Just over an hour before kickoff on Sunday at AT&T Stadium, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt spoke with the media for a midseason state of the union that included his acknowledgment of expectations peaking after the last four years under Andy Reid.
Hunt was reluctant to specify what that means exactly, saying only that the goal is as it is every year: to win the Super Bowl.
Still, there was some uncharacteristic swagger in what the understated Hunt was trying to convey.
That was most tangible when he was asked if he had happened to bring along the Preston Road Trophy that goes to the winner of Cowboys-Chiefs games. The Chiefs had possession after winning in their most recent meeting in 2014.
“I absolutely did not,” Hunt said, smiling, “because there’s no need to bring the trophy because we’re going to keep it.”
Lighthearted as Hunt was being, his words spoke to a certain belief in this team that many fans (and media) had shared through its 5-0 start and even the dip of back-to-back losses.
But then came Sunday, and a gnawing 28-17 loss to the Cowboys symbolically punctuated by Reid getting bowled over on the sidelines by Charcandrick West in the final minute.
“I didn’t see it, obviously,” said Reid, who appeared to be looking down at his play chart at the time. “I know it wasn’t very pretty, though, not very graceful.”
So now the Chiefs’ have to contend with a fall from grace, the reality of three losses in four games having transformed a sense that this team is destined for something special suddenly being replaced by anticipation of, and girding for, disappointment.
At least it was an equal-opportunity loss.
The defense has become not just vulnerable but porous, in this case simply unable to stop Dallas after the Chiefs had taken a 17-14 lead that should have carried some momentum considering the abrupt swing in the game from being down 14-3 late in the first half.
Days after the unit had flashed a glimpse of its disruptive best in the victory over Denver, the Chiefs mustered one sack for five yards, seldom pressured Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott, failed to force a turnover and couldn’t make a stand when it had to.
“I think at times we held up, but were not good enough,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Just the average game for us defensively. And when you play an average game, you usually get beat.”
Meanwhile, what is in fact shaping up as an average defense didn’t get a reprieve from an offense that went three and out on its first two series and amassed all of 73 yards in the last 24 minutes, 6 seconds after taking the lead.
The group that seemed unstoppable at times was a distinctly resistible force, with rookie sensation Kareem Hunt able to run for just 37 yards on nine carries Sunday (and 31 times for 83 yards in the last two games) and Tyreek Hill being targeted just four times (despite making one of the most awe-inspiring plays you’ll ever see at the end of the first half) and Alex Smith finally throwing his first interception of the season.
All of which suggests maybe it’s time to recalibrate all those hopes and dreams that were inflating by the week after the Chiefs opened the season with impressive wins at New England (6-2) and against Philadelphia (7-1).
But here’s the thing:
At 6-3, with everyone else in the AFC West light years behind at 3-5, the Chiefs are on a highly probable trajectory to win this division (and thus win back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history).
Especially considering the remainder of the schedule is 23-33 overall and that up next for the Chiefs after a bye week is the New York Giants — who are 1-7 and will be taking on a team whose coach is 16-2 after bye weeks.
Reid’s track record isn’t “going to win a game by itself,” as Smith put it, but it will make for the first of seven straight games to end the season in which the Chiefs likely will be favored.
The regular season, though, is just a vehicle to the true measure of the season, the postseason, particularly so for an organization that has won one playoff game since 1994.
In that sense, then, warts and all, not that much is different after the loss Sunday.
The next two months are much less about making the playoffs than figuring out how to prosper in them.
Trouble is, the how is much more complicated than the what.
Erratic as the offense was on Sunday, the dynamics still are in place for it to produce big — especially as the offensive line gets healthier. But it’s going to be imperative to create some space for Hunt, or everything changes.
Most significantly, the Chiefs won’t go anywhere with the defense unable to generate pressure or turnovers.
It’s in the eye of the beholder how much of that is schematic (why aren’t they blitzing more?) and how much is botched execution (how did Eric Murray miss that interception?) or … just not being all that good.
So the good news here (!) is that the bye week is a fine time for Reid to get past any sense of denial he’s had and acknowledge the obvious problem for a team that also looked tired on Sunday, when it seemed to expend its last burst of adrenaline on the potato-sack race celebration after Travis Kelce’s touchdown catch gave them a 17-14 lead.
“We didn’t have a lot of energy, and we’re going to take a step back here and get some rest during this bye week and kind of regain our thoughts and evaluate ourselves and go forward,” Reid said.
None of this looks like it did a month ago, but that’s also a reminder of the flux of a season that you see all around the NFL as much it’s any statement on the Chiefs.
So Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s resourcefulness and willingness to adjust is the X-factor here in whether the Chiefs can hope to move on toward other trophies … now that Hunt will have to send the Preston Road one back to Dallas.