After starting the season 0-1 with an ugly 26-10 home loss to the Tennessee Titans, I was prepared for a long, painful season from the Kansas City Chiefs. I’ll be the first one to admit I largely don’t understand the economics or advanced metrics behind NFL teams — definitely not like I know MLB, for instance — but that opening week loss seemed to provide tangible proof that it was a mistake to let All-Pro left tackle, Brandon Albert, walk to the Dolphins, and a blunder to let our best cornerback, Brandon Flowers, leave to division rival San Diego.
Yes, this is professional football, and since I don’t know nearly as much about it as baseball it’s far easier for me to succumb to small sample overreactions.
Week Two, the Chiefs traveled to Denver and, again, lost. But this time the game was competitive; it was only 24-17, and they had the ball inside the Broncos five with a few seconds to play, so they were a veritable coinflip away from sending the game into overtime. I was impressed at the fact they weren’t embarrassed, which I was fully expecting heading into the affair.
Still, I don’t have the percentages at my disposal — even though I have the Internet in front of me and it would only take a few minutes to look; I’m lazy — but based off basic probability I can imagine the odds of a team starting 0-2 and making the postseason are minimal. Just as in baseball, where you feel pretty comfortable about your teams’ playoff chances with a 90-win campaign, in the NFL a good benchmark is a 10-6 record. After starting 0-2, you’d have to think a team’s chances of finishing the season 10-4 are about 10%, maybe 15%, but the lesser figure is more representative of most 0-2 teams, because the majority of teams who start 0-2 simply aren’t very good.
But that’s now where we’re at: after a 24-20 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks on Sunday, Kansas City are now winners of five in a row and seven of their last eight, and are in a deadlock with the 7-3 Broncos for first place in the AFC West.
Truth be told, I’m not sure exactly how it’s happened. They made it back to to .500 after blowout victories against Miami (34-15) and New England (41-14), though they didn’t look nearly impressive at the time as they do now, as neither the Dolphins (6-4) nor the Patriots (8-2) were any good coming out of the gates.
In Week 5, the Chiefs took their third loss — a 22-17 nail-biter on the road against the 49ers — which was conceivably the second time they lost a game they, in theory, could have won.
Since that game, KC haven’t lost; they’ve run the gauntlet against some better than average clubs and some not-so-very-good clubs, beating San Diego (23-20), St. Louis (34-7), the Jets (24-10), Bills (17-3) and now Seahawks.
How are they doing it? Jamaal Charles remains one of the best running backs in the NFL, averaging 5.2 yards/carry, and Alex Smith has lived up to his “game manager” persona, completing 66.3% of his passes in route to an 11/4 TD/INT ratio. The real weapon, though, has been the emergence of tight end Travis Kelce, who leads the team with 4 TD catches and is drawing comparisons to some of the NFL’s elites at his position.
Also, I’d be remiss not to mention the defensive unit; outside linebackers Justin Huston (12 sacks) and Tamba Hali (5 sacks) represent one of the best pass rushes in the league, and nose tackle Dontari Poe (5 sacks) is one of the best space eaters in the league. There just isn’t an effective way to attack the defense, since where they’re vulnerable — the secondary — is aided by an extraordinary pass rush that forces the opposing quarterback to release the ball earlier than he wants, if he’s able to get rid of it at all.
The Chiefs rank #1 in the NFL in opposing pass yards/game at 201.6, and are 4th in rushing yards (141.2/game)… a healthy combination to control the clock while limiting the opposition’s chances of coming back from a deficit. It’s especially handy since we’re heading into the cold weather months of the NFL season, where running the ball has more value than passing through nothing more than circumstance.
Last season the Chiefs started the season 9-0 and finished 11-5. I think, even at the time, most people understood they were nothing more than fool’s gold, beating up on a weak schedule after going 2-14 the season before. This year, however, the Chiefs’ 7-3 record isn’t cheapened by a schedule; they’ve defeated the Patriots, Seahawks, Dolphins, Bills and Chargers, all who ranked in the better half of the league according to Number Fire at the time they played them. (Heading into this week, the Dolphins [#4], Patriots [#5] and Seahawks [#10] each ranked in the top-10.)
With two games left against the Raiders, as well as matchups with Denver and San Diego, the Steelers and Cardinals, odds are pretty decent the Chiefs can finish the season 3-3 and make it to the playoffs, a thought I didn’t even think was possible two months ago. I have a strange feeling about this Chiefs team, which is kinda weird since I rarely feel much optimism over them, even when they’re really good.
What I know is, this year’s 7-3 team is better than last year’s, and I’m not putting it past them to beat the Broncos in two weeks and come away with the AFC West in first place. Odds obviously aren’t likely, but this is a classic smash-mouth football team with a great running game and an equally tough defense, the type of recipe it takes to win in the postseason.
As always, the goal will be to get there, but there’s nothing fake about this year’s team. They’ve exchanged their fool’s gold for the real thing.