The locker room here is cramped and leaky and feels a little like a dungeon, but none of that matters at the moment because the Chiefs have won again. So a rap song blares off the concrete walls and most of the team’s defensive backs dance or bob their heads or sing along. This is a celebration, and it’s one this team has usually not been good enough to have.
Marcus Peters is talking about a life goal achieved, of playing an NFL game in his hometown. Sean Smith is asking for a shoutout during his friend’s TV interview, and calling the Chiefs “the most dramatic team in the NFL.” He looks around to his teammates and smiles.
“We’ll never just win easy,” he says.
Maybe and maybe not, but nobody in this room really cares, because the Chiefs beat the Raiders 34-20 on Sunday and the details just make for a better story. They have not lost in 49 days, a stretch of seven consecutive wins, long enough to steer a lost season toward the playoffs. For the second week in a row, there is a case to be made that the Chiefs just turned in their most impressive win of the season.
They should have lost this one. They were outgained by 129 yards, committed 11 penalties and made some aggravating mistakes of lost focus and composure. In the last five seasons, only 13 of 110 teams to gain so few yards and give up so many won their games. None of the winners committed this many penalties.
We can keep this about results, and say the Chiefs won because Alex Smith protected the football and because the defense made three game-changing plays — returning three interceptions a total of 162 yards, which actually matched Smith’s passing yards — and shut down the run in the second half and did other football things well.
Or we could talk about something bigger, something harder to define, but something nonetheless critical for the Chiefs to win the most difficult game remaining on their schedule. They never quit, they stayed aggressive and they maintained confidence.
Of all the things the Chiefs have changed since coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey replaced Romeo Crennel and Scott Pioli, the most important is a broken culture. There is virtually no chance that any team in recent history had the fortitude to win a game like this, against mistakes, with offensive linemen in positions they’d never played, with their best player hurt, and in a place where even bad teams have beaten the Chiefs before.
“Probably not,” Eric Berry said. “We’ve probably lost some in the past like that. We’ve got a lot of guys, been through a lot of things, and we just keep going, keep believing something is going to go our way.”
This is a flawed team, obviously, particularly on offense. For a while on Sunday, Jeremy Maclin was essentially their only option. Smith’s first six passes went his way. His seventh went to a man out of the backfield because everyone else was covered. At one point, their defense was on the field so long they had to change their entire front on the fly.
The Chiefs rely largely on deception to give their outmanned offensive line an edge, and are more dependent than most teams on avoiding the mistakes and unlucky bounces that lead to turnovers. They use defense to win games in a league tilted toward offense.
The Chiefs are a team that once lost five straight — not to mention their most dynamic playmaker, Jamaal Charles. But they will be favored by perhaps as much as a touchdown in each of their remaining four games.
“We believe in what we’re doing the entire time,” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “Things aren’t always going the way we planned, but we keep playing. That’s something our coach has instilled in our culture. They’re going to make plays. Somehow, we have to make plays.”
Some of this is luck, of course, but some of it reflects a group that genuinely cares for each other and has been together long enough to learn a brutal game’s rhythms, taking advantage of the league’s general unpredictability and small margins between winners and losers. They say that more NFL games are lost than won, and the Chiefs play in a way that allows and encourages the other side to make mistakes.
As it currently stands, the Chiefs are in position for the AFC’s first wild card, with the tiebreaker over each of the six most likely contenders. It is a remarkable turnaround, one built on so many factors, from fortune to belief to strategy to a growing understanding of what they do and don’t do well.
The Chiefs aren’t as explosive as the Bengals, or as experienced as the Patriots, or as laden with playmaking stars as the Broncos. They have a plan for winning that feels entirely unsustainable, except, you look around and this team hasn’t lost since before the Game 3 of the ALCS. Yes, Kansas City has watched one team rewrite a sorry franchise history with a plan that went directly against its sport’s conventional wisdom.
The Chiefs’ last playoff win is more than two decades old, and the way this is going it is impossible not to wonder if this could finally be the year. You can find a dozen reasons, at least, to doubt. But no matter what, the most dramatic team in the NFL will make it fun to find out.