Any way you looked at it, the epitaph had been scrawled over the Chiefs’ 2015 season.
After their rotten 1-5 start, the only thing left seemed to be the formality of slogging it out to notarize the lost season.
The 2015 campaign would be best remembered for Jamaal Charles’ fumble-six that frittered away the first Denver game … a ghastly no-show 10 days later at Green Bay … three straight games giving up more than 30 points … the loss of Charles, their best player … and offensive tackle Donald Stephenson effectively stripping running back Charcandrick West of the ball in a pivotal play in the Minnesota loss.
With the inevitable down-bound spiral ahead, coach Andy Reid would have lost currency and had his credentials going forward challenged.
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Then as the Chiefs sat out the playoffs, all that went into rejiggering this franchise in the last three years would be subject to fresh scrutiny.
But, huh, then the Chiefs salvaged some shreds of hope with a couple wins in a row.
Then they intrigued by winning at Denver last week to purge the Peyton Manning voodoo.
And then on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, with straitjacketing defense and the deft play of quarterback Alex Smith, the Chiefs smashed the Chargers 33-3 to hoist their way back to .500.
With momentum and mojo now, with their remaining six games against teams with a combined record of 20-39, they no longer are just on the cusp of playoff contention but, in fact, immersed in the race.
Only the Panthers (10-0) and Patriots (9-0) have longer active winning streaks than the Chiefs.
It’s no sure thing that they can keep playing like this, of course.
But the earmarks of this turnaround are the sorts of things that tell you this is a playoff team, things you can take stock in:
A swarming, opportunistic defensive lineup that produced linebacker Justin Houston’s interception return for a touchdown and, well, defensive tackle Dontari Poe’s 1-yard plunge for the offense; an offense than not only doesn’t turn the ball over but looks dynamic (Smith threw for more than 200 yards in the first half) with its resurgent line; and airtight special-teams play.
Not that the Chiefs should, or will, assume anything.
Reid apparently would see it as a breach of duty to broach the playoff topic with his team.
“You get the fish in the boat before you say, ‘I caught it,’ ” he said. “So you just take care of business day-in, day-out (and) make sure your fundamentals are right, techniques are right.”
Which is so dull … and so true.
Because in the end, the Chiefs’ ability to secure a playoff berth and hopes for their first postseason win in more than two decades will only be as feasible as their ability to grind out one win at a time.
But this much we do know:
The way this team is playing now, the way it’s winning now, is a lot like this season looked like on paper before the miserable start.
What was going wrong, the way they withered when they needed to weather the early storm, is an afterthought now but a baseline to understanding what’s happened since.
There was the ever-shifting offensive line, and a stagnant defense that wasn’t generating much of a rush or turnovers.
There was that frontloaded schedule featuring Denver, Green Bay and Cincinnati — teams that are 23-6 combined.
And there was whatever it did to this team to lose the first Denver game the way it did.
“Maybe that took something out of us a little bit,” receiver Jeremy Maclin said, by way of searching for reasons, not excuses. “We put ourselves in the 1-5 hole.”
As for how they got back to equilibrium, there are answers tangible and otherwise.
Asked how a team that had given up 38 points to Green Bay now has given up a total of 39 in the last four games, safety Husain Abdullah said, “The mindset of ‘we dug ourselves into a hole, and we can’t allow that any more.’ ”
“So at some point you’ve got to draw a line in the sand,” he added, with a clap, “and say, ‘Let’s turn it on.’ ”
Vague as that might sound, well, mindset was instrumental in this.
A team would figure to be more likely to fracture and crumble than rally at that point. A coach can lose a team in times like that, too.
This one scrapped to get some traction, which Reid called testament to their character but also speaks to his reach in the room, too.
With traction came some consistency, or vice versa:
Largely because of injuries, for instance, the Chiefs used four different offensive line combinations in the first seven games.
The fifth one, in the last three weeks, has played markedly better,
“It does help, having that continuity, and it’s showing,” left guard Jeff Allen said. “We’re doing a good job of playing together. We’re communicating well. We’re playing physical. We’re finishing plays.”
In turn, the running game has worked and Smith has prospered.
Given time to breathe, he looks like an entirely different quarterback than the one even his most ardent defenders were losing the case for earlier in the season.
On Sunday, he completed 20 of 25 passes for 253 yards, 202 of which were delivered in the first half before the Chiefs turned conservative in the second half.
Draining clock became a more desirable thing to do, of course, after Houston’s touchdown make it 19-3 with 3 minutes 27 seconds left in the third quarter.
With a defense that’s setting the tone again, offense with a new dimension and special teams flipping the field, add it all up and it sure looks like a powerful formula.
One that has a playoff berth dangling on the line.
That in itself doesn’t mean anything right now, Reid said, smiling and reiterating, “It’s got to be in the boat.”
But having it in their grasp, both in terms of their record and the way they are surging, is a fine place for the Chiefs to be — especially for what was previously a season on the brink.