The most important game of the most important season of Andy Reid’s time in Kansas City will come down to football basics.
The Chiefs must bother Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, and they must find a way to keep two dominant pass rushers and a strong front seven away from Alex Smith.
There are no magic bullets in football, and we all tend to oversimplify and put too much stress on single factors, but after watching some Chargers tape, this is where the game will likely be decided and in turn hugely influence the finish of this season.
Keenan Allen is a star, and Tyrel Williams is a former college sprinter. When Rivers has time, he can crush your soul. The Chargers have won four straight, averaging 33 points, and Rivers is throwing for more than 300 yards per game with no interceptions.
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The Chargers are a completely different team than the one that lost 24-10 in suburban LA back in September, and part of that is they’ve done a better job protecting Rivers. It’s not necessarily the sacks, though that’s important. But Rivers may be the league’s least mobile quarterback, so if you can move him off his drop back spot, his effectiveness plummets.
Bother him enough to make him move his feet, and the worst you’re likely to suffer is him throwing it away before he can be hit.
He’s also very aggressive, which means the defensive backs need to be aware at all times, but he’ll also give the Chiefs a few opportunities to make a play against him.
When the Chiefs are on offense, so much of this game will be decided on how well they can protect Smith, and how Smith handles the snaps where the protection breaks down. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are among the best pair of pass rushers in the league, but the whole front seven is strong. Denzel Perryman spent much of the season on IR, but in the last five games, you can’t watch long without seeing him make a “Waterboy” type of hit.
The Chargers will break through, and in those moments, Alex Smith will be the most important player on the field. So much of his early-season success came on keeping his eyes up after breaking the pocket, and making improvisation plays.
Whatever the reason, that stopped during the slump. There were other factors, too, but that was a big one. The Chargers’ defensive backs can be had, too, so a broken play here or there could be critical.
I actually think the Chargers are the better team, particularly at the moment, but believe enough in the rhythm of the schedule and Arrowhead at night to think the Chiefs can win close.
This week’s reading recommendation is Michael Hardy on Tilman Fertitta, who bought the Rockets for $2.2 billion and is a major force in the effort to put the University of Houston into a Power Five Conference (like the Big 12). The eating recommendation is the fried chicken at Rye.
I’m glad you framed it that way, either a mirage or reason for optimism, because the temptation is to frame it as either a mirage or proof that everything is fixed.
Everything is very much not fixed.
The Chiefs lost six of seven games. Only one of those losses was to a good team. Three were against average teams, and two to rotten teams.
What the Chiefs did against an average team (that played poorly) is the equivalent of a high school kid finally making it a week without in-school suspension. It’s better than the alternative, but let’s pump the brakes on wondering if he’s getting into Harvard now.
The specifics of how the Chiefs beat the Raiders were very encouraging. The offensive line and defensive line were as good as they’ve been in quite some time, and both deserve their own paragraphs here.
Offensively, if you want it, there is reason to believe this is the beginning of a trend. Line coach Andy Heck made an overdue adjustment in simplifying scheme, eliminating a lot of the intricate footwork and complicated executions that were causing a lot of problems. Particularly on the interior, those guys were going straight ahead and gap blocking downhill. This isn’t a great offensive line, but it can be a good one with the right context.
So, that was nice.
Defensively, Chris Jones played his best game in a while. He was a star on Sunday, and maybe my expectations were unrealistic, but I thought we’d see a lot more of that this year. He’s so quick for his size, and used that to dominate a strong and big but slow Raiders line. I also thought Bob Sutton helped with some scheme wrinkles.
The defensive backs played as well as they have all year. Steven Nelson and Terrance Mitchell, in particular, were strong and fast and fearless and disruptive. Darrelle Revis was noticeably better than his season debut a week earlier.
Justin Houston led a pass rush with increased juice, and importantly, they were rushing together. It can be easy for quarterbacks — especially guys like Derek Carr, who get rid of the ball quickly — to account for one guy bringing pressure. But it becomes impossible if it’s two or three at once.
So, sure. We can look at all of that and believe the Chiefs are capable of winning playoff games.
But, aside from this being just one game after two months of failure, there are reasons to be cautious here.
