There is no such thing as a bad NFL win, or maybe the better way to say it is that even a bad win is pretty good, the same way that a bad piece of pizza is still pretty good.
So, in that context, the Chiefs’ seventh straight win is like a microwave pizza, or a slice from the grade-school lunch room. You’re not going to remember it, but you’re also no longer hungry.
That’s how it felt watching live, anyway, the Chiefs eking out a 10-3 win over the dead-end Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday despite eight penalties and losing in turnovers for the first time since Oct. 4.
The Chiefs won the game, and that’s the most important thing, but their incredible season turnaround has made this more about advancing in the playoffs than merely getting there, so the way they win is also important. Or, again, at least that’s how it felt watching live, as the offense struggled (for the second week in a row) and the win was more about the opponent’s inadequacies (for the second week in a row).
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But it doesn’t matter what the sportswriter thinks about that, of course. It matters what the players doing the blocking and throwing and tackling think.
And this is where you really start to feel optimistic about a team that was once 1-5 and lost, but is now 8-5 and in a strong position for the first wild card (and an increasingly favorable matchup in that first playoff game).
The Chiefs just won after the defense survived a final Chargers drive that started on their own 11, included three fourth-down conversions, and stretched within a yard of the end zone before dying on a throw to a running back who was well covered but could’ve still made the catch.
An NFL locker room after a game is one of the most emotional and transparent workplaces in sports. Football is a tempestuous pursuit, a week’s worth of grinding and fears tested in front of thousands, with livelihoods and reputations in the balance. A losing locker room can feel like a funeral. A winning locker room can feel like a bachelor party.
This locker room felt a little like a Monday morning staff meeting. Nobody was upset, really, but there was a noticeable lack of celebration beyond a collective pride for the best game of Dee Ford’s professional career.
“Even though they didn’t score, I feel like we didn’t play up to our standards,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “That game should’ve been closed out as soon as they got the ball for that last drive. They never should’ve got that far. That’s no disrespect to them. That’s just me speaking on how much talent we have on this defense. It never should’ve come down to that.”
The truth is in the middle there somewhere, but whether the Chiefs are able to turn their current promise into January results will be tied to where they are mentally.
Turning a five-game losing streak into a seven-game winning streak is a remarkable accomplishment, and impossible without a confluence of strong coaching, stable player leadership, common goals and talent.
Even so, it’s been easy to find ways to doubt this group’s ability to end the franchise’s 22-year drought of playoff success. At various times during this winning streak, I’ve been close to writing a column saying that the regular-season success is nice, but this team just isn’t good enough to win in the playoffs. Each time, the Chiefs have done just enough to keep me from going out on that ledge, and I’m glad they did.
That column could be written after this latest win, too. The Chargers are a bad team, and the Chiefs’ winning has coincided with the schedule softening.
Their offense was flat, and like Smith said, the defense was not as good as the score indicates. Malcom Floyd dropped an easy touchdown pass that — if everything else was the same — would’ve allowed the Chargers to kick a short field goal for the win on that last drive. Also, King Dunlap, the Chargers’ starting left tackle, missed most of the game because of an injury and his replacement, Chris Hairston, had an absolute nightmare.
So you can still go negative. You can still find reason for pessimism, and the Chiefs’ last two decades have done nothing to make you optimistic.
But there is a spirit about this team that is hard to dismiss. Jamaal Charles, their most dynamic offensive player is out for the year, and they somehow improved. Justin Houston, their best overall player, has basically missed all of the last three games and they’ve given up a total of 45 points.
Some of this can be explained by schemes, and by personnel, but some of it requires another element. This team has a stubborn confidence and relentless drive.
It is sometimes said that coming back from a deficit can require so much energy that a team is left exhausted, and unable to maintain its lead. That can be true in the broader look, too, of a team making a late run that leaves it drained.
That could still be the case with these Chiefs, of course. They have three games left before the playoffs, assuming they get there. But if this was a group that had that in it, Sunday would’ve been a good time to be thrilled with the win and ignore the details.
For the most part, they did the opposite. It wasn’t just Sean Smith.
Alex Smith talked about the offense’s missed chances. Dontari Poe talked of the break on Floyd’s drop. Jaye Howard talked about missing Houston, and of a group coming together to make up the difference. Andy Reid talked of finding ways to lose games like this in the past. Derrick Johnson talked about knowing the team has not “arrived.”
Pleased with the win, but focused on the ways they can improve.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” Sean Smith said. “The win is definitely the goal. But us being as good as we are on defense, we have standards. And I don’t think we met those standards there in the fourth quarter.”
We’re all just guessing to an answer that will come soon enough. But that attitude is as good a reason as any to (finally) think the best when the Chiefs reach the playoffs.