The Chiefs are at the midway point of the season, and despite their recent performance — 1-3 over the last four weeks — they still lead the AFC West at 6-3.
That said, the bye week could not have come at a better time. This is a tired football team, and the A-Team — The Star’s traveling Chiefs reporting corps of me, Sam Mellinger, Vahe Gregorian, Blair Kerkhoff and David Eulitt — needs to recharge, too.
So let’s take stock of where the Chiefs are at the moment, and what the future may hold as this team thunders down the homestretch.
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Derrick Thomas Team MVP: QB Alex Smith (unanimous)
Sam Mellinger, columnist: Statistically the best quarterback in the league, which matches his influence with this team off the field.
Vahe Gregorian, columnist: In a landslide. The Chiefs have lost three out of four, but don’t blame Smith, who has 18 touchdown passes with just one interception as he cuts loose like never before in his NFL career (see: potato sack race).
Terez Paylor, beat writer: Smith has given Chiefs fans everything they’ve asked for since his arrival in 2013. He’s going downfield, he’s throwing people open and his stats back it up, as he’s on pace to set career-highs in yards (4,345), touchdowns (32) and passer rating (113.9) and finish with a miniscule amount of interceptions (two).
Blair Kerkhoff, beat writer: The numbers have dipped in the recent losing trend, but even in the last four games he’s thrown seven touchdown passes and one pick. Entering 2017 Smith’s best season of topping 100.0 in passer rating games was 2015, with six. He’s already at seven this year. Smith is on his way to having one of the top three years ever by a Chiefs quarterback.
David Eulitt, ace photographer: While not quite as white hot as at the beginning of the season, his touchdown to turnover ratio is fantastic and he has shown the ability to air it downfield on occasion.
Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year: RB Kareem Hunt (unanimous)
Sam: Perfect fit for Andy Reid, and the league’s leading rusher (still). They need him fresh and strong in January.
Vahe: Remember the gloom fans felt when starting running back Spencer Ware was lost for the season in the exhibition game against Seattle … and after Hunt fumbled his first official NFL carry? Hunt’s made all of that an afterthought with his brilliant start and remains the most dynamic addition to the team this season despite reduced production the last few weeks as the offensive line has been banged up and other teams stress taking him away.
Terez: So, so easy. The Chiefs are still high on their first two picks, Patrick Mahomes and Tanoh Kpassagnon, but Hunt has been a bona-fide star, rushing 155 times for 800 yards (a superb 5.2 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He’s also caught 32 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
Blair: The easy call, although the running game has cooled off in the last month. Still, Hunt should break Joe Delaney’s rookie rushing record of 1,121 set in 1981.
David: There is no other choice.
The Star’s Chiefs awards
Team alpha dog: OLB Justin Houston
Sam: QB Alex Smith. The week before the Pittsburgh game, several Steelers said they thought Smith was playing “angry” this year.
Vahe: Houston. With Eric Berry lost for the season, Justin Houston assumed the role — and his fierce play and deep voice resonates with teammates even as he plays through injuries.
Terez: Houston. Berry’s loss in the season opener has been felt both on the field and in the locker room, and there’s little doubt about that. But if this team didn’t have Houston, there would be some serious leadership concerns on defense. Houston does the pregame speech on the field in Berry’s absence, and he’s also capable of calming star cornerback Marcus Peters when Peters is upset. Outside of Berry, I’m not sure anyone else could have the effect on Peters that Houston does.
Blair: Smith. He’s not usually thought of this way, but Smith earns the title, at least at the midpoint, for rising to the challenge of high expectations and handling the drafting of Patrick Mahomes. Teammates say he’s always been a leader. Now he’s performing at a level that ranks with some of the league’s best.
David: Houston. With Berry out for the season, the motivational voice of the team lies with Houston, with his 7 1/2 sacks and the ability to alter an opponent’s offensive plans. When he’s healthy, he is one of the best in the league.
Best offensive player: WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce (tie)
Sam: QB Alex Smith. There’s not a wrong answer here between Smith, Hunt, and tight end Travis Kelce, but Smith has been damn near perfect.
Vahe: Kelce. In one sense, this should also go to Smith. But let’s spread the ball around like he does and remember that what makes this offense go (most of the time) is the diverse triple threat of Hunt, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, whose wacky touchdown against the Cowboys last week embodied the unique talent his speed and elusiveness represent. Meanwhile, Kelce leads the team with 51 catches for 629 yards as he and Smith have become remarkably attuned to each other.
Terez: Kelce. I already voted for Smith and Hunt, so let’s go with Kelce, who deserves some recognition. Kelce has been really good this year, leading the team in catches, yards and touchdowns (five) despite the presence of the superb Tyeek Hill, who has made people forget about the team’s decision to part ways with Jeremy Maclin in the offseason so he could get more reps at the coveted “Z” receiver position. Kelce’s on-field histrionics can become a distraction when he doesn’t rein them in, but he provides juice to a offense short on live-wire personalities.
Blair: Hill. Does anybody else score a touchdown the way Hill did at the end of the half against the Cowboys? And nine touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in 1 1/2 seasons? That’s absurd.
David: Hill. I almost picked Kelce, who has more yardage, but I went with Hill because without him, the Chiefs offense pulls back to earth with opponents stacking up to stop Hunt and double-teaming Kelce.
Best defensive player: OLB Justin Houston
Sam: Houston. When close to full strength, he’s a superhero.
