Albert Lewis is a fan, even now, 17 years after his last NFL game, and of course he follows the Chiefs closely because how could he not? He played most of his 16 seasons and 225 games in a red helmet with an arrowhead on the sides. His name is spelled in bold black letters inside Arrowhead Stadium, forever a member of the Chiefs' ring of honor.
Football is a business, he likes to say, so he does not come to this as a blind fan but there is a little more pride in his voice when he talks about his favorite former employer. Especially now, nine wins deep into a franchise-changing win streak. He says it's largely the same feeling whether you're a fan, player, former player or, it seems, a former player who now coaches for perhaps the game's top Super Bowl contender.
Like, Kevin Ross, who shared a defensive backfield with Lewis in Kansas City and now coaches cornerbacks for the Cardinals.
"We had a conversation about this the other day," Lewis said. "He said, 'Man, the team that people don't want to play is the Chiefs.'"
A caveat: nothing in American sports promotes overreaction like football, and especially in the NFL, games are won and seasons are lost on a razor's edge. The conversation around the Chiefs would be different if, for instance, Danny Woodhead caught that final pass at Arrowhead or if the Browns had completed that comeback instead of going all Browns.
But results matter, and by now the Chiefs have a tall enough stack of irrefutable results that they have not only changed their season and perhaps the futures of some coaches, but they've changed the look, feel and even the odds of the AFC playoffs.
Because a conspiracy of favorable external context (top teams appearing vulnerable) and internal fortitude (one of the greatest in-season turnarounds in NFL history) has reshaped the way the AFC will be decided.
Going into week 7, the Chiefs were a 300:1 longshot to win the Super Bowl, according to Bovada. Only the Ravens, Bears, Browns and Jaguars had worse odds. Now, the Chiefs are a 14:1 bet. Only the Patriots and Broncos have better odds among AFC teams. Football Outsiders' leading metric has the Chiefs as second in overall team efficiency, and first among AFC teams.
This is more than a market correction. The closer you look at both the Chiefs and the teams they'll compete against, the better you feel about their chances to win a playoff game for the first time in 22 years, and possibly more.
Some of this is the simple logic that most of the reasons to doubt the Chiefs are buried under more than two months of nothing but success. They are giving up 13.2 points per game since week 5. Since the turn of the century, only five teams have been more effective defensively. Two of them made their conference championship games. A third was the 2000 Ravens, the Super Bowl champions and one of the best defenses of all time.
Quoting statistics like this can be notoriously misleading, and in this particular case the stretch used coincides with a severe drop-off in competition. So dismiss if you'd like.
But it also lines up with the Chiefs becoming more of what they now are. They played the first three games without top cornerback Sean Smith (who is allowing only 51.4 percent of his targets to be completed, according to Pro Football Focus). Dontari Poe, recovering from back surgery, went from playing less than 60 percent of the total snaps the first three weeks to about 80 percent in the 12 games since.
Similarly, Eric Berry (Hodgkin lymphoma) and Derrick Johnson (ruptured Achilles) have played faster and stronger as the season has progressed, and Marcus Peters has gone from good to great in the second half.
What's more, the Chiefs have played much of the last two months without Justin Houston (their best overall player) and Husain Abdullah (severely underrated and under appreciated). They played last week without Houston and Tamba Hali. All three players should be back for the playoffs.
The NFL has long marketed and valued offense over defense, but half of the last 10 Super Bowl teams have ranked either first or second in points allowed. Only three have ranked in the top five in points scored. Even with that rotten start, and basically five straight games without Houston, the Chiefs rank second in points allowed.
What's more, the Chiefs have scored six touchdowns on defense, meaning the opposition is averaging just 15.2 net points per game with its offense on the field. No team in the league has been better and, again, that includes the Chiefs' terrible first month.
The Chiefs' offense is not as good as the defense, but its also much better than most casual fans probably realize. They are ninth in the league in points, and tied for ninth in yards per play, seventh in percentage of drives ending in points, and first in fewest turnovers.
Their offense is likely better than the tropes about Alex Smith's arm and Andy Reid's clock management allow, too.
In particular with Smith, the common criticisms and institutionalized doubts are both mostly earned but also a bad fit for how he has performed since October.
Smith has played three playoff games in his career. He beat Drew Brees in a shootout, was kneecapped by special teams mistakes in a loss to a defense that beat Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and won the Super Bowl, and threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns in a loss in which he played without Jamaal Charles and a starting receiver and still scored 44 points.
By virtually any measure, Smith is playing better than ever. He already has set career highs in yards, advanced metrics like Total Quarterback Rating have him on a career-best path, and studies of his play show more comfort and willingness to throw deep. In addition to all of that, he is one of the game's best running quarterbacks. His 437 yards rank fourth, and his 5.8 yards per rush average is higher than Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. Thirty-two of his 76 rushes have resulted in first downs or touchdowns, including 17 of 26 on third or fourth down.
Here's a sentence you didn't expect to be true: with the Steelers a relative longshot to make the playoffs, Alex Smith could be the best quarterback in the AFC postseason after Tom Brady.
This is not hyperbole.
His health, career postseason record and recent performance are all better than Andy Dalton. Denver's quarterback situation is a weekly soap opera, and Houston's is as bad as any playoff team in recent history. Ryan Fitzpatrick is having a very good season, and the Jets' receivers are better than the Chiefs', but he is also Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Wider comparisons of the Chiefs and their postseason competition are similar, and without the stink of their franchise's sorry playoff record, the reasons that Ross and others around the league see the Chiefs as so dangerous would be easier to see.
There are no perfect teams. The Patriots have Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski but little else. They've suffered an astounding number of injuries, and gave up 65 points in consecutive losses to Denver and Philadelphia.
The Bengals have lost four of their last seven, beating only the Rams, Browns and 49ers, and will be playing with either A.J. McCarron or a diminished Andy Dalton, and have their own recent playoff failures. The Jets are probably undervalued by many, winning five in a row, but remain statistically unimposing, particularly on offense. The Steelers were just blown out by the awful Ravens, and the Texans are a product of the loophole that puts all division winners, no matter how mediocre, into the postseason.
So, strange as it may sound, the Chiefs have a real shot at this.
You know, it's not just former stars like Ross and Lewis who are high on the current group. Nick Lowery, the former kicker who is also in the team's ring of honor, spent much of a wide-ranging 30-minute conversation on a sort of magic he sees in this team.
Like many with ties to Kansas City, Lowery became enthralled with the Royals these last two years. The comebacks, the camaraderie, the relentlessness. It is almost certainly a coincidence of geography, but he sees a lot of similarities with the football team.
"They are playing almost like the Royals brand of football," Lowery said. "No major stars. They have no stars, but lots of heroes. Guys who understand what it takes to win, don't seem to care who gets the credit, and seem completely bought in on the bigger cause. That is the juice in the bottle that is the most elusive of all."
Lowery knows much of the Chiefs' postseason heartbreak in an undeniably personal way. As much as any fan, he has reason to be cynical. But as much as any football man, he also sees reason to be confident.
That's the inner conflict that will be determined by the rest of this Chiefs season, first on Sunday against the Raiders, and then, somehow, the next week in the playoffs.