Most notably, the Raiders, for whatever reason, did not look particularly interested in playing football. Bad body language, not a lot of energy. Carr missed a few easy passes that could’ve changed the game, including a bad under throw to Michael Crabtree that could’ve been a long touchdown in the third quarter. We talk a lot about Peters being suspended, but Amari Cooper was injured, so that’s a bit of a wash.
I wrote about this in the game column, but beating the Raiders meant avoiding further disaster. The standard for this season is much higher.
They’ll have to be even better against the Chargers on Saturday.
I’m actually talking myself into believing the Chiefs will win on Saturday. I believe the home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium is generally overrated, and before you @ me, understand that historically home teams win about 58 percent, which means road teams win about 42 percent. A spread of 16 percentage points.
Over the last 10 seasons, the Chiefs have won 51 percent at home and 44 percent on the road.
If you want to take Scott Pioli out of this — and I don’t blame you! — then over the last five years the Chiefs have won 71 percent of their home games and 59 percent of their road games. A spread of 12 percentage points.
So, either way, location of the game has meant less for the Chiefs than most teams.
Now, all that said, I do believe that Arrowhead at night is a little different. The Chiefs have won four straight at home in prime time. Andy Reid’s two losses under the Arrowhead lights were both against the Broncos. One came in 2014, when the Broncos were significantly better (they won the division at 12-4, the Chiefs 9-7 and out of the playoffs) and the other in 2015, when the Chiefs were in their 1-5 start, Jamaal Charles fumbled, and the Broncos ended up winning the Super Bowl.
So I think they’ll be able to find a way, and then I believe they will beat the Dolphins on Christmas Eve (hopefully in a two-hour game, so I can get home) and the Broncos on New Years Eve.
That makes the Chiefs 10-6, winners of the AFC West, with a home wild-card round game against the Jags, Ravens, Bills, Titans or Chargers.
I believe they’ll win that game, and then go to New England or Pittsburgh and lose by 17.
I believe after that Matt Nagy will get a head coaching job somewhere, replaced as offensive coordinator by Eric Bienemy, and Brett Veach will soon trade Alex Smith to the Jaguars for a third-round pick.
By the time Patrick Mahomes takes his first actual snap in 2018, I will have written 31 columns about him.
But, seriously. I’m about 59.313 percent sure about this game on Saturday, and if the Chiefs lose, everything else could change. Missing the playoffs and Mahomes starting that last game in Denver is absolutely still on the table.
Peters’ suspension meant the offensive line blocked better, Chris Jones got to the quarterback more, and Alex Smith was aggressive downfield. It all makes sense!
My man is joking in the question, and so am I, but I do want to repeat something I said on the Border Patrol yesterday: if you say out loud that the Chiefs are better without Peters you do not know how his teammates feel about him and you lose credibility.
That was a back-to-the-wall situation, and the Chiefs, in particular the defensive backs, responded. That’s great that they responded, but again, more of what they should’ve done than something they should be getting a lot of credit for.
The Chiefs will need Peters on Saturday, and not just his presence but his best. Keenan Allen is a star, fifth in the league with both 83 catches and 1,143 yards. He also doubles as perhaps Peters’ top nemesis, with the #bum tweets and Peters calling Allen his “kid.”
You think he’s going to be juiced up on Saturday, under the lights, in a de facto playoff game, against THAT guy?
We are on alert level red for a Full Marcus Peters Experience: interception, personal foul, at least one ridiculous celebration, and — I’m saying this more with my heart than my mind — perhaps a punt.
Everyone’s picked a side with Peters, which is part of why I tried to examine why the relationship is broken, and there are few better examples than how the Raiders game was going to be viewed as a failure by Peters no matter what.
Win, and people — I’m not picking on Jimmy here, there are many, many who said similar stuff, including some media folk — will say the team was somehow better without him around. That it cleared their minds, or inspired them to show they don’t need him, or something.
Lose, and it would’ve been easy to blame the absence of the team’s second-best defender in a pivotal division game.
We can all create our own narratives here.
I’m going to sound like a great-great-grandpa here, but that’s fine — one of my biggest frustrations with our current reality is that so many people are so fundamentally opposed to nuance.
