If a regular-season game can serve as a microcosm for the Chiefs and quarterback Alex Smith, it’s their season opener, which was against the same Houston Texans squad that the Chiefs face Saturday in the playoffs.
Remember Week 1? The Chiefs pumped up the volume with Smith touchdown passes on their first two possessions and a third score before halftime as the Chiefs built a huge lead.
But the second half became a whisper on the offensive side by comparison. The Chiefs didn’t score and had to recover an onside kick to preserve a seven-point victory.
The game revealed the potential and the limits of the Chiefs offense and Smith. When they’re good, the Chiefs seem unstoppable. But in more times than might be expected from a team that’s carrying a 10-game winning streak into a road playoff game they’re favored to win, the Chiefs wound up fighting to the bitter end because they couldn’t come up with enough firepower in the second half.
As a pattern, Smith and the Chiefs prefer the snowflake analogy. No game is the same.
“Every one of these games is a different challenge,” Smith said.
But so many of them have looked, or at least unfolded, in similar fashion recently.
In their final three home games, the Chiefs constructed double-digit leads in the first half, and in each case the Chargers, Browns and Raiders had the final possession and trailed by seven points or fewer. Comfort became discomfort and the Chiefs found themselves playing to run out the clock.
Over the last four games, including a victory at Baltimore, the Chiefs’ offensive production has dropped by about one-half after the second quarter.
They’ve averaged 198 yards and 11.5 first downs in the first half, 100 yards and 6.5 first downs in the second half.
Smith’s touchdown pass to tight end Demetrius Harris in the third quarter against the Raiders was the first second-half offensive touchdown in those four games.
Each game brought different circumstances. For instance, the Chiefs had the ball for only eight minutes and ran 17 plays in the second half against the Browns.
But even coach Andy Reid said the Chiefs were “putting an emphasis on being better in the second half,” and earlier this week brought up his team’s second-half goose egg at Houston in September.
Is it just as simple as Smith executing an aggressive and clever scheme early to grab a lead and the Chiefs downshifting to a conservative gear? Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said before the Raiders game that wasn’t the case.
“I don’t feel like we’re pulling off as much as we just have to focus a little better,” he said.
It’s not a matter of turnovers. Smith’s four interceptions in the past four games, including two against the Raiders and the one against the Chargers that broke his team record streak of 312 attempts without a pick, occurred in the first half.
Perhaps the postseason will buck the recent trend. Smith has built a track record of statistical success in the postseason. The sample size is small, but in three games, two with the 49ers and the 2013 playoff loss for the Chiefs against the Colts, Smith has thrown nine touchdown passes without an interception. He averages 291 passing yards per postseason game.
This season, Smith averaged 218 passing yards per game and has never averaged more than 221 in a season.
The postseason uptick suggests a different approach, but again, Smith holds up a stop sign.
“Those games don’t have anything to do with this one,” he said.
Still, “it’s great to have the experience that he has,” Reid said.
The bottom line is, no matter the approach, the Chiefs haven’t lost a game since mid-October. And Smith has taken all but a handful of mop-up snaps this season. He has guided an offense that’s been good enough to build enough of an advantage, even if it turns out to be just enough.
He’s done it with versatility, including a team-record 498 rushing yards by a quarterback, and leadership, and now Smith is being asked to help guide the Chiefs to their first playoff victory in more than two decades, by any margin.