Sure, it’s a little past the midway point of the 2016 regular season. But if you expected the Chiefs to make a deep playoff run, we’re right at the halfway mark, which makes this the perfect time to assess the Chiefs’ season and Super Bowl chances.
The good news for the Chiefs is that despite a lackluster 19-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, they still control their path to an AFC West championship. At 7-3, they are tied with the Denver Broncos for second behind the Oakland Raiders, 8-2. The Chiefs have two games left against the Broncos — including at Denver on Sunday night — one at home vs. the Raiders and one at San Diego.
The AFC West appears to be among the most competitive divisions, so the winner could easily earn one of the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game. Given how the Chiefs’ offense has looked, that appears to be a necessity if they want to return to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1993 season. A win against the Broncos on Sunday would certainly help, but in the meantime, here are The Star’s midseason awards, for the team and the NFL.
Chiefs’ team awards
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Derrick Thomas Team MVP: CB Marcus Peters
The Chiefs got a not-so-fun look at what their defense looks like without Peters on Sunday, when Tampa Bay played ball-control offense and picked away at a young cornerback corps with short passes. Peters, who missed the game because of a hip injury, is the team’s biggest energy-giver, an undeniable competitor who is the ball-seeking linchpin of a defense that has been exceptional with 23 turnovers forced. This year, Peters leads the league with five interceptions, three fumble recoveries and 15 passes defensed. His knack for making big plays was highlighted by his remarkable strip and fumble recovery of 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver Kelvin Benjamin late in the Chiefs’ 20-17 win over Carolina on Nov. 13. That’s the best play of the season and the reason why the Chiefs are committed to guiding Peters through his occasional bouts of emotional combustion.
Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year: DE Chris Jones
After the Chiefs selected 6-foot-6, 308-pounder early in the second round, scout Ryne Nutt compared Jones to former Jacksonville defensive tackle Marcus Stroud. Stroud made three Pro Bowls during his 10-year career, and Jones has the look of a future Pro Bowler with 16 tackles, two sacks and five QB pressures this season. His combination of size, strength and get off has been difficult for opposing offensive linemen to handle, and his swim move is consistently devastating. He should only improve as he continues to master his assignments and play-by-play responsibilities.
The Star’s Chiefs awards
Team alpha dog: S Eric Berry
While Team MVP describes the player who has been the most valuable on the field, our category describes the player who means the most both inside the locker room and out, because no one listens to a leader who doesn’t deliver on the field. The clear-cut winner in this category is Berry, whose passion for football and desire to win is unmatched. No one has more credibility in the locker room, especially after he beat cancer in eight months and returned to Pro Bowl form. He regularly gives pregame speeches and when Peters punted the ball into the stands against Carolina, it was Berry who told him how he was hurting the team. But it’s not just Berry’s leadership that makes him the first-ever midseason Alpha Dog award winner; it’s his on-the-field play, too. Berry can hit, but he’s also quietly putting together a nice season in coverage. Berry, who turns 28 in December, will be a free agent after this season unless the Chiefs franchise tag him again. If he leaves, it will leave a leadership void that will be difficult to replace.
Best offensive player: TE Travis Kelce
This is not an easy selection, because nobody has seized this award outright on a disappointing unit that ranks 24th in total offense. And folks who own Kelce in fantasy football will likely scoff, because his 49 catches, 574 yards and three touchdowns are only OK numbers. But they would be much better on a team less dedicated to spreading the ball around. He remains one of the game’s best receiving tight ends, despite the occasional drop (see: Tampa Bay) and/or combustible moment (see: ejection vs. Jacksonville), and he has quietly developed into an above-average, dedicated run blocker. That’s difficult to find in a league where more tight ends can’t block effectively. Running back Spencer Ware deserves consideration as he’s 13th in the league in rushing with 623 yards and two touchdowns on 132 carries, and so does rookie receiver Tyreek Hill, as he’s caught 36 passes for 376 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. Hill has only played 212 of 638 offensive snaps (33 percent) while Ware has played 312 (55 percent). Kelce has logged 563 snaps (88 percent) this season.
Best defensive player: OLB Dee Ford
Aside from Peters, the Chiefs’ best defensive player has been Ford. On a defense that features legitimate Pro Bowlers in Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry and Tamba Hali, Ford’s emergence as a legitimate pass-rush threat is the best story of the season. The pressure was on Ford, a former first-round pick, to deliver and he has finally learned to use multiple pass-rush moves on his way to logging a league-high 10 sacks and team-high 14 pressures, which ranks 17th in the league. Ford has also showed improvement against the run with better technique and strength at the point of attack. The Chiefs’ edge rush was one of the biggest question marks of the season, but provided Ford’s recent hamstring injury isn’t significant — he left Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay and did not return — the position is now championship caliber, provided Justin Houston and Tamba Hali remain healthy and effective.
