the Chiefs' capacity to turn every game into a shootout, teams looking to dethrone the defending champs must have a quarterback with the ability to put touchdowns on the board, particularly in the fourth quarter. If the opponent's QB1 can put the offense on his back when needed, the Chiefs could take an L in a "win or go home" contest that's decided in the final 15 minutes of the game.
3) A pass rush featuring multiple defenders with the capacity to get home on their own. Mahomes has become the NFL's ultimate cheat code as a big-armed passer with A-level athleticism and improvisational skills. The reigning Super Bowl MVP can distribute like a casino dealer from the pocket or tear up defenses with a variety of scramble tosses outside of the tackle box. In addition, he attacks blitz pressure with pinpoint throws to the designated hot receiver in each concept. To disrupt Mahomes' game, opponents must be able to win with three- and four-man pass rushes, leaving seven-plus defenders in coverage. If pass rushers remain disciplined and avoid running past the quarterback -- forcing No. 15 to throw from inside the tackle box -- opponents can test the 25-year-old's patience and discipline as a "dink and dunk" thrower.
4) A disciplined secondary with great open-field tacklers. The key to slowing down the Chiefs' offense is eliminating big plays on the perimeter. Opponents must take away the deep ball and minimize YAC (yards after catch) on catch-and-run concepts. To achieve these objectives, the secondary must be committed to playing top-down coverage on K.C.'s speedy receivers to keep the ball in front of the defense. And the defensive backfield must make a concerted effort to gang tackle receivers in space. If opponents can take away the easy scores and make the Chiefs move the ball down the field in elongated drives, the odds of getting a timely stop or takeaway increase with each additional snap.
Based on those essentials, I've ranked the five teams most capable of knocking off the champs in the postseason tournament, headlined by a well-rounded squad that some folks underestimate:
The Colts might be the one AFC team the Chiefs do not want to face in the playoffs. Frank Reich has built the perfect group to knock off the champs, with a hard-hitting defense that opts for coverage over blitz pressure and a run-oriented offense that also features a veteran quarterback with big-game experience. As a result, the Colts can employ a keep-away strategy that reduces the total number of possessions in the game, while challenging the Chiefs to dink and dunk the ball down the field against a defense built to defend those tactics.
Examining the NFL's sixth-ranked defense, the presence of DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston and Denico Autry enables defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to utilize a four-man rush with seven defenders in coverage. The zone-based premise can be effective for the Colts due to their overall team speed, particularly when it comes to the linebackers and defensive backs. They are outstanding tacklers in space and their ability to limit YAC is essential to winning with these tactics.
Offensively, the Colts' five-star O-line could enable Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines to grind it out between the tackles on an assortment of power runs that wear down Kansas City's defense as part of a ball-control strategy that keeps the game close into the fourth quarter. If the Colts aren't able to hog the ball with a ground-and-pound attack, the presence of Philip Rivers gives them a chance to win a shootout with the veteran throwing the ball all over the yard. Despite his turnover history, No. 17 can catch fire at a moment's notice and that could be enough to push Indianapolis over the top.
The Rams have quietly undergone a personality transformation, as their defense has become the key to their success. The combined star power of DT Aaron Donald and CB Jalen Ramsey gives the D a chance to snuff out the Chiefs with a mix of pressure and coverage. The Rams' dynamic duo has keyed a defensive resurgence that makes them a dark-horse Super Bowl contender. First-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley employs a zone-heavy system that utilizes a "vision and break" philosophy: defenders look to take away the deep ball while reacting quickly to underneath throws. As an excellent open-field-tackling team, the Rams punish pass catchers on every throw and test the patience of the quarterback and play-caller.
On offense, Sean McVay is a masterful schemer with an uncanny ability to marry his run game with complementary play-action designs. Jared Goff directs the offense like a symphony conductor, morphing from game manager to playmaker as needed. With rookie Cam Akers breaking out as an electric RB1, the Rams can win with body blows or a knockout punch in a heavyweight fight.
It doesn't matter how this Sunday's showdown in New Orleans turns out; the Saints are built to play the defending champs. Sean Payton's squad features a versatile offense with a pair of quarterbacks who can pose problems for opposing defenses. Whether it is future Hall of Famer Drew Brees picking apart defenses with pinpoint throws to a talented cast of playmakers that includes the best wide receiver in football (Michael Thomas) and a dangerous hybrid (Alvin Kamara) or Taysom Hill tormenting opponents with his rugged dual-threat playmaking skills, the Saints can switch styles to get the game on their terms.
Defensively, New Orleans is one of the few teams in the league with the front line and secondary to utilize pressure or coverage against the Chiefs. Cameron Jordan and Trey Hendrickson create problems with their pass-rush skills, while Marshon Lattimore and Co. can challenge the Chiefs' receivers on the perimeter. If defensive coordinator Dennis Allen were to vary his tactics to keep Mahomes on his toes, the Saints' ultra-talented defense could stifle the champs in a one-and-done matchup.
The presence of a two-time MVP gives the Packers a chance to knock off any team in the postseason, including the defending Super Bowl champs. Aaron Rodgers is playing at a level that's reminiscent of LeBron James finding his groove in the bubble and guiding the Los Angeles Lakers to another title. Like his NBA counterpart has in Anthony Davis, Rodgers is flanked by another superstar: wide receiver Davante Adams. He also has a fine complementary threat on the ground in Aaron Jones. Each playmaker has shown the capacity to take over the game, and their collective production could give Green Bay the edge in a shootout.
