A team like these Chiefs has never done what these Chiefs want to do, and this has nothing to do with a punting cornerback or screen pass-catching nose guard.
This team is an outlier among its peers already, and if it advances in the playoffs it would be an outlier in modern football history.
The Chiefs are 10-3 and in first place of the NFL’s best division. That is a king’s throne, but then there’s this — they rank 24th in offense, and 27th in defense.
Of the 80 teams to reach a conference championship game in the last 20 years, here is the complete list of those that have ranked similarly on both sides of the ball:
(This is a blank space.)
Nobody’s done it. Not once. That’s going back 20 years, which was so long ago that the Chiefs’ leading rusher was Marcus Allen.
“There’s always an outlier,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “We could be the one team in 20 years that does it.”
The Chiefs have, somewhat famously here locally, won on a ridiculous stack of miracles. The greatest comeback in franchise history, no offensive touchdowns in Carolina, the bank-shot in Denver and the pick-two in Atlanta.
But it’s more than those finishes. The Chiefs are the NFL’s greatest overachievers so far, like a kid who scores a 22 on the ACT but studies herself into a 4.4 GPA (on a weighted scale).
They have won six times this season while being outgained — by 12 yards against the Jets, 137 against the Saints, 218 against the Jaguars, 85 against the Panthers, 191 against the Broncos and 29 against the Falcons.
They’ve actually been outgained overall this season. They’ve even been outgained overall in their wins.
They give up more yards per play than they gain, more passing yards than they throw for, more rushing yards than they run for, more first downs and more penalties.
“You’re always trying to improve, right?” coach Andy Reid said. “You’re always trying to get better at what you do. I’d tell you some of it is how things have worked out. But, again, there are areas we can get better at, on both sides.”
Reid’s point is important. Some of the discrepancy in yardage is either coincidental or a product of giving up garbage yards at the end of games. It’s not uncommon for teams to win while being outgained, but no team in football has done it more often than the Chiefs.
Now, yards are an antiquated way to rank teams offensively and defensively. We’ve moved past this sort of nonsense in baseball, where hitters are no longer judged primarily by batting average. In baseball, we now better understand that not all hits are equal, not to mention the value of walks.
In football, not all yards are equal, and a much better metric is Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which compares a team’s performance to a league baseline based on situation. But even here, the Chiefs merely improve to better than average — not the second-best record in the AFC.
By Football Outsiders’ metric, the Chiefs are 12th offensively and 11th defensively. A strong special teams ranking (second) helps them improve to fourth overall — behind the Patriots, Cowboys and Falcons — but the Chiefs are still somewhat difficult to figure.
In the last 20 years, only seven of the 80 conference finalists have not ranked seventh or higher in scoring offense or defense. The Chiefs currently rank 14th in points and eighth in points against.
The Chiefs make up for this in subtle ways. Their starting field position on both sides is among the NFL’s best — though the Patriots, Raiders and Vikings each rank higher on both sides — and their red-zone defense is strong. They usually win in turnovers, and have more non-offensive touchdowns than anyone else in football.
But the question remains whether this is sustainable, particularly in terms of securing a first-round bye, a home playoff game and advancing in the postseason.
Because if this was merely a statistical oddity, you would expect there to at least be a small group of teams who’ve struggled with yardage but excelled in the statistics that matter, like points and wins. But there is just no precedent for what the Chiefs are doing, when looking at yardage rankings among conference finalists over the last 20 years.
The five that ranked 24th or worse in offense ranked first, third, fourth, fifth and ninth in defense. The three that ranked 27th or worse in defense ranked second, fifth and eighth in offense.
Some of this is noise, but some is signal, too. The “garbage yards” argument doesn’t hold up as well when you see the Chiefs have been outgained more on the ground than through the air, but either way these last three games present an opportunity.
For one, the Titans are among the league’s best rushing teams, and the Chiefs were one of the worst run defenses before Derrick Johnson’s injury. If they can keep the Titans away from the important yards — they’ve been good on this, with red-zone and fourth-down stops — it’s further validation that the statistics misread the Chiefs.
But there is also an acknowledgement from the team that as good as the record is, the performances need to be better.
Stopping the run will be even more difficult now without Johnson. And offensively, receiver Jeremy Maclin needs to be part of the improvement, and adjustments must be made in blocking and play-calling to get Spencer Ware and the rest of the running game going.
The Chiefs have done well to get this far. These are more tweaks than overhauls. But there is room to get better.
“If you look back at the course of history and there’s a trend, you probably want to get on the right side of it,” Schwartz said. “So you want to correct it, but I don’t think you do anything magical to force that.”