(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
The Chiefs think they are Super Bowl contenders, and they have plenty of reason to believe. This is the best roster the franchise has had in more than a decade. They just won their first playoff game in a generation and turned their greatest weakness into an undeniable strength by signing free-agent right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
It’s also worth noting that the AFC lacks an obvious powerhouse. The Patriots will always be among the favorites as long as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski work for Bill Belichick, but they’ve had better teams over the years. More importantly, the Broncos’ quarterback situation could best be illustrated with a giant, flashing, neon question mark, and teams that win Super Bowls primarily through defense tend to fall back the following year.
NFL seasons are a series of unpredictable successes and failures, determined by a collective group’s reaction to each, so here is one guess at some of the markers to watch for that could go right and wrong in pushing the most promising Chiefs team in years up or down.
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Three things that could go right
1. The offense soars. The Chiefs have not finished higher than 12th in offense since Dick Vermeil’s final season in 2005. They have not ranked higher than 21st since that blessed season of 2010. The Chiefs will change that if a talented coaching staff manages the league’s best three-deep backfield and improved wide receiver depth. The offensive line went from the team’s greatest weakness to one of its strengths, and even more than other quarterbacks, Alex Smith’s efficiency is highly dependent on whether he faces pressure. None of the tight ends block particularly well, and each of them behind Travis Kelce drops too many passes, but these are high-level critiques in a league without any perfect rosters.
2. The defense dominates inside. The Chiefs have one of the league’s best collections of defensive linemen, particularly among teams that favor a 3-4. Dontari Poe is wildly talented and entering what amounts to a contract season. He is surrounded by the underrated Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey. Even “backups” like Nick Williams and Chris Jones can demand double teams and make plays on their own. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s style is to wreck the opposition’s timing, and if the Chiefs are consistently winning the interior, everything on the perimeter takes on an advantage.
3. The secondary grows up. Marcus Peters is one of just five cornerbacks selected All-Pro first- or second-team as a rookie. He gave up some big plays, but he also made eight interceptions and earned a reputation as a highly effective playmaker with instincts and preparation. Behind him is a deep but green group of cornerbacks led by the enthusiastic Steven Nelson and recovering Phillip Gaines. Sean Smith’s departure to Oakland leaves a significant hole, but if the Chiefs can find a reliable defender or two from a collection of maybes, they will again feature one of the league’s best secondaries.
Three things that could go wrong
1. Alex Smith goes down. This comes with the disclaimer that any Super Bowl contender, with the possible exception of the Broncos, would be flailing in open water without a life vest if the No. 1 quarterback is injured. We include this here, though, because everything Andy Reid has built on offense over four years is centered around Smith’s strengths and weaknesses. It would be exactly the Chiefs’ luck for Smith, who came here with an extensive injury history, to start 46 games in his three seasons in Kansas City only to suffer a long-term injury now that Chase Daniel has left for Philadelphia. Nick Foles is an experienced but underwhelming insurance policy.
2. Sack City relocates. Only the Panthers have more sacks over Sutton’s three seasons in Kansas City, but with Justin Houston’s injury, Tamba Hali’s aging knees and Dee Ford’s slow development, the Chiefs’ edge rush could be a fatal flaw. They appear to be increasingly uncertain about when Houston will return, and in the meantime will need a full recovery by Hali, as well as significant steps forward from Ford, the intriguing Dezman Moses and rookie Dadi Nicolas.
3. Denver finds a QB. As colleague Blair Kerkhoff puts it, “the Chiefs’ window to win the AFC West is when Denver does not have a Hall of Fame quarterback.” That appears to be now, with the Broncos deciding between Mark Sanchez (74.3 career passer rating) and Trevor Siemian (has not thrown a regular-season pass, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns as a Northwestern senior in 2014). But betting against John Elway has been a bad idea in Kansas City for the last 30 years or so. The rest of the Broncos’ roster is good enough to take a mediocre QB back to the Super Bowl (plus, the Raiders are more talented than you probably want to admit).