The Cleveland Browns are an abject mess. We know this for many reasons, not the least of which is that we are in Kansas City, so we know how to spot an abject mess of a professional football team.
These Browns have all the familiar symptoms. No real quarterback. One of the NFL’s worst offenses, perfectly balanced by one of the league’s worst defenses. The coach appears lost, resigned to being fired before the first sunrise after their last game. Some believe he was auditioning for a TV job when a silly controversy came of him saying Russell Wilson wasn’t a top-tier quarterback before the Browns lost to the Seahawks last week.
They have lost blowouts and they have lost in overtime and they have lost in the most excruciating way possible, with their biggest rival blocking a last-second field goal and returning it for the winning touchdown on national TV. They are a big enough mess that two players were arrested on Christmas day, though not, apparently, a big enough mess for Dwayne Bowe to play. But that’s a different story.
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The point here is that this is one of those sad Browns teams that defines a lost franchise not up to what their fans deserve and, for our purposes here in Kansas City, another in a long line of inferior opponents for the Chiefs. A win on Sunday — even a blowout win — would be largely met with eye rolls and apathy by the bigger football world.
This is A Thing now. The Chiefs have not lost since a bizarre game in a college stadium in the middle of the October. That’s a span of eight wins, from Europe to the West Coast, a stunning turnaround that has made fans go from wondering whether the franchise needed a leadership change to a growing confidence that a 22-year drought of playoff wins will finally end.
But those eight consecutive wins come with a qualifier, if you are inclined to look for qualifiers. Only two of the Chiefs’ last eight opponents are likely playoff teams, and each of those wins can be diminished — the Steelers played with their third-string quarterback, and the Broncos were ambushed by Peyton Manning’s body giving out.
So the skepticism comes like this: how much should we be impressed by the Chiefs rolling through the NFL’s equivalent of the Sun Belt Conference?
The answer may surprise you.
First, let us begin by agreeing that it is not the Chiefs’ fault that the schedule opened up. This is not college football. You play who’s in front of you.
The Chiefs have outscored their last eight opponents by 140 points, an average of 17.5 per game. That’s a larger margin of victory than any team over a 16-game season other than the 2007 Patriots and 1999 Rams. More to the point, this season, no team in the NFL has a larger point differential since week seven than the Chiefs.
That includes the undefeated Panthers, who have the second biggest differential over that period and played one more game. The Seahawks are third on the list and 7-1 over that stretch, but even if you take out the one loss, their average margin of victory is smaller than the Chiefs.
If we punish the Chiefs for a soft schedule, it’s worth noting the Chiefs have beaten the same number of teams that entered this week’s games with winning records as the Seahawks (two) and more than the Panthers (one).
Compare the Chiefs to the AFC’s best teams. The Broncos have beaten four teams with winning records, the Steelers and Bengals three, and the Patriots two. Not a huge difference, particularly when you consider the Broncos’ recent struggles.
There is something to be said for beating teams badly, too. Nobody cares about style points, but the biggest margin of loss for the Lions, Steelers, Broncos and Chargers was to the Chiefs.
Recent NFL history is full of teams that struggled at some point during the season before finding the best version of themselves and winning playoff games. Last year, the Colts gave up a total of 93 points in two losses, then won seven of their last eight before losing in the AFC championship game. The year before, the Chargers were 5-7 before winning their next five, including a playoff game.
The Chiefs have been on the other side of this, of course. Two seasons ago, they won their first nine before losing six of their last eight, including that disastrous playoff game in Indianapolis. The season opening win streak including a line of bad opponents and backup quarterbacks, so the final trajectory was not a complete surprise.
Maybe the same will be said of this team someday, that the success was about poor competition and luck, but there are a few important differences. First, the 2013 team did not blow out bad teams. That team beat the backup quarterbacked Texans and Browns — who would finish 6-26 between them — by a total of seven points, both at Arrowhead. The Cowboys were 8-8 that year — perfectly mediocre — and lost by one at Arrowhead.
Also, even if you dismiss the value of momentum and building confidence from two months of winning, the way the Chiefs have come to this point is important. They have reinvented themselves in some ways, most notably on offense, by better featuring Jeremy Maclin, finally finding the best combination of offensive linemen, and figuring out how to minimize the absence of Jamaal Charles.
They are also winning without some key players who should be healthy if they make the playoffs. Justin Houston is the team’s best overall player, and the most obvious example of this. But Tamba Hali’s injury should be short-term, Mike DeVito returned last week, De’Anthony Thomas returned to practice this week, and every day that passes is presumably a day closer to the return of Husain Abdullah.
None of this guarantees a thing, of course. Over the last two decades, the Chiefs have been creative in finding ways to turn optimism into the setup for letdown. The proof will come in the playoffs, or not.
Another inferior opponent comes to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, and the easy thing is to say the Chiefs have nothing to gain. But for eight straight games, they’ve been making enormous gains in games just like this.
They can’t control the schedule. But for the last two months, the Chiefs have been doing exactly what playoff winners would do.