This is the holiday season, the time for cheer, so let’s begin this column with three compliments for the Chiefs:
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
• The stinking pile of garbage they left in a 23-7 loss to the Colts at Arrowhead Stadium was only metaphorical, not literal. The cleanup staff appreciates that, at least.
• By making it clear early that they had no interest in playing football on Sunday, they let procrastinating Kansas Citians catch up on Christmas shopping.
• And afterward, they seemed to understand what a shameful performance they put on tape.
“We just got our butts kicked,” running back Jamaal Charles says.
“When you don’t come to play, this is what happens,” cornerback Brandon Flowers says.
“I wish I had the answer right now,” quarterback Alex Smith says.
Other than that, this was inept. Limp. Weak. After a week of talking about how they are peaking at the right time, and emphasizing the importance of this particular game, the Chiefs were manhandled and outclassed two weeks before the playoffs start (against the team they probably will play).
This was a performance — and, more concerning, an effort — that would’ve been perfectly in character for the 2012 Chiefs.
Chiefs fans have complained all season about their team not getting more respect nationally, but their team is building a stack of self-incriminating evidence to support every accusation that it is a product of a weak schedule and a significant step below the league’s more legitimate playoff teams.
This doesn’t have to be the end of the Chiefs’ hopes, of course, but darned if it doesn’t feel like the beginning of the end.
The most likely scenario is that the Chiefs will play at the Colts in the first round of the playoffs, and after Sunday, who feels good about the Chiefs’ chances?
As a comparison to last year, the Chiefs are a vast improvement. The NFL’s best turnaround story. But that’s an awfully low bar, an easy standard, and if the comparison is to good NFL teams — the kind they’ll face in the playoffs — the Chiefs have a long way to go.
Since the bye week, the Chiefs are 2-4. Three of those losses are at home. The two wins are against Washington, which is every bit as dysfunctional as the Chiefs were last year, and the Raiders, another rotten team that scored its most points of the season against the Chiefs but turned the ball over way too much and couldn’t overcome Charles’ Superman act.
The four losses have some brutally clear similarities. They came against the three best teams the Chiefs have played this season, with good quarterbacks carving up a defense that we all used to think was very good.
Look at this: In their four games against playoff-caliber opponents since the bye week, the Chiefs are 0-4 and giving up an average of 455 yards. Quarterbacks in those games are completing 67 percent of their passes, averaging 9 yards per attempt, and have thrown 10 touchdowns against two interceptions — a cumulative passer rating of 111.9.
Remember when the Chiefs had a good defense?
Justin Houston’s return can only fix so much.
Aside from the continued stardom of Charles and a few select defenders, everything the Chiefs had going for them early has turned to coal when it’s about to matter the most.
The defense is most alarming, but an offense that had been improving (36.8 points and 384 yards per game after the bye week, compared with 23.9 and 317 before) just turned the ball over four times in a home game.
The Chiefs want this to be their identity: great defense, consistent discipline and an offense that values ball control.
Lately, this is their identity: a sieve against good teams, bad penalties at terrible times, and now four turnovers against a defense that hadn’t forced any against the last two winning teams it played.
When things were going well, the Chiefs liked to say that they won as a team. The offense played to the defense’s strengths, the guys on special teams took pride in changing field position, and the defense made the whole thing roll.
Now — and it can’t be stated enough that the Chiefs’ problems seem to pop up whenever they play a worthy opponent — they will spend a week digesting a game in which their offense and defense were thoroughly outplayed.
Alex Smith played his worst game of the season, and at least part of that was because the offensive line played what might be its worst game of the season. The secondary continued to leave receivers wide open and is now officially a mess with Marcus Cooper being effectively benched as a cornerback, then playing after Sean Smith kept getting beat and complaining about the penalties he was being fairly called for.
In the bigger picture, the Chiefs aren’t the overmatched mess they were on Sunday. Teams aren’t as good as their best game, and they aren’t as bad as their worst game.
This is still an 11-4 team with one of the league’s brightest stars at running back and a lot of talent on defense. The Chiefs are still without Houston and tackle Branden Albert, and having those two back for the playoffs will make a difference.
But only the delusional can miss that the Chiefs just legitimized every criticism, doubt and disrespect they heard during a 9-0 start that now feels as if it happened years ago.