Many will point to the Chiefs' defense as the catalyst for their resurgent season, but Alex Smith is quietly having one of the most efficient second halves of any player in the NFL.
Since the start of Week 7, the beginning of Kansas City's win streak, Smith has a 83.1 Total QBR, which ranks second in the NFL over that time behind Carson Palmer (84.9). Despite fewer plays than most other quarterbacks, he has contributed the fourth-most points to his team's scoring margin over the last 10 weeks.
Against the Browns on Sunday, Smith certainly wasn't flashy, but he put together another efficient game that illustrates some of the hidden ways he has contributed to Kansas City's success.
To the blind eye, Smith had a fairly average game; he completed 15-of-22 passes for 125 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. That is good for a 93.9 passer rating, which is respectable but certainly not amazing.
Looking at his game through the lens of QBR paints a sharper picture. Smith had a 90.5 Total QBR (out of 100), the second highest for a player in a game so far this week. It was his fourth game this season with a QBR above 90, which matches his total from the last four seasons combined.
How was Smith's QBR so high against the Browns? Besides the fact the Chiefs were not playing a playoff contender, the answer lies in hidden yardage Smith gained on scrambles and penalties and his efficiency throwing downfield, all factors that have contributed to his success in the second half of the season.
Smith is a scrambler
Can you name the NFL's leader in scramble yards since the start of Week 7? No, it not Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton. It's Smith, who has scrambled for an NFL-high 271 yards (40 more than any other player) and is averaging nearly 10 yards per scramble in the last 10 weeks. Even more important, Smith has 17 first downs on scrambles during that time, four more than any other player in the NFL, including nine on third down.
Against the Browns, Smith scrambled for 50 yards and three first downs. One of those scrambles was for nine yards on fourth-and-5 (plus-1.7 EPA) and another scramble for six yards on third-and-3 (plus-1.0 EPA). On his scrambles alone, Smith contributed about 4.2 points to Kansas City’s four-point scoring margin Sunday.
Smith draws penalties
Penalties are an often overlooked piece of a quarterback's success, but drawing a 40-yard pass interference can have a major impact on the outcome of a game. A quarterback deserves at least partial credit for offensive and defensive penalties.
Smith drew three penalties against the Browns defense for 50 yards. One of those penalties was a 40-yard defensive pass interference that flipped the field in the second quarter. That was the fourth-biggest offensive play of the game for the Chiefs, as measured by expected points added, and Smith received about half of the QBR credit for drawing the penalty.
Smith is starting to air it out
The biggest argument against Smith is he is a game manager; he rarely throws it beyond five yards downfield and has thrown more screens than any other player in the NFL.
In recent weeks, however, Smith has started to air it out with an average pass distance of at least eight yards downfield in three of his last five games. He has 15 completions and five touchdowns on passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield during that time.
Against the Browns, Smith completed 2-of-5 passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield. Both of his completions went for touchdowns, including his 13-yard pass touchdown to Travis Kelce to give the Chiefs a 17-3 lead heading into the half.
Total QBR accounts for Smith's contributions on the ground, through the air and in other facets of the game. It utilizes charting data to divide credit to Smith and his teammates as well as play-by-play data to account for the context of the game. Bring all of these pieces together, and Smith had a very efficient game against the Browns.
The last time Smith finished a season with a QBR above 60 was in 2012 with the 49ers. That year he was replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to the Super Bowl. With the Chiefs having a playoff spot locked up and a shot at the AFC West title, the Super Bowl might not be out of reach for Kansas City. ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Chiefs a 12 percent chance to make Super Bowl 50, and if they do, Smith would be a major reason why.