Tamba Hali wears a hoodie, gold headphones, and an easy smile as he walks toward the exit of the Chiefs locker room. He is done with the game and the win and the interviews and everything else. There are few things better than being an NFL star walking away from a victory and into the night, and Hali is behind the corner, gone, but now he stops. Off come the headphones. He peeks back, still smiling, and looks down the row of lockers where the defensive backs sit.
“We eating this week?” he says.
“Yeah!” yells Eric Berry.
“Thanksgiving, man, we didn’t get together last week,” Hali says.
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“Yeah, sushi,” Marcus Peters says, nodding his head. “Let's get sushi.”
It is a decidedly small moment, over in maybe 10 seconds, and mostly drowned out by the rest of a happy locker room after the Chiefs beat the Bills 30-22 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday in what is probably their most impressive win of a suddenly promising season.
But it does speak to something important. The Chiefs, once losers of five in a row, are now winners of five in a row. They are 6-5, on the good side of a muddy AFC playoff picture, so soon after being left for dead by anyone operating more on logic than faith.
We’ve seen this team quit before. We’ve seen a lot of these same guys on Chiefs teams that have quit against challenges similar or even softer than starting 1-5. This particular group has proven itself different in a subtle but absolutely critical way.
Those past teams — the quitters — have been defined by unstable leadership, and locker room bickering often fueled by 53 different sets of priorities. There were guys in the locker room who believed coaches played politics, and followed orders from above to prop up or suppress the success of certain players, and whether they were right or wrong the situation was fundamentally broken and untenable.
Guys came in, put in their work, and then got the heck out. They were not teammates. They were co-workers. They did not smile at each other and make plans for sushi, in other words.
“We’re just a close bunch,” Hali says. “We rally around each other. We know how good we are. When we play together, it’s hard to beat us.”
That resolve has been tested, and tested to an extreme degree. They lost the first Broncos game on Jamaal Charles’ fumble, and there are some in the locker room who believe that moment was so devastating it led to more losing. They blew a 14-point lead against the Bears, after Charles’ knee tore, and then lost in Minnesota when their own lineman accidentally knocked the ball out of their running back’s hands.
Those are the kinds of things that can bury a team, especially in the NFL, where the margins are so small, and, yes, Chiefs seasons in the past have been buried under less. Instead, this group has not lost or turned the ball over since that day in Minnesota six weeks ago.
This is no small thing, and no matter what happens the rest of the way, it deserves to be applauded. For most of the last two decades, the Chiefs have given their fans much more disappointment than happiness. Being a Chiefs fan has meant enjoying the pregame tailgate because it might be the day’s highlight.
This particular group, at least in this specific way, is showing itself to be the exception.
“I’ve been in this league long enough to know, if you win in November and December, you give yourself a chance,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said.
That’s more than a cliche. It’s a lesson Johnson has learned here. In the 10 seasons from 2005 to 2014, the Chiefs went 36-37 in September and October. Then they finished 32-58. This season, the Chiefs were 2-5 when October ended. They are 4-0 since.
Beating Buffalo is the season highlight so far. The win in Houston was wiped away by five straight losses. The Steelers played their third-string quarterback. The Lions are terrible. The Broncos were stung by the worst game of Peyton Manning’s professional life. The Chargers played terribly.
In the Bills, the Chiefs faced a fellow playoff contender, with good personnel, at or near full strength. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor made several throws for which there is no adequate defense, and receiver Sammy Watkins did the same with at least a couple of catches. The Bills led 10-0 after the first quarter, and the cold and the rain and injuries to Justin Houston and Eric Fisher made it hard not to think about the Chiefs generally being good with a lead and lousy from behind.
But they just kept making plays. Alex Smith threw deep, Jeremy Maclin made terrific catches, Hali beat his man for the strip sack, Johnson beat blockers and stuffed the run, Spencer Ware continued to run as hard as any back in the league, and Travis Kelce beat and ran away from a cornerback on a particularly spectacular play.
They were, to put it another way, the kinds of plays the Chiefs have consistently failed to make in games they’ve consistently failed to win in the past. This is a break from character, and for fans who’ve put up with far too much letdown over the years, much welcomed.
They won this game by coming back when they haven’t in the past, and by being tougher than a team whose identity revolves around being tough, and it is hard to imagine this being possible without a sincere belief in themselves and a genuine care for each other.
“A lot of us have been through a lot of different things, on and off the field,” safety Eric Berry said. “We bring those experiences to the field, and just keep pushing on it. We know something’s going to crack.”
The Chiefs should be a playoff team. That’s something we haven’t been able to say much. They are one of five 6-5 teams in the AFC, tied for the second wild card, and at the moment own the tiebreaker against each.
Their remaining schedule includes only teams with losing records. The most difficult game left is next week at Oakland. Ten wins is a decent bet. Eleven remains a possibility. If the Chiefs make the playoffs, it would be the first time this century they made two postseasons in three years. If you want to dream big, the AFC West is not out of the question.
“We’re proud of where we are,” Kelce said. “But we still know where we want to go.”
On that last point, the outlook has not changed much. This is a team that’s talked of championships, and been open about aiming for a Super Bowl. With injuries, a shaky offensive line, and too much reliance on ball security and defense, it’s hard to see the Chiefs winning a playoff game without the right matchup. And it’s very hard to see them advancing past the divisional round, regardless of matches.
But those are laments for another day. Not now, after their best win of the year. Not now, as a season once packed with failure is now defined by more than a month straight of success.