When the Denver Broncos take on the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend, the game will have major playoff implications. Not just for both teams, as they are in the middle of their own playoff races — or in the Bengals’ case, a race for a first-round bye — but for the Kansas City Chiefs. Though Kansas City is one of the best, most surprising teams in the second half of the season, the Chiefs are not a lock for the playoffs. For a team boasting an eight-game winning streak and sitting at 9-5, Kansas City’s fate is still in limbo.
First off, the AFC is pretty deep this season, evidenced by the fact that Kansas City is one of three teams tied at 9-5 for the two coveted wild-card spots. But it’s not just the depth; the top tier is also unusually dominant. The Bengals, Broncos, and Patriots have a combined 33 wins, and all three pose difficult playoff matchups. Fortunately for Kansas City, despite a potential playoff game against Cincinnati, a Bengals victory on Sunday over Denver, coupled with a Chiefs victory, means they will tie for the AFC West division with the Broncos. Something nobody saw coming in October.
It wasn’t that Kansas City’s rise to the top was shocking; the Chiefs finished 2014 with a respectable 9-7 record. No, it was the fact that prior to Kansas City making its run through the NFL, the Chiefs started the season with a 1-5 record. It wouldn’t have just been unprecedented had they turned their season around at that point; no, it was unheard of for a 1-5 team to bounce back and even make a playoff push. And as of this week, Kansas City is just a few wins away from doing the remarkable.
But the Chiefs’ 1-5 start isn’t as bad as it seems. Okay, maybe it is bad, but on paper, Kansas City wasn’t a 1-5 team. During those first six weeks, the Chiefs lost at home to Denver, on the road to Green Bay, and on the road to Cincinnati — all teams currently slotted to make the playoffs. Sure, the Chicago loss at home in Week 5 was bad, but that was their only horrible loss. They were a good team, but they weren’t playing well and weren’t getting any breaks.
Something changed, though, the week after a brutal 16-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The team boasted the same players, the same coaches, but there was a difference — and playing in front of its home crowd, Kansas City handled the Pittsburgh Steelers, another likely playoff-bound team (depending on how the wild card plays out). The Chiefs team that defeated the Steelers wasn’t the team that lost to the Vikings. But it was the team that would win seven more games.
While the offense has made terrific strides this season — most notably utilizing first-year Chief receiver Jeremy Maclin, who had a minor role early on in the year — the defense has ultimately brought Kansas City this far. Consider this: During Kansas City’s current winning streak, in six of those eight games, the Chiefs held their opponents to less than 14 points; they allowed more than 30 points in three of their losses. That’s a good way to turn a losing team into a winning one.
It doesn’t hurt that this was about the same time that quarterback Alex Smith started to mesh with Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce — and the Chiefs haven’t look back since. The question remains: Are the Chiefs really contenders? While they lost to many of the best teams the conference has to offer early on in the year, they’ve also beat some not very good ones during their winning streak.
On November 15, Kansas City did something it has rarely done in the past: succeed in Denver. Impressive games or not, there’s a winning attitude in the Kansas City locker room, which one can’t help but think is at least partially the result of the stability that head coach Andy Reid brings to a team. Even if the Chiefs aren’t the best team on the field, they think they are, and that’s all that matters.
Thus, if this team does finish its Cinderella run with a ticket to the playoffs — by no means a curse for those of you who are superstitious out there — they could be a force to reckon with. After all, they’ve already played many of the teams they might meet in the playoffs. Just as the Broncos discovered, this is not the same team that lost to the Bengals and Packers early in the season. This is a team with a purpose — and that motivation could make for a wild playoff ride.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.