The Chiefs won an NFL game, which is a rare thing, and they clinched a playoff spot, which is even rarer. Bless their hearts, they even tried to enjoy it. There was smiling and high-fiving and a little screaming and their head coach — a mustached grandfather — even did the dab.
You know, like the kids do.
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So, don’t read this to say the Chiefs were angry or upset after they beat the Browns 17-13 on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
It’s just that, well, maybe “beat the Browns” is the wrong way to put it. The Chiefs did not lose to the Browns. You know that saying, may the better man win? This was more like, may the worse man lose.
You could see it in the body language after the game, even from a group that just became the second team in NFL history to go from 1-5 to the playoffs. They had a big celebration in the first moments back in the locker room, but after that, they sure acted like a group that just found out the postgame meal was catered by Subway.
“I mean, yeah, we got a win,” running back Charcandrick West said. “But there’s more to come. We’re a better team than we just played.”
Basically, the Chiefs know two things now that they did not know when they woke up on Sunday.
First, they’re in the playoffs.
And second, once there, they will have to play much better than this: outgained by 110 yards against a bottom-feeding team that had no obvious intention of winning in a game unsecured until the Browns went full Browns and could not get a final play off.
Yeah. If you are the type of person inclined to worry, you will note that the Raiders next week and whoever the opponent is the week after that — could be Houston, could be Denver, could be the Jets, could be Pittsburgh, could even be Indianapolis — would love for the Chiefs to play like they did against the Browns, particularly in the second half.
And, let’s be honest. The last two decades of Chiefs history have given fans plenty of reason to be inclined to worry.
“We have our sights set a little higher than that,” receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “We know we can play better. That’s what it is. Our expectations. I don’t think we met our expectations today.”
Let’s acknowledge the obvious. The Chiefs are likely to play better than this, in part because we have two full months of evidence that they are better than this. They have been doing more than just winning. They have been, mostly, beating the bejesus out of teams. Even after this, the Chiefs’ average margin of victory during this streak is 16 points.
There is no such thing as style points in the NFL, no playoff selection committee to impress, and there are several reasons to forget the way this win came and focus solely on the fact of this win’s existence.
Most obviously, the Chiefs played the Browns without Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. One is their best overall player, the other the soul of the defense, and without either the Browns took advantage of the Chiefs’ inability to rush the passer or control the edges.
Get one of them back and the strategy changes significantly. Get both back and the Chiefs are again one of the league’s hardest defenses to solve.
Johnny Manziel — at this point a terrific athlete and a fairly unimpressive quarterback — would have a much more difficult time scrambling against two of the game’s better pass rushers.
But there is more to it than that. Or, at least, there was against the Browns. The Chiefs have a tendency to go ultraconservative with leads, but they slipped in the second half. They did not protect a lead here as much as they ducked and protected their heads. It shouldn’t have been this difficult.
For all of his talent with his legs, Manziel completed just 13 of 32 passes, many of which never had a chance, and were thrown with terrible footwork. The Chiefs gained just 58 yards after halftime against the league’s No. 26 defense. Manziel missed a few opportunities for good plays, and the Browns gifted the Chiefs a 40-yard pass interference penalty.
Here is the complete list of other teams to score fewer than 24 points against the Browns: Titans, 49ers.
“We have to do better,” center Mitch Morse said.
“It’s an execution thing,” tight end Travis Kelce said.
“It was all on us,” West said. “We gotta play better.”
Other than the presumed return of Houston and Hali, that attitude is the biggest reason to believe in this group. There are a thousand things that can derail a football team, and a million things that can derail a 1-5 football team.
The Chiefs pushed through, winning when only their most dedicated fans were paying attention, their big hopes diminished to the point of a daily microfocus that ignores the grander challenge in favor of overcoming the immediate obstacle. Among the defining characteristics of this team are resiliency, stubbornness and focus. They showed that last trait again after they had officially saved a once-lost season.
Making the playoffs is great.
But winning in the playoffs is better.
Before this season started, back when the players slept in St. Joseph and the season was nothing but possibilities, the Chiefs talked a lot about big goals. Playoffs. Playoff wins. The Super Bowl. This was the third year of Andy Reid’s time in charge, and linebacker Derrick Johnson has said it’s the best roster he’s played on in 11 seasons. The confidence was earned.
For a long time, that all felt like the setup for a bad joke. So now that they have accomplished something real, it’s worth noticing that they appear entirely unimpressed by their rise from the rubble. That was never the thing. Wasn’t then, and isn’t now.
The Chiefs have bigger goals, which is one of the better reasons to believe they can accomplish them.