Everything has to be the best, or the worst. We stake out turf and defend it no matter what, least of all facts or logic. In a simpler time, this made the Alex Smith debate so hard for a lot of us who saw him as limited but efficient, somewhere between Leader Of Men Who Only Cares About Wins and Noodle-Armed Wimp Who Should Be Replaced Immediately.
The Peters debate is the new Smith debate, only instead of being isolated to football, it’s tinged with all sorts of social and cultural implications so that many who like him assume only racists don’t, and many who don’t like him are numb to being called racist.
The truth about Peters has always been complicated. He’s a terrifically talented football player who is having the least effective of his three seasons, but is still the Chiefs’ best cornerback and leader in takeaways.
And that’s just the football part of this.
You guys know where I stand on Peters. He’s among my favorite players to watch. I admire how much he puts into his craft, but that he still keeps it in perspective in terms of what really matters to him. I believe football means as much to him as anyone in the Chiefs locker room, but that if he never played another game he’d be perfectly fine leading another life. I love the passion, the personality, the authenticity, the refusal to change.
I also recognize his flaws. He is immature, unable to filter out the emotions that fuel him, so that if you want the coverage and competitiveness and playmaking you probably have to accept a certain amount of disrespect toward coaches and personal foul penalties.
At his best, he’s in the top tier of cornerbacks, among the most effective at one of his sport’s most important positions. At his worst, he is unpredictable and unreliable.
I believe his flaws are ignored by some who love him, and his strengths diminished by some who don’t.
I also believe he’s 24 years old, and who he is now as both a man and football player isn’t necessarily who he’ll be at 26 or 28 or 32.
But I also believe that if you spend any time in the Chiefs locker room, or talk to players away from cameras about Peters, you cannot honestly think his teammates don’t like him or that the Chiefs would be better off without him.
I cannot understand how the same people who’ve spent all season complaining about Steven Nelson and especially Terrance Mitchell can now truthfully believe their team doesn’t need its best cornerback.
Peters has some immaturities, no question. He’d be a bad guy to have on a losing team, and I think some of that frustration can explain — not excuse — the end of the Jets game.
The Chiefs know him better than the rest of us, and if they believe the end of the Jets game is the beginning of an increasingly bad trend with Peters, then they can make a decision on his fifth-year option after this season.
But Peters has always been self-aware, and owns his mistakes and failings. My guess is he handles the suspension like a man, and that his competitiveness, talent, and incentive of maximizing his second contract mean he’ll be more of the All-Pro caliber corner from 2015 and 2016 than the mix we’ve seen so far in 2017.
I also think that corners are painfully difficult to find, and that if the Chiefs let him go — and they won’t, I’m just saying — after this season they’ll quickly regret it.
Like anything else, it depends where you rate him, but he’s pretty effing good, and he’s playing as well as her at the moment: 69 percent, 1,348 yards, eight touchdowns no interceptions during the Chargers’ four-game win streak.
He’s more dependent on protection than even most quarterbacks, not just because of deep threats like Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams but because he’s 36 going on 86 and can’t hurt you on the run.
This gets overstated a lot, but he’s also a stubborn competitor, and if you let him hang around he’s always dangerous late.
It’s a little bit of a short week, which always makes me think about Justin Houston’s strength, but if the Chiefs can get that pass rush going they should be able to beat the Chargers.
If they can’t, they’re going to have to do a lot of other stuff right.
RPI doesn’t mean much this time of year, but Mizzou is 2nd there, with Kansas 22nd and K-State lower than I feel like scrolling. Wichita State is 14th.
If we agree this is basically a comparison between Mizzou and KU, then KU has both the best win (Kentucky, neutral court) and worst loss (Washington, “neutral” court).
Mizzou’s best win is against St. John’s, though the Iowa State win is looking better, too. KenPom has Kansas seventh, K-State 43rd, Mizzou 52 and Wichita State fourth.
But, again. This is too early to put much into rankings. K-State looked like a mess in a loss to Tulsa in Wichita last weekend, and Kansas has some true concerns that we’ll get into soon.
