For any Chiefs fan under the age of 50, every bit of positivity they have felt about their favorite football team has been the lead-up to disappointment. No exceptions.
Over and over and over again, with 13-3 team after 13-3 team, from Grbac over Gannon to Matt Cassel’s Pro Bowl season to the 28-point lead in Indianapolis, each and every party has been followed by a crushing hangover.
And so you’ll have to forgive any Chiefs fan who watches the franchise’s best team in at least 20 years — still true, and more on that in a minute — lose for the first time in six games and wonders what in the name of The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named is about to go wrong with their team.
And, you’ll also have to forgive that fan for seeing all the familiar symptoms in the Chiefs’ 19-13 loss to the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
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Porous run defense. A bad decision by the head coach. Missed throws by the quarterback. Terribly timed injuries. A laughably awful break on a key touchdown.
Really, they were a few missed kicks away from Chiefs Heartbreak Bingo.
“Seems a little bleak right here at this minute,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “But that’s not how I feel.”
You should not believe anyone who says the Chiefs did not stink, or that they weren’t as bad as it’s being made out. Because stink is a generous adjective, and whoever’s making it out to be bad is probably not making it out to be bad enough.
They were not blown out, and even had a chance to win at the end, so wrap yourself in that blanket of lies if you want. But the truth is the Chiefs just lost at home to a team that basically did one thing — and one thing only — well.
The Steelers ran the ball.
In fact, they ran the ball almost exactly as well as they did last January when they won a playoff game here without the decency of even scoring a touchdown — Le’Veon Bell went for 170 yards in 30 carries that night, and 179 yards in 32 carries on Sunday.
Bell is terrific, perhaps the best back in the world, and certainly one of the NFL’s best players. But, come on. Some of this was embarrassing.
“Their game plan was very simple,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Go punch the Chiefs in the mouth, and see what they can do.”
Beyond the obvious, that’s concerning for at least two reasons. First, the run defense is perhaps the Chiefs’ likeliest fatal flaw. It’s what ended their 2016 season, and it’s what could end their 2017 season if they face a team that can run the ball. Like, um, well, like the Steelers.
Because this is not just a Bell problem. The Chiefs’ run defense stunk most of last season, and this week’s games began with just five teams giving up more yards per rush attempt.
But, also, it’s concerning because the Steelers were otherwise ordinary. Ben Roethlisberger threw one interception, and should’ve had another, except the ball bounced off Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines’ hands and directly to Antonio Brown, who ran for a touchdown.
The Steelers also gifted the Chiefs a possession in the first quarter, when Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster miscommunicated and let a free kick drop. The ball was live, and recovered by the Chiefs’ Jehu Chesson.
The Steelers’ defense was not nearly good enough to shut down the Chiefs, either. Alex Smith missed open receivers, Travis Kelce had at least one key drop, and Reid and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy coached like they were unaware that Kareem Hunt is both awesome and on their roster.
The Chiefs were terribly inept at creating pressure on Roethlisberger, but made up for it by being terribly inept at protecting Smith. Some of this may’ve been injuries piling up, particularly on the interior of the offensive line.
“All phases can be better,” Reid said. “Coaches included, head coach included.”
So, that’s all really bad. And now the reward is a flight across the country for a road game against a division rival four days later.
Again, you should listen to nobody who tells you this wasn’t bad.
But the Chiefs are a very good team. Still. Probably the franchise’s best in at least 20 years. Still.
Some of this is because even great teams get beat. Last year, the Super Bowl champs lost by gagging a fourth-quarter lead at home. Two years ago, the Super Bowl champs lost consecutive games twice, including a rather embarrassing afternoon at home when they benched their quarterback. Three years ago, the Super Bowl champs lost by 27 points to a team that didn’t even make the playoffs.
You get the idea (and probably know the last two references were losses to the Chiefs).
But everything that was true after the 5-0 start is still true today. The Chiefs have dynamic playmakers at every level, and on both sides of the ball. They have a quarterback playing the best season of his professional life. They have a wicked mix of youth and experience, with a very good head coach who’s been building toward this roster for five years.
All of that is still true.
Losing to the Steelers now doesn’t doom the Chiefs in January any more than beating them now would’ve guaranteed a Super Bowl.
“We ain’t worried about the playoffs,” linebacker Justin Houston said. “We worried about that ring.”
If you’re looking for reasons to worry, you can have at least two. The first is the injury report. The interior of the offensive line needs to be healthy, and fast. Tyreek Hill was in concussion protocol. Houston missed some practice last week with a calf injury, and did not move around like himself on Sunday.
The second is Smith. At least on the first look, he was bad. Missed open receivers, made bad decisions, didn’t see at least a few guys break open. He had essentially been flawless the first five games. He was never going to keep the same pace, but a departure like this is concerning.
That, as much as anything, is the divide for Chiefs fans.
If you believe what you’ve seen this season, then you believe Smith is having the best season of any quarterback in the league and leading a team that is dynamic and fluid and tough and still hasn’t lost a division game in more than two years.
But if you believe what you’ve seen over the years, then you see Smith as a pumpkin and have a hard time believing in a team that can’t block the interior and can’t stop the run and hasn’t been even two wins away from a Super Bowl championship in more than 20 years.
In other words, this is still a really good team. Probably the best in the league.
But if you are a Chiefs fan and reading all of this with skepticism, with the feeling that last week was the best it’ll get and this week was a preview of your playoff disappointment, well, you come by that honestly.