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Colts at Chiefs: What to watch for Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 30: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts is sacked by Frank Zombo #51 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ AFC divisional round playoff game Saturday with the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

Kickoff: 4:35 p.m.

Broadcast: NBC

Mack attack:

This one has all the earmarks of providing fireworks in January. The Chiefs averaged 35.3 points per game and scored the third-most points in NFL history (565). Patrick Mahomes joined Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in league history to pass for 50 TDs and 5,000 yards in the same season. The Colts weren’t exactly slouches, ranking 5th in scoring (27.1) and going for at least 30 six times. Andrew Luck was second to Mahomes with his 39 TDs.

As much as NBC would love the pyrotechnics – and might well get them – our suggestion to Frank Reich, Nick Sirianni and Luck involves a degree of ball control. Luck is entirely capable of lighting up a Chiefs’ defense that ranks 31st in total yards, rushing yards and passing yards, 32nd in first downs allowed and 25th in third-down efficiency. But the key to the Colts extending their magical season another week might be heavy doses of Marlon Mack.

There’s nothing wrong with shortening the game and limiting the number of possessions for Mahomes. There’s nothing wrong with Luck leaning on Mack, moving the chains and chewing up the clock. The run game has been crisp behind the current starting offensive line. The Colts (200 yards) and Mack (148) set team playoff records last week at Houston against a Texans’ defense ranked No. 3 against the run.

The Colts have never had someone rush for 100 yards in consecutive playoff games, and only once have had two 100-yard rushing performances in the same playoff run. The previous time: en route to the Super Bowl XLI win (Joseph Addai with 122 yards against the Chiefs in a wild-card meeting and Dominic Rhodes with 113 yards in the Super Bowl).

As we’ve mentioned, the Chiefs have been absolutely awful defending the run (132.1 yards per game, 5.0 per attempt). In their four losses, they allowed an average of 144.5 rushing yards. New England amassed 173 in a 43-40 win and Seattle 210 in a 38-31 victory.

We’re not asking for Reich to have Luck spend the day handing off to Mack, but remember he’s in the backfield. A viable run game might be more important if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

One last thing. Finish those methodical drives. As much as everyone enjoys watching Adam Vinatieri kick field goals, the Colts will be better served trotting him out there for PATs.

Let the offense operate:

And that starts up front, with Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith. In the six games they’ve been together, the run game has generated 158 yards per game and pass protection hasn’t allowed a sack despite Luck attempting 190 passes.

We’ve documented the troubles of the Chiefs’ defense, but it piled up 52 sacks, tied for the most in the league. End Chris Jones (15.5) and linebacker Dee Ford (13) are the only teammates in the top 10. Linebacker Justin Houston added 9. That ability to exert pressure on the quarterback has contributed to Kansas City’s 27 takeaways, tied for 8th-most in the league.

Protect Luck. Protect the football.

Limit the explosions:

As well as coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense has played during the Colts’ 10-1 streak that’s delivered them to Arrowhead Stadium, it hasn’t faced a challenge even in the same universe as Mahones, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs’ offensive weapons.

“There’s a lot of skill on that side of the ball,’’ Eberflus said. “The scheme is a little bit unique, too, in terms of what they do and how they do it.’’

The Chiefs spread and stretch the field, look for mismatches, always are probing for chunk plays and force a defense to be sound with its tackling. They led the league with 2,649 yards after the catch. Hill averaged 17 yards per catch and squirted loose 22 receptions that gained at least 25 yards, most in the league. Kelce set an NFL record for tight ends with 1,336 yards in week 17, only to be surpassed shortly thereafter by San Francisco’s George Kittle (1,377).

“It’s going to be a big challenge for us,’’ Eberflus admitted.

The challenge might be for Colts’ defenders to put bad plays behind them. The Chiefs are going to make their share of plays.

“That’s kind of our mantra anyway,’’ Eberflus said. “Frank talks about that all the time. You play a play, you turn the page.’’

Mahomes ‘debut’:

We’re just going to throw this out there, so that it’s out there. As much as Mahomes has accomplished this season – either he or Drew Brees will be MVP – Saturday marks his first postseason appearance. Since the current alignment was put in place in 2002, first-time quarterbacks are 13-30 in their playoff debuts. They’re 0-3 this year (Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Chicago’s Mitch Trubitsky, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson).

Will Mahomes simply continue doing what he’s done? That’s what we’re expecting.

As Eberflus noted, Mahomes has unique “arm talent. The great quarterbacks of the game . . . they have varying degrees of arm strength. But man, the timing at which they throw the ball and it gets there on time and the accuracy which they have.

“This is what this young man has.’’

And the winner is: Colts 34, Chiefs 31.

This is not a homer pick. Seriously. General manager Chris Ballard and Reich have constructed a team capable of winning with Luck throwing 50 times (not ideal) or Mack running it 25 times (ideal). It should function at a high enough level even in poor weather conditions. The defense has been tough to run against, limited big plays and found a way to make the critical play at the critical time.

We’re not betting our mortgage payment on this one, but we’re not going to be surprised if the Colts reach the AFC Championship game. We’re not going to be surprised if they push their postseason record against the Chiefs to 5-0 and their playoff record at Arrowhead to 3-0.

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