Despite some concerns on the defensive side of the ball, the Packers have enough talent to give the defending champs problems. Mike Pettine employs a complex blitz scheme that challenges the judgment of quarterbacks under duress. In addition, Green Bay's young, athletic secondary has the capacity to cover Kansas City's explosive threats on the perimeter. If Pettine has his creative juices flowing, the defense's combination of scheme and talent could help the Pack topple the Chiefs.
Don't let the Chiefs' 26-17 victory at Buffalo back in Week 6 fool you into thinking the AFC East leaders aren't a credible threat to snatch the crown. The Bills have a feisty defense loaded with a bunch of worker bees with hard-nosed games and nasty dispositions. The secondary, in particular, isn't afraid to bump and grind on the perimeter against five-star talents. Tre'Davious White, Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Levi Wallace play with the poise, discipline and awareness needed to keep the ball from flying over the top of the defense. With Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver and Mario Addison providing pressure on coordinated stunts and games, Buffalo can employ a "bend but don't break" strategy that concedes yards but limits big plays and forces the Chiefs to earn their points.
Offensively, the Bills have the ultimate wild-card playmaker in Josh Allen, who enables them to mix power with finesse. The dual-threat QB has become quite a force as a runner and thrower, and the Bills' offense can light up the scoreboard as a result. With Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown capable of winning one-on-one matchups on the perimeter, Buffalo can push the pace to keep up with the high-powered Chiefs.
DINK AND DUNK
Why the Falcons should move on from Matty Ice. It's time to hit the reset button in Atlanta. The Matt Ryan era has run its course. The Dirty Birds must make finding a new franchise quarterback the No. 1 priority of the coming offseason, particularly with a 2021 NFL Draft class that's poised to feature a number of dynamic options at the position.
While it pains me to take a shot at Ryan, who's authored an impressive 13-year run in the ATL, it is apparent -- now more than ever -- that the Falcons (4-9) should move on from the rapidly declining former MVP. The 35-year-old is fresh off a three-interception outing in the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that exposed his flaws as an aging, statuesque thrower. The disappointing performance is part of a continuing trend in which Ryan's completion percentage, touchdown percentage and passer rating have dropped for the third year in a row. Most importantly, the team's 18-27 record during that span coincides with his disappointing play.
To be fair, Atlanta's woes extend well beyond Ryan and his scattershot play, but the four-time Pro Bowler affectionately known as "Matty Ice" is no longer a clutch performer who can be counted on to deliver under pressure. Despite a résumé that includes 38 career game-winning drives since he entered the league 2008 -- tied for the second-most in the league during that span (behind only Matthew Stafford) -- Ryan hasn't orchestrated a game-winner this season and only has three such drives in the last three seasons combined.
With the NFL game suddenly ruled by a handful of athletic quarterbacks possessing superhero-like traits that enable them to torch defenses via pass or run, the Falcons must consider looking for their own Boy Wonder in next year's draft to eventually climb back to the top of the NFC.
Based on their current draft position (No. 5 overall), the Falcons could make a play for Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson or North Dakota State's Trey Lance to be Atlanta's QB1 of the future. (All three are underclassmen, though Lance has already announced his intention to enter the draft.) Each of the dazzling quarterback prospects displays a combination of arm talent, athleticism and playmaking ability to thrive in the new era of offensive football in which QB1s torment defenses with dual-threat capabilities on the perimeter.
Now, given the hefty salary cap hit the Falcons would absorb from trading or outright releasing Ryan, drafting a young quarterback in 2021 could enable the team to slowly bring along Ryan's heir apparent. Falcons owner Arthur Blank has already implied that a new regime would determine Ryan's future with the franchise, but based on his recent performances, it's time for Atlanta to think outside the Ice box.
It's time for everyone to show kickers (especially Justin Tucker) MVP-level respect. People love to chastise kickers when one of their attempts is off the mark, but I would contend that a clutch kicker is the most valuable player on his team. Before you laugh at the thought of a kicker as MVP, I should remind you that the player with the funny facemask who trots onto the field several times a game to boot the ball is typically his team's leading scorer. In fact, 23 of the top 25 players in total points scored this season are kickers.
Considering how points are coveted at a premium in the NFL, we should probably value the league's top scorers, right?
That's the point Baltimore Ravens four-time first-team All-Pro Justin Tucker made a few years ago when he stood up for kickers around the league.
"A lot of people have this stigma that kickers aren't real football players," Tucker said back in 2016 during an appearance on The Dan Patrick Show. "If you look at every team in football and look at the box score of each of their games and added it all up, the kicker is probably the leading scorer. In a game where points win, you want a guy scoring points. ... As the game evolves, you will definitely see the kicker being a more integral part of the game."
After hearing those comments during Tucker's outstanding '16 campaign -- he connected on 38 of 39 field goal attempts and 27 of 27 extra points -- I wrote that the Ravens kicker deserved consideration for the MVP award. Those sentiments remain after watching him nail clutch kick after clutch kick this season.
Looking back at the Ravens' win over the Cleveland Browns in a thriller to close out Week 14, coach John Harbaugh's confidence in his kicker’s ability was critical to the victory. Tucker drilled a 55-yard field goal with two seconds left in the game to give Baltimore's playoff hopes a massive boost. Given all that hinged on that kick late on Monday night, Harbaugh's belief in his long-distance specialist speaks volumes about what a clutch kicker can do for a franchise.
Although the Ravens' offense hasn't given Tucker enough opportunities to win the league's most prestigious individual honor this season (Tucker has converted 22 of 24 field attempts and 39 of 40 extra points), his ability to deliver whenever his team needs him is another example of why elite kickers are the real MVPs in an ultra-competitive league.