The normal rules of modern professional football have only rarely applied to these Chiefs, so why would we have expected anything other than … this?
The Chiefs, playing shorthanded against the rested, finally healthy and always nasty Super Bowl-champion defense, beat the Broncos 30-27 in overtime Sunday on the road a week after losing at home to a team currently on the fringe of the playoff picture.
The single most important game of the most anticipated Chiefs season in a decade came down to an oblong ball bouncing one way off an upright. The Chiefs are 8-3, somehow, a stunt devil of a team surviving near wreck after actual wreck after near wreck after actual wreck after near wreck and it’s all so hard to keep track of anymore.
“Nothing like going to your momma and getting a hug after a game like that,” Chiefs cornerback Kenneth Acker said.
Here’s how the Chiefs made it through their biggest game:
A safety, a free kick returned for a touchdown, another touchdown with the quarterback uninvolved by design … and then that struggling quarterback forcing overtime with a last-minute drive in the fourth quarter on a touchdown that came on instant replay.
In between, the defense had no chance of covering Emmanuel Sanders, their long snapper recovered a fumbled punt forced by a gunner who has essentially been replaced in the offense by a fifth-round pick who just became the first man since Gale Sayers to score on a run, catch, and return in the same game.
This team only makes sense if you let go and accept that nothing in the NFL makes sense (except for conspiracy theories about the Patriots).
They just won a game in which they were outgained by 191 yards, and ran a play apparently designed to get their fourth-string tight end the ball in space.
This is probably not a great team. They may not even be a good team. But as the calendar changes to December they are a surviving team, maybe even a thriving team, and despite all their warts and shortcomings have milked enough from their talents and strengths to be in position to win the NFL’s best division without a lick of help from anyone else.
Look around the AFC. There are no great teams. Surviving, and maybe thriving, is as good as it gets right now.
“Me, I’m looking down the road,” safety Eric Berry said. “That’s just how I rock. Period. I’m going to enjoy it, I’m excited for it, I’m glad we showed heart, but there’s a lot of things we can clean up on.”
A disproportionate amount of this depends on Alex Smith, and coach Andy Reid’s ability to extract his handpicked quarterback’s best. Reid is respected around the league for his work with quarterbacks, and if he can get Smith back to what he was in 2015, the Chiefs have more than a puncher’s chance. But this version of Smith isn’t good enough.
This is three consecutive poor performances after suffering those two non-concussions in Indianapolis. He missed repeated touchdown opportunities against the Panthers, threw a predetermined and game-breaking interception against the Bucs, and was the quarterback equivalent of a hand-cranked bicycle stuck in mud for 3 7/8 quarters against the Broncos.
Smith deserves credit for performing late. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown from the last possession of the fourth quarter through overtime. Considering the stakes and the context, his pass to Tyreek Hill on an out route converting on fourth and 10 on that touchdown drive in the fourth quarter may have been his best of the season.
“Since he’s been back from whatever it was, the hit to the head, things haven’t gone as smooth as they were going prior to,” Reid said. “But he just kept battling and battling and battling, which he does. Everybody’s down on him, and then boom, he comes through, and that shows you the mental toughness.”
Reid’s mention of Smith’s performance in the three games since returning is as close as the coach will ever come to criticizing the quarterback.
But, really, he’s only confirming what we all see. Because Smith doesn’t look the same. His pocket presence is skittish at best. His willingness and ability to run — always one of his greatest assets — is now mostly a memory.
For his part, Smith says the scare in Indianapolis has nothing to do with his struggles since.
“I feel totally the same,” he said. “To be honest, it probably has more to do with the coincidence of the scheduling. We faced some pretty good defenses here in a row. To face this defense on the road, coming off the bye, it’s a tough test. I think it probably has more to do with that than anything else.”
This can be read as Smith trying to convince himself, or the quarterback admitting the Chiefs can’t move the ball against the league’s better defenses. Either way, less than terrific.
Because the Chiefs are judged on a different standard now. A winner’s standard. That’s how they judge themselves, which is why even after these exhilarating wins against the Broncos and Panthers the postgame locker room has been filled with guys talking about all the mistakes they made.
The difference between controlling their future and something much more tenuous is three football miracles — the biggest comeback in franchise history against the Chargers, Marcus Peters’ strip-and-punt against the Panthers, and this long list of earned and fortunate breaks against the Broncos.
The Chiefs have much more to celebrate than curse. Their resilience should be a point of pride, not a tool to poke holes when every team they’re competing with has flaws.
The Chiefs have been clear about what they expect this season, and they know they need to be better than this. Some of that can come with health. But a lot of it needs to come from the guys already playing, starting with the quarterback.