In toppling Falcons, red-hot Chiefs once again showcase bag of tricks
There are no quarterback rankings that put Alex Smith in a top tier. They do not exist because Smith is an above-average quarterback relative to the entire league, a good franchise quarterback relative to his peers but at least a step or two below any quarterback considered great.
On some teams—like, let’s say the Cincinnati Bengals and Andy Dalton—Smith would need to be great. But Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs have built a team that can win games in the modern NFL without its quarterback throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns. You’re smart not to take Smith in the first round of your fantasy draft, and there’s no doubt he doesn’t care.
Smith’s mediocrity is enough for these Chiefs, who beat the Falcons 29-28 in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon. With deft play-calling from one of the league’s best coaches and a defense that can put points on the board just like it can take them away, the Chiefs have the formula figured out.
Since getting blasted by the Steelers 43–14 in Week 4 before hitting the bye, Kansas City is 7-1 with wins in Oakland, Denver and now Atlanta. On Sunday, the Chiefs just needed Smith to be steady. He obliged.
Smith didn’t take many chances against the Falcons. He was 21-of-25 for 270 yards, one touchdown, no picks and a lost fumble when his protection didn’t hold up. He relied heavily on Travis Kelce, who hauled in 56 yards on two consecutive first-quarter passes to serve as a counterstrike to Atlanta’s opening touchdown drive.
Kansas City’s defense wasn’t exactly dominant. Matt Ryan was just shy of 300 passing yards and the Falcons converted six of 10 first downs while putting up the most points against the Chiefs of any team since the Steelers. But the Chiefs will give up those yards every week in exchange for the plays Eric Berry makes.
Ryan made a crucial error in the two-minute drill before halftime, throwing a pass behind his receiver that was intercepted by Berry and returned 37 yards for a touchdown to give the Chiefs their first lead of the game. The play was reminiscent of Berry’s pick-six against Carolina in Week 10. Down 17-6 in the third quarter of that game, Berry intercepted Cam Newton and found paydirt to get the Chiefs within a field goal. Later, with the game tied, cornerback Marcus Peters mugged Kelvin Benjamin of the ball and Kansas City kicked the game-winner. Alex Smith’s passer rating that day: 65.5.
In the second quarter against Atlanta, Reid showed no fear and listened to the metrics. On fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 3, Reid dialed up a pass to Spencer Ware for the touchdown rather than taking the points, knowing well there was plenty of game left to be played.
Reid showed more guts in the opening drive of the second half. From their own 45, the Chiefs sent the direct snap to Albert Wilson in punt formation and he took it 55 yards for the special teams touchdown.
Kansas City had a special teams score the previous week in the overtime thriller against Denver. Tyreek Hill went 86 yards off a free kick in the second quarter against the Broncos to open up an early lead. Smith’s passer rating that night: 79.7.
Sunday’s win against the Chiefs was made possible by Berry, who should be in serious consideration for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. After chasing points early in the fourth and failing, the Falcons tried a two-point conversion again to extend their one-point lead to three. Ryan looked to his left and found Berry, who returned the ball for a defensive two-point score. (By the way, this play desperately needs a nickname. Pick-2 isn’t enough. Perhaps McDonald’s will sponsor it being called a McPick 2.)
The Chiefs can’t always rely on defensive or special teams scores. And Smith, when he’s not throwing short of the sticks on third downs, can’t throw long to a wide-open Spencer Ware running past a linebacker on third-and-2 midway through the fourth.
The Chiefs also have to cut out penalties. Kansas City was called for 13 accepted penalties for 128 yards (including a league season-high 95 first-half penalty yards.) On one series in the first quarter, the Falcons went from their own 38 to the Chiefs 11 via three consecutive penalties and zero plays.
Can the Chiefs go to the Super Bowl? Teams have gotten there with lesser quarterbacks, to be sure. With Berry and Peters, Justin Houston and Hill and, of course, Reid on the sideline, the Chiefs can make noise in January.
Smith just can’t screw up.