After posting a combined overall regular season record of 20-12 in 2013 and 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs entered the 2015 season with incredibly high expectations. While they were able to win their season opener against the Houston Texans, the Chiefs went on to lose their next five games, which led to questions about whether or not general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid would make it until the end of the season before being fired. During their losing streak, the Chiefs lost All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles for the season due to a knee injury. Practically no one with any knowledge of the league gave them a chance to qualify for the postseason.
Following their loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, something clicked for the Chiefs, and they have yet to lose another game. It could be a direct result of the fact that their schedule got increasingly easier as the season went on (they have only defeated three 2015 playoff teams this year), but any time a team wins 11 consecutive games in the National Football League, people need to notice and take them seriously.
With a dominating 30-0 road win over the Houston Texans on Wild Card Weekend, the Chiefs are now set to take on the defending AFC champion New England Patriots during the Divisional Round on Saturday afternoon, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line. In case you’ve missed it, the race in the AFC is wide open this season. Given that Kansas City is arguably the hottest team in the entire league right now, we need to examine their legitimacy as contenders to take home the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl 50 champions this February.
The most obvious place to start our evaluation of the Chiefs is at the quarterback position, where Alex Smith is playing the best football of his wildly tumultuous NFL career. Since he entered the league with the San Francisco 49ers as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, Smith has struggled to shed the image of being a “game manager” type of quarterback. In fact, even after having his career essentially revived in San Francisco with the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith remained the epitome of a guy who was good enough to win in the regular season, but far from capable of leading a team on a deep postseason run in the eyes of most coaches and executives around the league.
Before going on, we feel compelled to admit that, like so many others, we are guilty of casting Smith aside. And to be brutally honest, we were dumbfounded when the Chiefs signed Smith to a four-year, $68 million contract extension back in the summer of 2014. Needless to say, time has changed our opinion of Smith. While his statistical numbers (3,486 yards, 20 touchdown passes, seven interceptions) will not jump off the page at you, there is no doubting that the Chiefs would not be where they are today without him — especially when you consider the fact that the Chiefs have gone on their current winning streak without Charles, who has been their best offensive player for several years.
A recent Sports Illustrated article outlined how the combination of Smith’s mental acumen and the trust that Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson — who is the frontrunner for the vacant Philadelphia Eagles head coaching job — have displayed in their quarterback have been absolutely critical to the Chiefs’ revival in 2015, and we couldn’t agree more.
Watching Smith play with freedom in this offense reminds us more of a “poor man’s Peyton Manning“-type quarterback who makes constant checks at the line of scrimmage than a Trent Dilfer-type quarterback, whose only job is to not turn the ball over. With that being said, Smith’s job will be a lot more difficult going forward if his top wide receiver, Jeremy Maclin, misses an extended period of time (as expected) with the high ankle sprain he suffered on Wild Card Weekend.
Next, we take a look at the Kansas City defense, which has been the team’s strongest point all year. The bottom line here is that this defense is built for postseason success (when healthy). They have two elite pass rushers coming off of the edge in outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali (pictured above), a disruptive interior defensive line led by defensive tackle Dontari Poe, and a ball-hawking secondary led by All-Pro safety Eric Berry and cornerbacks Sean Smith and Marcus Peters. All said, this defense will cause headaches for any opposing offense they face for the remainder of the season.
When it comes down to it, we believe wholeheartedly that the Chiefs are strong enough on both sides of the ball to compete with (and beat) any of the remaining four teams in the AFC (the NFC is a whole other story). However, it’s difficult for us to view the Chiefs as legitimate Super Bowl contenders given that this group really isn’t battle-tested in the postseason and that without Maclin, their offense will almost surely take a step back. But hey, anything can happen on any given Sunday in the NFL.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.