The steadiest and most reliable team in a starkly turbulent AFC is nearly a full trimester removed from its last loss. The Chiefs are the good personality in a room full of moody pageant contestants.
Somehow, the team that once lost five in a row is the only one not carrying the stink of uncertainty into the playoffs. This is equal parts circumstance, luck, fortitude and the NFL’s emphasis on parity (ahem, mediocrity).
After the Chiefs’ 23-17 win over the Raiders on Sunday, which secured the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, an already promising opportunity opened up even more as they prepare for a wild-card game against the Texans at 3:35 p.m. Saturday in Houston.
This guarantees nothing, of course, and the Chiefs’ history is full of proof they are capable of turning better situations than this into the prologue of another January heartbreak. But, still. The Chiefs have won 10 in a row, the longest streak in the NFL, and they are now in a tournament full of questions.
“We see it, obviously,” says defensive tackle Dontari Poe. “But we’re focusing on us, making sure the Chiefs can be the best the Chiefs can be.”
This is a tricky thing, momentum. We love to talk about it, analyze it, and assign grand meaning to it because that’s what we do with intangibles in sports. There is actually very little evidence that the momentum a team carries into the playoffs is a strong indicator of postseason performance. Sharp gamblers often fade the hot teams, knowing they’ll be overvalued.
But each postseason is more like a snowflake than a mathematical formula, and this year is a particularly strange snowflake. Not just the Chiefs’ transformation from directionless to the sport’s hottest team. We’ve been over that, but it’s worth mentioning that Alex Smith was 2-18 when throwing two or more interceptions before Sunday, and the team that hasn’t lost since mid-October is expected to welcome back Justin Houston, its best overall player.
The Chiefs’ opportunity is about more than all of that, though. The AFC is a jumbled mess. The Broncos are the top seed, but just turned the ball over five times against the Chargers, and are apparently going back to Peyton Manning, who might now be healthy but was previously seen overwhelmed and embarrassed in a blowout loss to the Chiefs at Mile High.
The Patriots are the betting favorites but have a bonkers list of injuries and have lost four of their last six, including Sunday in a game they knew was for the No. 1 seed.
The Bengals will be playing with A.J. McCarron or a likely diminished Andy Dalton at quarterback, and are 0-5 while scoring an average of 11.4 points in the playoffs since 2009.
The Texans were once down 41-0 to the Dolphins at halftime, are in the playoffs because someone from that sorry division has to be. The Steelers have the look of a dangerous team but give up too many points, and lost last week to the Ravens.
The Chiefs have their own issues. Their offense tends to struggle in the second half, their pass protection is often weak, and their schedule has been soft. But they do have the comfort of knowing exactly who and what they are.
They play with the swagger of a rap star on defense, and the risk-aversion of a student driver on offense. Particularly early against the Raiders, there were indications that the coaches have been operating with restrictor plates. But even if they’ve been holding back their more creative play-calling for the postseason, this is a group that knows its best path to victory is through calculated risks with the ball and a smothering attack on defense.
They have given the Lions, Steelers, Broncos and Chargers their worst losses of the season, and have actually averaged more yards per rush after losing Jamaal Charles (4.8) than before (4.4). You don’t think of them as dynamic on offense, but no AFC playoff team has scored more points in their last 10 games, and only the Steelers are averaging more yards per play.
“It doesn’t matter what anybody says,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said. “It matters how you finish.”
If he meant the playoffs, and not the regular season, he’s absolutely right. One of the striking things about the Chiefs pulling off what might be the greatest in-season turnaround in league history is how completely unimpressed they seem.
They could have been content saving this season from becoming a disaster, could’ve been happy turning it into a positive, and had every right to feel accomplished by clinching the playoff spot. But at every opportunity, they’ve maintained an unbreaking focus on the next task.
Being steady is not necessarily a compliment in the playoffs. If the Chiefs have the highest floor, they are now in a competition that tends to reward the highest ceiling.
By the time the Chiefs play the Texans, 118 days will have passed since their season opener in Houston. Both teams have changed, drastically, enough that the film of the last month or so will likely influence the game plans far more than the film of that September win.
The Texans’ defense is playing particularly well the last few weeks (although against awful competition), and DeAndre Hopkins is one of the game’s best receivers. Already, the bookmakers have adjusted the point spread down to reflect incoming money on the Texans.
But it is probably true that the Chiefs have not entered the playoffs with this kind of self-esteem in nearly two decades. Two years ago, they lost five of their last seven. In 2010, they were blown out at home in their season finale and again as an underdog in the playoffs. They backed into the playoffs in 2006, and lost three of their last seven after starting 9-0 in 2003.
They won their last six in 1997, including one against the Broncos, their playoff opponent. That one turned into the Elvis Grbac Face, but hey. These are the Chiefs. It’s been a long time since the story ended with a smile.
But at the moment, they are full of confidence of ambition, and that sure beats the alternative.