The taillights tell the story. They always do.
You started to see them in the second quarter, then a steady flow at halftime and more as the night grew longer and colder. This is what Chiefs failure at Arrowhead Stadium always looks like, cars full of fans bailing on their team early, and why not?
The Chiefs — particularly on a night this cold and windy — were not worth their fans’ time. Not on a Sunday night, and not when the team goes limp in an awful way, and at an infuriating time.
The Chiefs lost 29-16 to the Broncos in front of a sellout crowd and millions more on a national broadcast. At various times, they appeared ill-prepared (that’s on the coaches), outmuscled (that’s on the players) and devoid of passion until it was too late (that’s on everyone). It was all made worse with a touch of bad luck, but at this level, you’re responsible for your own luck.
“There were no positives out there,” tight end Travis Kelce says.
This loss shifts their season.
This is two straight games the Chiefs opened as if they were confused about the kickoff time. They nearly made up for it against the Raiders, and did enough in the second half against the Broncos that some of those taillights might have felt a tinge of regret. For a moment.
This was the Chiefs’ most winnable — or is it least unwinnable? — game against Denver since Peyton Manning’s arrival. But the Chiefs would’ve had to be very good, and instead they played the way they did against the Titans. Or the first half against the Raiders.
“We’ve stalled these last two weeks,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says.
Being a sports fan means inviting unnecessary frustration into your life, of course, but this one stings a bit more because of the context. The Chiefs had an extra three days to prepare for this, and should have carried the productive anger that comes from losing to the awful Raiders.
Instead, they turned in the kind of effort you might expect in July in St. Joseph on what has become the league’s showcase TV slot.
The loss to the Raiders didn’t have to doom the Chiefs, but combined with this loss to the Broncos their season is in the process of being defined.
Instead of a first-place tie with Denver in the division and a wild-card cushion to land on, the Chiefs are now in third place in the AFC West and effectively three games behind the Broncos with four to play. Worse, they’re in the middle of a congested web of pseudo-contenders for the two wild card spots, nobody to blame but their own fading selves for this precarious spot.
The Chiefs walked off the field and into their locker rooms as not just the losers of two straight division games, but now needing a stark turnaround for one of the AFC’s last two playoff positions.
They are a game behind the Chargers, and with the same 7-5 record as the Bills, Steelers, Browns and Ravens. If the Dolphins beat the sorry Jets Monday night, that will make six AFC teams tied at 7-5.
The Chiefs would have the tie breaker against the Bills and Dolphins, and will play the Steelers and Chargers, but there are too many teams and factors involved to get caught up with such minutiae at this point.
The bigger problem is of the Chiefs’ own doing. They worked so hard, and went so creative to make up for that 0-2 start with a surge that put them in clear control of a playoff spot and a shot at unseating the Broncos in the division.
But they’ve undone two months of good with two weeks of bad. Reid and his assistants have been scheming around untrustworthy pass protection all season but didn’t have answers for their second look at the Broncos’ talented pass rushers.
The receivers’ inability to get open even against single coverage is becoming more and more of a problem each week, the answers on how to attack a flawed Chiefs offense — focus on Jamaal Charles, dare Alex Smith to throw deep and exploit the offensive line — becoming clearer and clearer.
The defense has done its part these last two games, too, most glaringly in a complete inability to stop the run. Nobody wants to hear excuses about Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito being out, legitimate as that might be, and it’s worth noting that the Chiefs have now given up 386 yards rushing the last two weeks against teams in the bottom half of the league in yards per carry.
For as hard to figure out as the Chiefs have been over the first three-quarters of this season, certain truths have been clear for a while.
The offensive line and receivers are problems, the defense has to generate a pass rush to be successful, and the roster is not nearly talented enough to absorb lapses of focus or execution.
The Chiefs have had far too many of those lapses these last two weeks, which is all it takes to shift the trajectory of their season.
They entered that Raiders’ game as perhaps the hottest team in the league, and now limp out of (another) loss to the Broncos desperate to remain in the playoff picture.
They could have kept most of their problems hidden by beating the Raiders, and could have fixed some by beating the Broncos.
Instead, they have been exposed two weeks in a row in prime-time, nationally broadcast, standalone time slots.
Their attempt to make it stop comes next week, on the road, against a team that hasn’t lost all year at home.