He won’t be quite as secret as he was last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but in a backfield still ravaged by injuries, and facing the top passing defense in the league, the Kansas City Chiefs are going to need one more magical night from Jerick McKinnon.
And McKinnon looks like he is up to the task.
Two years removed from a devastating knee injury that derailed a promising career with the San Francisco 49ers, McKinnon made the most of his opportunity last Sunday in the Wild Card round.
And with the injury news in the Chiefs’ backfield still uncertain as the team heads into Sunday’s Divisional Round matchup against the Buffalo Bills, it could well be McKinnon again tasked with finding the weakness in a stout Bills defense that just throttled the New England Patriots in the Wild Card round.
McKinnon’s comeback performance last week overwhelmed the Steelers
Pressed into service because of injuries to regular starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire and his back-up, Darrell Williams, McKinnon dominated the Steelers in the Wild Card game, rushing 12 times for 61 yards and catching all six of his targets for another 81 yards and a touchdown.
During the regular season, McKinnon had a total of 12 carries for 62 yards. He basically matched those numbers in one game. It was a stunning performance, considering McKinnon missed the entire 2018 and ’19 seasons after a devastating knee injury right when his career seemed poised to take off.
“When you get in a place like that and you’re just fighting and battling back, the only thing you can do is just put your head down and keep working and know in the back of your mind one of these days that work is going to pay off,” McKinnon said after Sunday’s game. “The hard work I put in the past couple of years to overcome everything, it showed.”
The injury news for Edwards-Helaire and Williams remains murky heading into Sunday
Edwards-Helaire, who hasn’t played since injuring his shoulder in Week 16, did return to practice this week, but head coach Andy Reid still hadn’t green-lit him to return to game action as of Friday morning. Williams, who injured his toe in Week 18 and played only sparingly against the Steelers, did not practice either Wednesday or Thursday, putting his availability in doubt for the Bills game.
If either Edwards-Helaire or Williams is inactive, McKinnon is going to be needed to reprise his role as a pass-catching back who might also be needed to shoulder much of the rushing load. His 18 total touches against the Steelers proved he is capable of such a role.
“He gives you all kinds of confidence just by the way he handles himself,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after Sunday’s 42-21 victory over the Steelers on Sunday. “He’s a confident guy, he works hard, takes care of himself — smart — and he’s a good athlete. So, you felt like if he got in there, he would do a good job. He can catch the football. He can run it. He’s got good vision. So, it was good to get him in there.”
The Chiefs need a dynamic running game to keep the fearsome Bills pass defense honest
The Bills deploy the stingiest pass defense in the league, ranking No. 1 in DVOA against the pass. Of course, facing Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce isn’t the same thing as shutting down rookie Mac Jones and a bunch of no-name receivers, but we saw in Week 5 what the Bills can do to a high-powered offense that lacks a consistent ground game.
Edwards-Helaire was injured early in the game and the Chiefs’ running backs finished with 15 carries for 59 yards. Forced to throw a season-high 54 times, Mahomes had a back-breaking pick-six in the third quarter of a 38-20 loss.
The Bills are also solid against the run, allowing roughly 85 yards per game, but if there is a weakness, compared to their clamp-down pass defense, this is where the Chiefs can exploit it. With McKinnon catching passes out of the backfield and making sizable gains on the ground, McKinnon can force the Bills to divert some of their focus to him, perhaps loosening up the coverage in the secondary just enough for Mahomes to work his magic in what is expected to be a physical, emotional rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game.
“I’ve seen it from training camp on that he’s a playmaker,” Mahomes said. “There’s a reason he’s been a playmaker in this league for the last few years here. Obviously, he dealt with injury in his career and he dealt with a little bit of injury this season but he kept his mindset right. He’s kept working hard.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference