Quietly, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith had arguably the best season of his career.
He threw for 3,486 yards, his career best, with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions, fewest in the league. He had his highest completion percentage (65.3) and passer rating (95.4) when starting all 16 games of a season.
But the 10-year veteran’s legs have been put to use more this season than any of his previous nine.
Not only did he record career highs in rushes (84) and yards (498), he led the Chiefs in yards per carry (5.9) was second in rushes and yards, and had the fourth highest rushing total among quarterbacks, behind Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor.
His contributions also helped the Chiefs average 127.8 yards per game, sixth in the league.
More than 41 percent of Smith’s runs came on the ends, which resulted in 222 yards and included nine of his 14 runs that went for 10 or more yards. Though the majority of his runs were between 3 and 5 yards, Smith averaged 7.4 yards on the end, which is also where one of his two touchdowns came from.
His most productive trajectory was up the middle, where he ran 33 percent of his carries for 182 yards behind center Mitch Morse, who earned a 72.2 grade from Pro Football Focus (17th among centers).
While Smith’s feet and blockers have been prone to lead him to the outside, the same cannot be said for the Patriots’ previous opponents. Fewer than 20 percent of the running plays New England faced in the regular season went to the ends, resulting in 16 negative plays, a 4-yard per carry average, and eight runs or 10 or more yards.
Kelce catching on
Travis Kelce has been in the NFL half as long as Rob Gronkowski.
He has yet to have a 100-catch or 1,000-yard season , like Gronk has done three times in his six years in the league. But Kelce did set career highs this season with 72 catches for 875 yards and five touchdowns.
He also finished second in a category Gronk has led among tight ends in three seasons: yards after catch.
Though the Chiefs target him pretty evenly across the board on first (33 percent), second (34), and third (33) downs, they overwhelmingly go his way in medium- to long-yardage situations.
And, much like with Gronk, it usually pays off, like on second and 11 against the Texans in the wild-card round when he pulled in an inaccurate throw and rumbled for a 48-yard gain.
Second(ary) to none?
The Chiefs secondary feasted on quarterbacks this season, picking off 22 passes, good for second in the league. Half of those came in their own territory and three stopped drives in the red zone.
While Eric Berry enjoyed a Pro Bowl season (two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, and an 87.5 grade from Pro Football Focus), cornerback Marcus Peters led the league in interceptions (8) and passes defended (34).
On the right side of the field, where Peters often lines up, Kansas City earned a -26.2 percent defense-adjusted value over average from Football Outsiders, which calculates efficiency based on the result of each play measured against the league average depending on situation and opponent. (The league average is zero percent. DVOA measures scoring, making negative ratings a good thing for defenses.) That dropped to -35.1 percent when the intended pass traveled 15 yards or fewer.
Though Peters led the league in interceptions, he allowed eight touchdowns this season and more than 900 yards to the receivers he covered, according to Pro Football Focus, but all but one of those touchdowns came before the Chiefs’ Week 9 bye.
The success of the secondary is aided in the effort by the front seven, which accounted for nearly all of the Chiefs’ 47 sacks (fourth in the league) and 86 quarterback hits this season.
While Tom Brady has a quicker release time with a healthy Julian Edelman on the field — 2.21 seconds with Edelman, 2.55 without — his completion percentage drops to 50.8 from 70.4 under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.
If the secondary’s coverage holds up, forcing Brady to hold the ball longer, that could allow the Chiefs’ pass rush to disrupt Brady in the pocket.
Follow Rachel G. Bowers on Twitter @RachelGBowers.