Vahe: CB Marcus Peters. He has been burned a time or two, and his distaste for tackling seems to be growing, but he’s still a play-making defender (three interceptions) who typically minimizes the contributions of whoever he’s covering.
Terez: Houston. Peters leads the Chiefs in interceptions and defensive scores, and there’s something to be said for that. But Houston is quietly in the midst of a strong season. Despite an assortment of lower-body injuries, he ranks sixth in the NFL in hurries (15) and eighth in sacks (7 1/2 ). He’s also the only player on the defense without a defined weakness. He must be accounted for on a play-to-play basis and is the most well-rounded Chief.
Blair: Peters. Yeah, he doesn’t tackle. But Peters is the best cover man, had a hand in both of the Chiefs’ defensive scores and leads the team in interceptions.
David: Houston. When he’s healthy, and one never really knows when he is, he’s uncontrollably effective rushing the passer and a surprisingly great edge-run stopper too.
Biggest surprise: K Harrison Butker
Sam: Butker. How was this guy on a practice squad?
Vahe: Butker. He was languishing in Carolina when Cairo Santos was hurt, and then he missed his first field-goal attempt for the Chiefs. Now he’s made 19 in a row, closing in on the Chiefs record, something no one could have expected.
Terez: Butker. Look, anytime you pluck a kicker off another team’s practice squad and he proceeds to connect on 19 straight field goals, that’s a major surprise. Butker also deserves it for his strong leg, which he’s used to boom kickoffs through the back of the end zone with ease. His touchback percentage (79 percent) is vastly superior to Santos’ (55 percent) last year, though Santos might have been asked to do that less than Butker has.
Blair: Butker. Nobody projected Hunt, a third-round choice to be as good as he’s been, but Butker may have made up even more ground in expectations. The Chiefs liked Butker enough to cast off reliable Santos and the rookie from Georgia Tech has outkicked his expectations with 19 consecutive field goals.
David: CB Marcus Peters. Peters not being All-World at the corner is my biggest eye opener. Perhaps he’s not fully healthy but opposing teams seem not to fear him as they once did.
Most improved: QB Alex Smith and G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (tie)
Sam: WR Demarcus Robinson. Some of this is me not wanting to answer “Smith” every time, but Robinson has been really valuable in place of the injured Chris Conley.
Vahe: Smith. His play was marked by caution in the past, but he’s learned — and demonstrated — that there is a winning place somewhere in between reckless and conservative, a sweet spot for him.
Terez: Smith. Not crazy about my options here. Receiver Chris Conley would have been a nice choice prior to his season-ending injury — he was turning into a really nice chain-mover — and I’m sneakily optimistic about inside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis’ run defense, though he hasn’t played enough snaps to earn this award (same goes for guard Duvernay-Tardif). So I’m going with Smith, whose improved ability to throw people open and test teams vertically has made him a complete quarterback.
Blair: Duvernay-Tardif. To select a player who missed one snap short of five games speaks to the lack of candidates in this category, but LDT was off the best start of his career in the first month. If he can stay healthy, look for the improvement to continue over the final two months.
David: Duvernay-Tardif. Alex Smith is the obvious answer, and he is greatly improved, Duvernay-Tardif at guard has helped blow open some of those holes early for Kareem Hunt to run to the end zone. Hopefully, his return with Mitch Morse can jell back into success.
Chiefs’ season outlook
Reason to hope
Sam: The schedule lightens up to the point that winning out is a realistic possibility, and with a few breaks, the No. 1 seed is still in play.
Vahe: The Chiefs are 6-3, not 3-6, despite the rush to condemn them from some fans after losing three of the last four games. But the second half of the schedule is easier, starting with the 1-7 New York Giants, and given that every other team in the AFC West has five losses it would take a colossal collapse for the Chiefs not to make the playoffs — where anything can happen. The offense has only scored three touchdowns in the last two games, but with a beat-up offensive line healing up some, expect a return to the explosive early-season form.
Terez: Before the season, anyone with a brain would have taken a 6-3 record heading into the bye. The schedule is so soft the rest of the way it’s possible the Chiefs could run the table. The safer bet is that they drop one or two games they shouldn’t but still finish with 11 wins or more and win the division easily.
Blair: I projected a 5-4 record before the break, but the Chiefs changed the conversation after beating the Patriots. Andy Reid teams tend to play better over the season’s second half. A lighter schedule should ensure that trend continues.
David: An easier schedule and time to reorganize and stabilize the defense can still lead to a home playoff game in a weakened AFC West division.
Reason to mope
Sam: Good grief, the defense. They need to get it fixed, and with Eric Berry’s injury, there are no easy solutions.
Vahe: Until proven otherwise, the defense is officially a weakness now, one that’s easy to envision being exploited in the playoffs.
Terez: There are no shortage of issues, particularly on defense. The Chiefs rank 30th in run defense, and no team in football has surrendered more first downs than the Chiefs (dead serious). The pass defense has been a little better, but they’ve also surrendered a league-high 10 plays of 40 yards or more. They have to tighten up on this side of the ball, and the offensive line needs to heal up and revert to September form. If they don’t, you can expect the running game struggles to continue the rest of the season.
Blair: Over the last month, you could identify nearly any defensive starter and suggest because of performance or injury they haven’t played at a level required for postseason success. Same with the offensive line. Losing Eric Berry was a crusher and the season-ending injury to Chris Conley has impacted the offense more than I expected. The Chiefs played with daring on offense early on but seem to have lost some of that lately.
David: The Pittsburgh Steelers in January.