HOUSTON, Texas — Week 15’s matchup between the 11-3 Kansas City Chiefs and 1-12-1 Houston Texans was a truly bizarre game to digest. It was the most sparse crowd I’ve seen yet for the Texans amidst an ugly season, likely spurred by the 14-point spread put in place by oddsmakers.
But fans were treated to an overtime battle that almost went in the Texans’ favor as the Chiefs found themselves trying to prevent a Houston touchdown with just over five minutes remaining.
The 30-24 final score made little sense by just looking at the box score. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was getting whatever he wanted throughout the afternoon, completing 36 of 41 attempts for 336 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 33 yards and a touchdown.
The Importance of Isiah Pacheco And Jerick McKinnon to the Chiefs
Running backs Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon provided excellent support, leading a rush attack with 189 yards on 33 carries. Kansas City moved the ball with ease, but their two lost fumbles allowed Houston to hang around until the end. Houston totaled only 125 passing yards and 94 rushing yards despite their best efforts.
This wasn’t the first time a more talented team sleepwalked their way to a victory against Houston. It’s an ugly win, but one that is quickly forgiven, considering the franchise clinched its seventh-straight AFC West divisional crown. The Chiefs are now the third team in NFL history to accomplish such a run.
Despite the odd result considering Houston’s offense was ineffective and Mahomes led a stellar statistical attack, the big takeaway for the Super Bowl contenders is how well their RB duo is performing. Pacheco and McKinnon have been on a tear in recent weeks, transforming how this Chiefs offense operates and introducing a new threat for defenses to consider.
All eyes were on Kansas City to see how they’d adjust after trading star receiver Tyreek Hill to Miami. Free agent additions JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have been solid pieces for the unit. Their midseason trade for Kadarius Toney, on the other hand, has so far fallen flat.
Besides Travis Kelce, there wasn’t really a star-level threat on the unit. This showed in the Chiefs’ loss to the Bills and Bengals earlier in the year, and it’s fair to wonder whether losing Hill cost them a higher upside in the playoffs. Losing Hill will continue to be a cornerstone moment for the franchise, but the improved effectiveness of their backs can help overcome the effects of Hill’s departure.
Pacheco is almost exclusively the rusher, and McKinnon is usually only a receiving threat. After Week 15, Pacheco has 139 rushing attempts but only 10 receptions. He’s easily leading the Chiefs with 4.87 yards per carry. McKinnon has the opposite split, leading the Chiefs’ backfield with 46 receptions for 429 yards and five touchdowns, but only 63 carries for 275 yards and one touchdown.
Mind you, these were the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 backs on the depth chart entering the season. Starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire is on injured reserve but had seen his playing time dip considerably after an effective first month of the year. The offense is running smoother without him, an omen that his run with the franchise could be in its waning moments as the offseason nears.
Pacheco And McKinnon Star
The duo was spectacular as they gashed Houston’s weak run defense throughout the afternoon. Pacheco finished with the second-most rushing yards of his young career, and McKinnon tied his season-high with 53 rushing yards. McKinnon added 70 receiving yards and two total touchdowns.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid may have stumbled onto an important development that led to much of Tom Brady’s success throughout his Patriots career. Relying on running backs to create easy production can be a massive transformation that takes the pressure off the quarterback and offensive line in key moments.
Reid does an excellent job of creating downfield action to pull defenders away from where backs will turn upfield after a reception. Pacheco’s been a revolutionary addition as a seventh-round rookie thanks to his ability to lead an efficient running game behind an expensive and quality offensive line.
It sounds simple to find yards with Mahomes and a good line, but CEH and Ronald Jones couldn’t compare to Pacheco’s production. The rookie’s carried the ball 13 or more times for 66+ yards in six straight games, making this offense much more balanced than in prior years.
McKinnon has also carved a valuable role as the team’s fourth-leading receiver. He’s totaled 125 rushing yards, 191 receiving yards, and five touchdowns over the last three weeks. Fantasy football managers have benefitted from 66.6 points over the last two weeks.
It’s concerning that Kansas City has been so predictable with the usage of each back this season, as McKinnon finally logged his first game with more than eight carries this week. Come playoff time, defenses will key hedge run, or pass based on who is in the game. They still have to stop Mahomes’ magic, but being more diverse with play-calling would benefit the unit.
Of course, it’s possible they’re establishing the trend to zig come playoff time and surprise defenses. Reid has continued to keep defenses guessing for years by thinking three steps ahead like that.
This wasn’t a notable win in a year with more continued brilliance from Reid and Mahomes, but the focused development on establishing Pacheco and McKinnon was the storyline on Sunday afternoon. Upcoming games against Seattle, Denver, and Las Vegas will provide the team a few last chances to iron out wrinkles before the postseason.