As he stood in the Chiefs’ locker room Thursday night at O.co Coliseum and considered the humbling 24-20 loss to the previously winless Raiders, linebacker Tamba Hali seemed as curious as anyone about how this had happened.
Sure, it had been a short week, he said. But both teams were contending with “the same odds.”
Likewise, it had rained some, hard at times. But it wasn’t as if that was melting the Chiefs’ prospects any more than the Raiders.
No one, he insisted, had assumed anything about the Raiders … at least not consciously or systematically.
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About the only hint he could come up with was a thin one.
“I felt funny when I walked in here,” he said. “It was a nervous feeling.”
Maybe the forensics on the why of this never will quite add up.
As for the how, this much we know:
The Chiefs weren’t fully engaged in the first half on either side of the ball, and they were mistake-prone throughout … and that was enough to render futile a fine second-half comeback.
So it was a wasted night for the Chiefs, 7-4, one that put a dent in their playoff chances and left their season bookended by curious losses to Tennessee and Oakland, who are 1-18 otherwise, as they prepare for the showdown against Denver on Nov. 30 at Arrowhead Stadium.
But it’s also a lot of wasted energy to panic or conclude the worst here.
For one thing, there’s plenty of time for that soon if the Chiefs lose again to the Broncos, 7-3, before they travel to Arizona, 9-1.
For another, the nine games between the duds against Tennessee and Oakland probably say a lot more about the Chiefs than the two outliers.
The Chiefs won seven of those, you’ll remember, including clobbering now 8-2 New England 41-14 and fending off defending Super Bowl champion Seattle 24-20.
And then there’s this:
Recent history illustrates that even the most successful NFL seasons aren’t the pristine, hiccup-free, constant march forward we might imagine them to be.
They’re just as apt to be messy and haphazard. Even the worst teams are made up of proud professional athletes, after all, not pylons.
Every so often, yes, some remarkable teams have an air of inevitability about them and make good on it.
But as often as not lately in the NFL, the preordained stumble and a flawed late-bloomer surfaces.
Just look at the most extreme examples: Super Bowl winners.
Of the 14 champions since the 2000 season, six had records of 7-4 or worse after 11 games.
Four had to get to the Super Bowl through wild-card berths.
And nine lost at least one game to a team 6-10 or worse.
This isn’t to say the Chiefs are destined for the Super Bowl.
It’s just to say that it’s a fallacy to believe that good teams don’t lose to lesser teams.
It happens all the time, which is why the 1972 Miami Dolphins were the last team to go undefeated from start to finish.
What matters is what teams learn from it and do after that to help themselves peak at the right time.
“We’ve got to handle this the right way …” said quarterback Alex Smith, who was off-kilter much of the night against the Raiders. “You’ve only got two choices (about how) to be able to handle something like this.”
Improve or regress, that is.
So part of that is trying to understand what happened at Oakland, differentiating between cause and justification.
“We’re not in the business of excuses,” Hali said. “We’ve got to find a solution, learn from this game and be able to move forward.”
Only the Chiefs know, deep inside, how much part of the solution has to do with just not being ready to play against Oakland.
Asked what the lesson of the game might have been, defensive end Kevin Vickerson said, simply, “Start fast. Finish strong.”
And that speaks not only to each game the rest of the season but also to the broader season itself.
Because it will be defined not by what the Chiefs have done so far but what they do from here out.
“It’s not going to get easier,” Hali said, smiling and adding, “Get to see what we’re made of.”
We don’t know what that is from one rotten night — really, just a miserable half — in Oakland.
We will know from the next few weeks, starting with the game against Denver that might feel right now like it lost some luster … but sure won’t feel like that come game time next Sunday at Arrowhead.
The flip side of the short week for the Oakland game is the 10 days the Chiefs will have had to prepare for the Broncos, who play host to Miami on Sunday.
That’s more time for fans to stew in the loss, yes.
But more importantly, it’s also more time for the Chiefs to regroup and get healthier.
It’s more time for coach Andy Reid to sort out why he didn’t have his team ready, a time frame that’s close to what typically has brought out the best in him: He’s 14-2 after bye weeks in his career.
It’s not officially a bye week, of course.
But it’s surely a week to say bye to, even if there’s no satisfying answer to how it came to pass.
“Sometimes,” Hali said, “that’s how the game goes.”
How the season goes isn’t about that, though, so much as how they respond to it.