The first triumphant locker room in 41 days is somewhere between happy and a party. They have been zombies these last six weeks, slowly walking from locker to shower to locker, the occasional quick exchange breaking up the silence of another disappointment. For a while, it was easy to wonder if they’d ever feel like this again.
The NFL is a weekly referendum on your worth, and for the first time since October, the Chiefs feel like they can smile.
They beat the Raiders 26-15 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, an encouraging if incomplete win that — despite the failures and crisis of recent weeks — puts the Chiefs in position to effectively win the AFC West and a corresponding home playoff game with a win against the Chargers on Saturday.
“Everybody just got the mojo back, man,” tight end Travis Kelce said.
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Let’s be clear about something: this isn’t good enough. Won’t be good enough against the Chargers on Saturday, and won’t be good enough to satisfy the standard that’s always existed for this team, which is to at least advance beyond the division round. Progress is measured in the playoffs, not by (at least momentarily) stopping a free-fall.
But, with a win against the Chargers, the only way the Chiefs would miss the playoffs would be to lose their remaining games (Dolphins at home, Broncos on the road) and the Chargers to win out (at Jets, Raiders at home).
That the Chiefs can still truthfully and technically claim to have all their most important goals in front of them is more a statement about the mediocrity of the NFL in general and the AFC West in particular.
But it still remains true.
This team made progress here on Sunday, and finally. This team is still far from what it could be, far from what it was, and far from what it needs to be to turn their technicality into actual franchise improvement.
“Only time will tell,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “We have to do it next week, and then the week after, and the week after that.”
There is no such thing as a bad win, especially not in the division, and especially not after losing four in a row.
In many ways, the Chiefs were as impressive as they’ve been since the season opener at New England.
They won the point of attack, on both sides, the offensive line opening holes for 165 rushing yards and the defensive line — Chris Jones was terrific — collapsing pockets against a big and talented Raiders line.
The defensive backs played as well as they had all year, even accounting for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr’s inaccuracies and receiver Amari Cooper’s absence. With Marcus Peters suspended — and presumably watching on TV — Steven Nelson and Terrance Mitchell were the best in a group that was consistently aggressive, fast and fearless.
So much of what’s been broken was fixed against the Raiders. The offensive line may’ve made the most stunning turnaround, from pushed and bullied and overwhelmed to holes for Kareem Hunt and Charcandrick West to combine for 141 yards on 28 carries (5.0 avg).
On West’s 13-yard touchdown, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif pushed his man all the way into the end zone. He called it the best feeling in the world for an offensive lineman.
“I don’t have any more voice,” he said through a smile.
If those three things are truly fixed, then the Chiefs may have something here. Alex Smith threw a truly atrocious interception — a bad idea executed horrendously after failed pocket presence — but was otherwise fine.
He challenged the Raiders downfield, most successfully on balls that turned into remarkable catches by Tyreek Hill and Albert Wilson. That part was good enough, and it can no longer be said that Smith is the single biggest factor holding the Chiefs back.
Andy Reid and offensive line coach Andy Heck made an overdue adjustment in simplifying up front. The linemen had too often been asked to make intricate blocks that depended on perfect timing and stretching their agility beyond reasonable limits.
That changed against the Raiders, with less complicated footwork and more striking quick.
“We had a simple plan,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Instead of focusing on who to get, we focused on how to get them. Get downhill, focus on being aggressive.”
At least on the first look, the increased pressure defensively came from some much needed creativity. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton utilized an interesting set in which Justin Houston rushed from the inside, leaving Jones one-on-one against the right tackle. It was a combination of surprise and power that the Raiders had no answer for.
The key, of course, is replicating all of this. The margins between wins and losses are much smaller than we often make them out to be. The Chiefs have lost in overtime and on an untimed down with no time on the clock this season. In three other games, they had the ball at the end with a chance to win with a touchdown.
If two of those games swing the other way, the Chiefs are 9-4 instead of 7-6. If three swing their way, they’re 10-3 and remain in position for a possible bye into the division round.
Last year, they won twice in overtime and two other games by essentially one play. If just one of those four go the other way, they would’ve played in the wild-card round.
That’s largely been Reid’s message these last few weeks, and if it’s starting to get traction, then great. But the problems the Chiefs showed are much more than can be fixed by one win, or even with another against the Chargers on Saturday.
Getting into the playoffs is the minimum ante for this team, in its fifth season of building under Reid. The Chiefs took an initial step toward avoiding disaster against the Raiders, but they’ll need to continue winning not just this week but next month for this season to be a success.
And even with their first win in nearly six weeks, the Chiefs remain months removed from showing themselves good enough for the standard they’ve set.