Biggest surprise: WR Tyreek Hill
While Hill is already one of the league’s most dangerous return men, no one would have guessed that he’d far and away be the team’s best, and most productive, receiver. You can see defenses adjusting to him; they know where he is and account for his blazing speed. He’s also more sophisticated as a route runner and has a better understanding of the Chiefs’ complicated offensive concepts as an outside target. He could, at the very least, become a legitimate No. 2 receiver in the league.
Most improved: CB Steven Nelson
Another new category. Ford is the obvious choice, but because he already won best defensive player, let’s give some love to Nelson. After seeing action on a meager 5 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, the super-competitive 2015 third-round pick has taken the field for 98 percent of this season’s defensive snaps. He’s a reliable nickel corner at 5-11 and 194 pounds who has defended 10 passes while projected No. 2 corner Phillip Gaines has battled injuries. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson, who was cut earlier in the season in favor of Justin March-Lillard and Sam Barrington, also deserves consideration. Since taking over as the starter next to Derrick Johnson because of a season-ending injury to March-Lillard, Wilson has recorded 29 tackles. He still comes out on some passing downs, but his eyes have improved — he’s more decisive against the run than he used to be — and he’s a better tackler, too.
Chiefs’ season outlook
Reason to hope: The Chiefs are 7-3 despite an offense that has been surprisingly ineffective for most of the season, so save your calls for people’s jobs. The Chiefs still have everything they want to accomplish in front of them. The Chiefs have won with a strong defense (despite the occasional bouts of spotty tackling and gap discipline vs. the run), and the Denver Broncos showed last season that you can win a Super Bowl with a defense-first team and an offense that selectively rises to the occasion. The Chiefs’ pass rush and ability to generate turnovers is championship caliber, and as long as they don’t have season-ending injuries to significant contributors, no one will be taking a playoff game against this defense for granted.
Reason to mope: The offense needs to wake up soon. This is year four of Andy Reid’s tenure, and quarterback Alex Smith has been here the whole time; the offense should not need to be saved by the defense every week. The Chiefs spent training camp and OTAs working on their three-wide, up-tempo offense, and have looked effective using that in spurts, but far too often they’ve lacked cohesion in their base offense. It happens far too often and leads to incompletions and missed opportunities for big runs. The execution has to be better, and the coaching has to be better. Two areas to monitor the rest of the way are the Chiefs’ offensive percentages on third down (35.6 percent, 25th in the league) and red zone (41.1 percent, 31st in the league); both must improve if the Chiefs truly want to make a Super Bowl run.
League MVP: QB Tom Brady, New England
Look, I’m definitely a “best ability is availability” guy. But while Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has done a nice job carrying his team, Brady has been absolutely absurd this season. In only six games, he’s completed 70.4 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns, an interception and a passer rating of 123.3.
Coach of the year: Jason Garrett, Dallas
The Cowboys have the league’s best record, 9-1, despite starting a rookie quarterback and running back. By the way, they went 4-12 last season. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has the AFC’s best record despite Brady’s absence while Jack Del Rio has the perpetually-awful Raiders on a playoff track.
Offensive player of the year: QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta
Ryan is having a heck of the season for the Falcons, who lead the NFC South at 6-4. He’s completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 3,247 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Seahawks are 7-2 and QB Russell Wilson is having a terrific season. QB Matthew Stafford is the driving force behind the Lions, 6-4, leading the NFC North.
Defensive player of the year: OLB Von Miller, Denver
The Broncos feature the league’s fourth-ranked defense and second-ranked defense against the pass, and Miller — a destructive force — leads the charge. He’s racked up 9 1/2 sacks and 17 quarterback pressures — the sixth-most in the league — despite being the one offenses go out of their way to stop and/or avoid. If the Rams were having a better season, DT Aaron Donald — who somehow leads the league in quarterback pressures with 22 — would be the No. 1 contender. He still might win it because he’s unblockable.
Offensive rookie of the year: RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
Dallas QB Dak Prescott has been magnificent, completing 67.7 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and two interceptions. But Elliott, a complete back who might already be the game’s best, is absolutely killing it behind one of the league’s most dominant lines, which has allowed his quarterback to thrive.
Defensive rookie of the year: DE Joey Bosa, San Diego
Bosa missed the first month of the season after a contract dispute, but he’s been consistently disruptive since his return, logging four sacks and 11 quarterback pressures in only six games. He’s going to be a star. He’s joined by another stud rookie in undersized inside linebacker Jatavis Brown, a productive player (53 tackles, three sacks, six pressures, five passes defensed) who has helped give the Chargers some much-needed bite on defense. He’s going to be a good one, and so is DE Yannick Ngakoue, who has given the Jaguars’ some pass-rush help.
Comeback player of the year: QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
Luck has bounced back nicely from a miserable 2015 season, completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions for Colts that is 5-5 despite a terrible defense. Chargers RB Melvin Gordon and Titans RB DeMarco Murray have bounced back from poor 2015 campaigns to rank among the league’s best rushers.