This isn’t the Mizzou team we all expected, and hoped for, but if the point-guard play can continue to improve and they get enough scoring from their wings and bigs, this team can be a six seed or so that you don’t want to play.
With the notable exception of Michael Porter Jr.’s injury, most of the signs have been positive, in relation to adjust expectations. Jeremiah Tilmon is a problem, particularly on the offensive glass, and his athleticism creates easy shots in transition and helps open shooters on the outside.
Jordan Barnett can do different things, and I know it’s easy to get frustrated if a big falls in love with his jump shot, but that’s part of his game. Kevin Puryear has shown growth, and Jontay Porter is far better than I expected this early.
We’re not going to know much about Mizzou for a while. Stephen F. Austin is 9-1 against a soft schedule, Illinois is OK but not great. The SEC is better than it’s been, so that’s where the challenge will come, and the single biggest factor may be Cuonzo Martin.
I’ve always liked Cuonzo, and always respected his ability to coach. I thought this team was a particularly good fit for him, because he’s typically more effective coaching defense, and the roster he put together was more gifted on offense.
That changes with MPJ’s injury, but they’ve already shown enough to believe they can still make something positive of the season.
Say this, too: considering what he inherited, and assuming MPJ is indeed out for the season, a strong finish in the SEC would put him in the discussion for some national coach of the year awards.
I mean this sincerely, though I recognize my bias as a sports columnist in Kansas City: it’s one of my favorite things in the world that no longer playing the Border War rivalry has not actually ended the Border War rivalry.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the rivalry was about more than conference affiliation, more than some hurt feelings about one school making a move the other would’ve done, more than some nonsensical explanation about no recruiting advantage.
OK, moving on...
They do this every year, and every year they get out of it, such a predictable rhythm that one year I did a gimmick column in December set four months in the future about how silly the concern was and the Big 12 title KU would eventually win.
This year may be a little different. KU has some real issues that go deeper than even Bill Self’s annual labeling of his team as “soft.”
The margin for error with seven scholarship players is thin, and the margin with just one useful big is even thinner. Sam Cunliffe will help, though another wing scorer is not exactly what this team needs.
If Silvio De Sousa indeed gets eligible, that will be a more significant help, though Kansas still has other needs.
They are gifted offensively, especially with ball movement and execution. They’ll be able to win some games even giving up 80 points or more, but defensively they have to get better. They have to get tougher.
This is some of what Self was talking about when he said “soft,” but they just need to be more competitive. That has to start with Devonte Graham, but it’s not just on him. Lagerald Vick should be a better defender than he is. Same with Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman. Marcus Garrett has more to give.
Udoka Azubuike is critical, and he’s in a very difficult spot as the only real big, which presents an added challenge about conserving energy and avoiding foul trouble. He’s essentially being asked to burn the candle on both ends.
But short of Graham and/or Vick and/or Azubuike getting injured, nothing about KU basketball will be worth a major freakout, because these things always work out. Self is a terrific coach, who’s managed worse than this before, with less experience and scoring ability.
Well, sure, because those things are done a year ahead of time but here I go answering a technicality instead of what you’re actually asking, so...
I don’t know?
They’re going to get into conference play without a good win, which is a bad plan for a team that will probably be on or around the bubble.
The Big 12 is one of the nation’s best basketball leagues, especially if you grade by depth, so K-State will have more than enough chances at resume builders.
But they just look like a mess right now. That loss to Tulsa over the weekend was rough. Weber is supposed to be a good game coach, able to get the most out of his talent. That’s his path to success, but there was no evidence that K-State was well-coached.
You can’t go 4 for 31 on three-pointers. You just can’t. Try something different after you’re 4 for 30, you know?
But I still think this group has a chance. I believe in Xavier Sneed. Dean Wade and Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes are that junior class that has always been the key to Weber’s time at K-State.
But they’re going to have to find a way to score more consistently, to rebound better, and win games with defense and execution and togetherness.
You could say that about a lot of teams, the ones that are usually headed to a 9 seed or so.
I say this a lot, but I say it because it’s true: nobody can tell you how to be a fan. Nobody can tell you what to feel, who to be mad at, who to love. That’s up to you, and you only, and part of the fun of all of this.
