It’s only the Cardinals, but did the Chiefs just show us their path to the Super Bowl?

Justin Houston interception key in Chiefs win against Cardinals

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston's interception of a pass by Arizona Cardinals Josh Rosen was a key play in the team 26-14 win against the Cardinals on Sunday November 11, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston's interception of a pass by Arizona Cardinals Josh Rosen was a key play in the team 26-14 win against the Cardinals on Sunday November 11, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.

If this is what it looks like going forward then nothing we’ve seen in the past matters.

If this is real, with Justin Houston and Dee Ford waging ready-set-go races to the quarterback only to be occasionally beaten there by Chris Jones, then all of the worries about Bob Sutton and a sieve defense are no more relevant than whatever motivates people to buy all of the bottled water at Target whenever a half inch of snow is in the forecast.

And, well, OK. Fine. A disclaimer: this is just one game, and the Cardinals stink, particularly with pass protection.

But, you guys. A game that appeared to be among the least interesting of the season might end up as the day the Chiefs found their mojo and took hold of the AFC.

The Chiefs beat the Cardinals 26-14 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. The offense had its least impressive day of the season, but they still put up 26, and besides — haven’t we seen enough to trust Patrick Mahomes?

The defense was a certifiable force, perhaps the first time that could be said this season.

We’ve said before here that the Chiefs are a pass rush away from the Super Bowl. So, well, what if Justin Houston’s return from a hamstring injury after five weeks has provided that pass rush?

“As the year goes on it kind of rose from (Houston) to Dee Ford or to me or Chris (Jones),” said defensive lineman Allen Bailey. “Somebody’s gonna get home. If everybody keeps it popping, (shoot), everybody’s going to eat if we all rush together, you hear me?”

The Kansas City Chiefs defense, along with Dee Ford, kept the pressure on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen in the Chiefs 26-14 win against the Cardinals at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday November 11, 2018.

Houston’s return is what matters here. Patrick Mahomes tied and broke the franchise’s 54-year-old record for touchdown passes in a season, and Tyreek Hill’s freelance cameraman celebration was the afternoon’s most memorable moment.

But if we’re talking about the Chiefs’ chances of making their first Super Bowl in 49 years, the most important takeaway is Houston’s impact on an already improving defense that still expects to see Eric Berry return.

We can do this with numbers. They pressured Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen on 54.5 percent of his drop backs, the highest rate by any team in any game this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Or, we can do this with moments. Houston drug two blockers to Rosen. Jones got one of his sacks by basically using a 331-pound left guard as a proxy, and not just that — Jones reached around the guard to knock the ball loose.

“I’m sorry for them guys, for real,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “(Shoot), they can’t do nothing when guys are rushing like that.”

Houston achieved the game’s most impactful moment when he bull rushed the right tackle, read the running back following the guard out of the backfield, pushed off the tackle, jumped at precisely the right moment, and intercepted the screen pass.

The Chiefs had just punted for the third consecutive time, the Cardinals taking over with a chance to go ahead with a touchdown. Houston had been terrific against screens all afternoon, usually by reading them quickly and making a quick tackle, but once by reading it so well that Rosen threw the other way.

Houston is likely a half-level or so below his physical peak, but these are the moments his brain makes up the difference.

“You gotta be smart,” Ragland said of what’s required to make that interception. “See it fast, then the reaction, fast. Not a lot of people in the world can do that. He can.”

The Cardinals are a mess, particularly on offense. They’ve scored 18 or fewer in every game but one, and recently fired their offensive coordinator. Even with them coming off a bye, and the Chiefs tempted to look ahead to next week’s game against the Rams in Mexico City this was the NFL’s version of a layup.

So, obviously they need to prove it. Skepticism is not only fair. It’s smart.

But there could be something cooking here. It’s worth remembering that the requirements are low. Scoring is up across the league — especially in Kansas City. Five stops will win most any game. With the Chiefs’ offense, four will probably be enough. Heck, against the Patriots, two nearly did it.

The Chiefs’ defense is running downhill with the wind at their backs in other ways, too. Lots of points from Mahomes’ group means lots of passing situations for the opponent, which tilts the field directly away from one of the defense’s biggest weaknesses (stopping the run) and toward its greatest strength (rushing the passer).

Think about this. The Chiefs have not had these three pass rushers together at this collective current level before. Jones is on a career year, with sacks in six straight games, the team’s best overall defender requiring regular doubles and often winning anyway. Ford has grown into his prodigious talent, leading all edge rushers in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones on his two-sack game and the return of Justin Houston following a 26-14 win over the Cardinals at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, Nov.11, 2018.

Houston is not the force of nature of four years ago, but he remains a disruptive force that offenses will need to at least occasionally chip. His brain is advanced, too, and here it’s worth emphasizing his success against those screen passes. He’s the team’s best edge defender against the run, versatile enough to play screens and short coverages, and still with enough pass rush juice to change momentum.

“As a defense, we haven’t been playing well all season,” Houston said. “So, we’re trying to turn this around and trying to get this thing in the right direction. Because we’ve got goals.”

Houston is right, of course. The defense is this team’s weakness. But it has also held six of its last seven opponents to 23 or fewer points, which is more than enough for a team that’s scored 26 in every game.

That’s what makes this so interesting. This particular defense on this particular team in this particular NFL season does not have to be dominant or great or even good.

Bothersome would be enough. This triumvirate of pass rushers provides a clear path. It’s enough against one of the league’s worst, and next week we’ll see if it’s enough against one of the league’s best.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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