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The Chiefs Can Win Without Their Winning Formula

They spotted the Raiders three turnovers — and it still didn’t matter

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A 21–13 win over the streaking Raiders on Thursday Night Football pushed the Chiefs to 10–3 and put them in prime position to earn the AFC’s no. 2 seed. While it hasn’t really ever felt like it, head coach Andy Reid’s squad has quietly become a juggernaut, winning 21 of its last 25 games, a streak of high-level play that stretches all the back into Week 7 last season. Including playoff appearances, only the Patriots and Broncos have won more games over that time.

For the most part, the Chiefs have won those games with a pretty simple formula: Win the turnover battle and win the game. But against Oakland on Thursday, they coughed the ball up three times without any takeaways of their own, and they still managed to take home the victory. If the 10–2 Raiders can’t beat them after being spotted three turnovers, then, well, who can?

The Chiefs don’t stand out in most statistical categories. Coming into this week, they ranked 12th on offense and 11th on defense, per Football Outsiders DVOA. They were sub-middling in both the run game and through the air: 15th in points per game (23.4), 18th in yards per play (5.4), 21st in passing yards (2,845), tied for 22nd in passing touchdowns (14), 26th in rush yards (1,185), and tied for 17th in rushing touchdowns (9). And they were poor in a few key defensive areas, having given up the fourth-most yards in the NFL and tied for the 10th-most passing touchdowns. But where the Chiefs excel — where they’ve mastered their craft, and where they win most of their games — is with ball control.

The Chiefs came into the matchup with the Raiders with the league’s best turnover differential (plus-14). They’d coughed up the ball just 11 times all year (ninth-best in the NFL), and the defense had consistently created havoc for opposing offenses with a league-best 25 takeaways. If the Chiefs had anything like a cohesive identity, it was that they weren’t going to beat themselves. Dating back to the NFL-AFL merger, when teams come out ahead in the turnover margin, they win 78 percent of the time. When they’re ahead in the turnover differential by two, the winning percentage moves to 86 percent. Three or more, it’s 91 percent.

Of course, “Let’s just create more turnovers than they do!” isn’t some crazy new innovation. Every team knows about the correlation between the turnover differential and winning, but the Chiefs seem like they’ve been designed with it in mind. On defense, they’ve drafted and developed players who specialize in creating turnovers. Marcus Peters is an interception machine. Since his rookie season in 2015, his 15 picks are most in the league. His secondary mate Eric Berry has five of his own over that same span.

The Chiefs have paired this opportunistic defense with an offense designed to take few risks and protect the football at all costs. Quarterback Alex Smith, who rarely even tries to pass the ball downfield, is the perfect fit, and he’s never thrown more than seven interceptions in a full season since he came to Kansas City in 2013. They’re dinking and dunking their way down the field every week, but most weeks, the aggressive defense–conservative offense formula has worked.

Prior to Thursday’s win over the Raiders, Kansas City had come out behind in the turnover battle just four times all season, and three of those games were losses. Last week’s 29–28 win over the Falcons saw each team record one turnover apiece, and the Chiefs won the game on an intercepted two-point conversion that Berry returned for two points. That didn’t count as a turnover on the stat sheet, but is there any other way to describe it?

Of course, there are inherent problems with the Chiefs’ strategy. It’s one thing to ask your defenders to create turnovers each week; it’s another to ask them to score points. Coming into Thursday’s game, Kansas City was getting 49.5 percent of its points from defense and special teams. Plus, the loss of veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson to a ruptured Achilles tendon against Oakland certainly won’t make Kansas City’s low-margin-for-error approach any easier to pull off.

Against the Raiders, Kansas City coughed the ball up three times and was unable to force any turnovers on defense. But instead of the disastrous ending you’d typically expect from those numbers, the Chiefs came out on top. It helped that the defense held Derek Carr to 117 yards on 41 attempts while a broken pinky finger kept him at less than 100 percent, but the difference this week was some unusual aggression from their own quarterback.

On Thursday, Smith hit on three passes of 30-plus yards, including a 36-yard touchdown bomb to rookie Tyreek Hill. Before then, he’d completed only two 30-plus-yard passes … all season. To say this was out of character for Smith would be an understatement; Smith’s average depth of target (7.2 yards) on throws this season comes in 34th out of 35 qualifying passers, per Pro Football Focus, and, well …

In addition to Smith’s out-of-character performance, in which he outplayed Carr to finish with 264 yards, a touchdown, and a pick on 17-of-26 passing in 22-degree weather, Kansas City got a punt-return touchdown from Hill. With the help of three solid holds by the defense — Oakland scored only six points from the three turnovers — the Chiefs emerged victorious. In the end, not much went their way, but the Chiefs reappropriated “Just Win, Baby” for themselves.

The Chiefs don’t break out the big guns often, but on Thursday they showed the ability to adapt and tap into a deep passing game when they’re not getting their normal ration of big plays out of their defense and special teams. It’s not that they can’t open up their offense; it’s just that over the last year and a half, they’ve almost never had to.