All that said...
The only way I can get behind anger at Hosmer is if he takes less money to sign somewhere else.
That would be a slap.
Otherwise, the rules of his industry give him the right to sign wherever he wants, for whatever reason he wants. He can go to Miami to be home, to New York to play for the team he grew up rooting for, to San Diego for the weather, or to Chicago for the hot dogs.
I have never turned down millions of dollars, and I don’t believe anyone should expect that of anyone else.
I mean, look, I get it. Players are supposed to leave Kansas City for New York or LA. The Padres shouldn’t have more money than Kansas City, and actually, with Wil Myers comfortable at first base there are a worse baseball fit in some ways.
This week should be the beginning of some clarity with Hosmer’s future. Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani were the two biggest dominoes this offseason, so with the winter meetings this week you’d expect at the very least for the foundations of offers to top free agents like Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish to build.
My guess is still that Hosmer signs somewhere else. Six years and $130 million would be in line with how baseball is going. The Royals will do everything they can to make a competitive offer, but they’re probably going to need Hosmer to take less.
I don’t remember the last time someone did that. Zack Greinke and Mike Sweeney and Sal Perez and Danny Duffy and others have signed extensions for less than what they could’ve expected on a future open market, but that’s different than being on the open market and taking less.
I believe Hosmer has genuinely enjoyed Kansas City, but again, I don’t think any of us should expect anyone else to turn down millions of dollars.
The Royals’ path to re-signing Hosmer is, basically, the path that brought Alex Gordon back two years ago: sensible destinations have to find other fits, bringing the price down to a place the Royals can reach up and match.
Draft pick compensation could keep his offers down, so you just never know. Because in a vacuum, sure, a salary around $20 million is reasonable in the context of major league baseball. But the market is impossible to predict with any certainty.
Also, as much sense as it makes for the Royals to want Hosmer to be part of a rebuild, it still has to make sense for him. He could leave Kansas City with the clearest possible conscience, knowing he fulfilled every expectation, and achieved the ultimate goal. He’s a performer, a guy comfortable in the spotlight and pressure, so it would make sense if he wasn’t interested in another rebuild.
One of the cool things about starting a family is you get to start your own traditions, too. After the divorce, my mom started what she called Cheesy Movie Night, where we watched “Love Actually” and the Grinch and whatever else with loads of delicious and unhealthy eats like wings, queso and pigs in a blanket.
My sister and I made fun of her for it, because the first year she just acted like this was a thing we’d always done, but this year we’ll do a Cheesy Movie Night for mom and I hope we do one every year around Christmas until my last Christmas.
One of the traditions we’ve started, my wife and I, is to go cut down a tree on Black Friday. So much to like about this, in my mind. A mall or the Plaza on that day sounds like the worst place in the world, and it lets you respect Thanksgiving, and get first dibs on the good trees.
We were out of town for Thanksgiving, so didn’t get our tree until the next weekend, which drove home the importance of that last point — getting a good tree — but I hope to pack the kids in a car and play Christmas music on the way to get a real tree so long we go from them not really knowing what Christmas music is, to them loving Christmas music, to them making fun of me for being so corny, to them appreciating it again, to them not being there because they have families of their own.
If you like the fake tree, though, I can’t judge. I get it. The convenience, the ease, the cost, the cleanliness. I mean, sure, there’s an appeal there.
But we all have our traditions, right?
This is going to sound corny, but the first favorite Christmas memory that comes to mind was being snowed in at my grandparents in Chicago.
I might’ve been the only one who liked it, but I’d never seen this much snow, and for some reason it felt exciting. Felt like a movie, like news. I can’t remember exactly how much snow there was, but in my mind it was like a hundred feet. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it was enough that the streets — and remember, this is Chicago, they’ve seen some stuff — were basically shut down.
Since we couldn’t go out and do anything, my parents let us open a few gifts a day or two early, and I have to stress that NEVER happened. Once in a while, they’d let us open ONE gift on Christmas Eve, but it was always pajamas or something. When we were snowed in, we got to open actual toys. It felt like Christmas lasted longer that year.
I think we’re all dated by our favorite gift growing up, and in that way mine is perfectly appropriate: Nintendo NES, the 8-bit, the one that came with the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge.
I’m pretty sure my parents instantly regretted giving me that, because I don’t know that I turned it off for more than a few minutes over the next calendar year.
And that was even before I got Tecmo Bowl.
Got curious, and looked this up. Over the last 10 years, the Chiefs are tied for 19th with 75 wins. That’s about where I would’ve guessed, though it probably won’t encourage you to know they’re tied with the Dolphins, 49ers and Jets.
My number on this is going to be lower than most, perhaps, just because I think 10 years is way too long to say “definitely” anything in the NFL.
A lot of this is about the quarterback, obviously, and if those of us who believe Patrick Mahomes will be a star are right, then the Chiefs should find their way into the top 10. It’s not quite that simple, but might be worth noting that this is Matt Ryan’s 10th season, and the Falcons are tied for fourth in wins over the last decade.
If Mahomes is the truth, then I do believe the Chiefs will be in the top 10 over the next decade, but it’s impossible to know who would be there with them. Tom Brady can’t play forever, I don’t think, no matter how much he believes in that snake oil.
If you bet on organizations, instead of the short view, you’d say the Patriots, Steelers, and Broncos, but who will be their quarterbacks?
So, I’m saying the Chiefs will be No. 7 in wins over the next decade, because I think Mahomes will be great, and I wouldn’t say any single team will “definitely” be in that top six.
Also, if Mahomes stinks, they might be 27th or something.
I love the hire.
My guy Dirkness was the first I saw to point this out, but Frost won a national championship as a college quarterback, played in the NFL as a defensive back, was a co-defensive coordinator and coached linebackers at Northern Iowa, coached receivers and was offensive coordinator at Oregon, and took a team from 0-12 to 12-0 as a head coach.
That is an absurd resume, even if you discount that he played at Nebraska, and is from there.
Assuming he can recruit — and I assume he can — he’s the perfect hire.
Now, all that said, no, I do not think there’s a national title in the near future.
This is probably dumb to say, because it’s too general and blanket, but I just don’t think national titles can happen at Nebraska anymore. Sorry, I just don’t. The recruiting base isn’t there, and I’m not sure they can supplement with speed the way they used to.
I hope, though, that the last two decades or so have shown Nebraska fans that times are different. Expectations should adjust.
But first, a disclaimer: I actually don’t read a lot of sports books, and lately, I haven’t many books, period. Dang kids. I also might be forgetting something, but these are the first 10 that come to mind, so I figure that’s a pretty good place to start.
10. The Fight, by Norman Mailer. Legendary writer with essentially unlimited access to one of America’s all-time greatest athletes leading up one of the great fights in history.
9. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. Absolutely thrilling and terrifying book. Incredibly well told.
8. The Soul of Baseball, by Joe Posnanski. Such a fun read, and a perfect marriage of writer and subject.
7. Sweetness, by Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman has a string of best sellers, and I think most people would pick The Bad Guys Won or Boys Will Be Boys as his best, but I was always into Walter Payton as a kid. Loved the completeness, the honesty, of this book.
6. Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer. As much a war book as a sports book, but Pat Tillman’s life and story has always been endlessly fascinating to me. This isn’t the story we all wanted to happen, but it’s the true story, and so powerful.
5. Friday Night Lights, by Buzz Bissinger. All-time classic. I think I’m the only person in the world who never watched the TV show.
4. A Season on the Brink, by John Feinstein. Pretty sure this book influenced my love of college basketball, and desire to be a sports writer.
3. Dream Team, by Jack McCallum. Everything I ever wanted to know about what might be the best and most unforgettable team of my life.
2. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer. Sort of like Sweetness, this book takes a sports hero and shows all the flaws and all the humanity, which makes me appreciate them even more.
1. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. Might be a stretch to call this a sports book, but Louie Zamperini ran in the Olympics, and this is the best book I’ve ever read in my life so it’s on the list.
This week, and speaking of books, I’m particularly grateful for Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968 and Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary. I’m only about halfway through the documentary, but along with the book I feel like I have a much better understanding of everything that went into such a major part of American history and a war my dad was in.