Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Chiefs as Super Bowl contenders, Cairo Santos vs. Sal Perez, and Tyreek Hill

The Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders because they have won, on the road, against both Super Bowl teams from last year plus one of the teams tied with the AFC’s best record.

Nobody else in the AFC has three wins as impressive.

The Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders because they are the rare team that should be better in December than September, stronger as players get healthy, most notably Justin Houston.

The Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders because if healthy, no team with the possible exception of the Broncos has two pass rushers like Houston and Dee Ford, and the Chiefs just beat the Broncos in Denver.

The Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders because their defense has held every opponent but three to 21 points or fewer, winning five games — Jets, Raiders, Colts, Jaguars and Panthers — more or less on their own.

The Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders because the offense will improve, or at least it should, when Jeremy Maclin is healthy again and Tyreek Hill continues to expand his influence and Alex Smith gets closer to his better-than-decent 2015 self.

There are no perfect teams. Rob Gronkowski is banged up, and if he can’t play or is limited, the Patriots are a different team. The Raiders are 9-2, but if Chiefs fans worry about a string of miraculous wins, the Raiders might lead the league in this category — five of their wins could’ve easily gone the other way. Also, their defense is poor.

Well, at least, that’s the argument.

The case against the Chiefs is fairly easy to make, and more concise. They rank 16th in the league in scoring, which probably surprises some people, but that number is propped up from five touchdowns and a safety from defense and special teams, plus field position and other factors. The Chiefs rank 27th in yards, and Smith’s recent struggles are troubling.

The Chiefs just let Trevor Siemian go for 368 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The defense is good, but the big plays are masking that they’re giving up 5.7 yards per play.

But, perhaps most importantly, the Patriots have a game in hand and an easier remaining schedule. The Chiefs would be an underdog in Foxborough, and that’s if they make it that far.

So, sure. It remains unlikely that the Chiefs will make the Super Bowl. But that’s probably true of any team in the NFL, even the Patriots and Cowboys. They’ve put themselves in position to dream, which at this point is about all you can ask.

This week’s eating recommendation is the pepperoni and onion at Pizza 51, and the reading recommendation is David Remnick on Obama reckoning with a Trump presidency.

This is me begging you for a follow on Twitter and Facebook, and as always, this is me thanking you for your help and for reading.

The Chiefs, one week after a loss that pushed some fans to the edge, beat the defending Super Bowl champions in a game that included the following:

▪ The game-winning field goal banging off the upright, leaving half of the Chiefs sure they’d tied, until they saw the other half celebrating.

▪ Their first nine points scored by defense and special teams, and their first 16 scored without their quarterback under center.

▪ A fifth-round pick brought on amid controversy mostly as a returner becoming the first man since Gale Sayers to score on a run, catch and return in the same game.

▪ A total of 49 yards of offense in the first half, which included a play apparently designed to get the fourth-string tight end the ball in space.

▪ Alex Smith going 14 for 26 for 101 yards and no touchdowns in the first 3 quarters and 12 minutes, and then 12 for 18 for 119 yards and a touchdown from there to the end.

▪ That last drive of the fourth quarter was made possible by the Chiefs’ very good defense giving up a touchdown so quickly.

▪ That banged field goal was made possible by the Broncos attempting a 62-yard field goal on a very cold night, the miss giving the Chiefs the ball within a sniff or two of a more manageable field goal.

▪ Kenneth Acker declaring afterward: “Nothing like going to your momma and getting a hug after a game like that.”

You guys, this team is bonkers. They have now won three games in which the probability models gave them less than a 3 percent chance. THREE. Out of 11 total games played.

This team has thrown a screen pass to its nose guard, employs a cancer survivor at safety who has played two of the best games of his Pro Bowl career the last three weeks, a rookie who genuinely might be the fastest player in the NFL, a reality TV star tight end who occasionally throws “flags” at officials, and a cornerback who — deep breath now — has been more effective in coverage than all but a handful of his peers, given up more yardage than all but a handful of his peers, has more interceptions than all but one of his peers, won a recent game with a breathtaking strip of a much bigger man, and has developed a gorgeously hilarious penchant for punting the ball into the stands (with impressive technique).

I don’t know how the rest of this season will go. But it won’t be boring.

You should probably get a gym membership.

I have just watched Salvador Perez’s throw-your-bat-at-it-and-see-what happens miracle again, and invite you to do the same:

Now, before we get to the Donaldson part, can we talk a bit about how far that pitch is off the plate? A good 6 inches, right? And this is the exact pitch that teams had been getting Perez out on for months, the pitch that the coaching staff had been pleading with Perez to lay off, begging him, Perez usually saying he’d try but almost always swinging away in the moment.

And then, yeah, Donaldson is one of the game’s best defensive third basemen. He’s agile on his feet, with quick reactions, and he appears to read the ball off the bat well. I assume Statcast could get this down to the millimeter, but he’s no more than a foot away from gloving this ball, and probably less. If he does, he’s on the ground, but that’s an easy throw across the diamond to get Perez for the third out of the inning.

This is what it looked like from my view:

Now, Santos’ field goal was surprisingly close. He’s a good kicker, and is now 26 of 28 on kicks between 30 and 39 yards. That’s 93 percent, and the number jumps to 95 percent if you include the extra points of the last two seasons. The snap was perfect, the hold looked good, but the ball just hooked.

It was funny going around the Chiefs’ locker room the other night asking the guys if they thought the kick missed. We can say half of them did, but it was probably more than that. Cairo Santos’ tweet — including Dave Eulitt’s picture — was perfect.

There is probably data for this somewhere, but I’m assuming that when a ball hits the upright it’s something like a 50-50 chance of going through.

But I know that Sal Perez hitting that pitch, and getting the ball by that third baseman was much less than 50-50.

So, we actually talked about this on the postgame chat. The Chiefs have won their share of intense and competitive games. The win in Carolina two weeks ago qualifies.

But the one that came to my mind was the win over the then-defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks two years ago, a win preserved with a fourth-and-1 stop late. That was a brutal, bruising game against what was probably a better team than the Broncos are this year. It was also at home.

But, I don’t know. I’m not sure how to judge things like this. Also, that game was long enough ago that Dwayne Bowe played for the Chiefs.

You know, it actually might.

I don’t know how far back to go, and we all have different ways to judge things, but being in prime time, on the road, against the Broncos, with all the crazy twists and turns that thing took ... it’s a strong case to make.

I’m just spit-balling here, but if we limit it to this century, I’d also consider the Monday night blowout against the Patriots in 2014 (the night before the Wild Card Game), benching Peyton Manning in Denver last year, 40-34 in overtime at Green Bay in 2003, and, of course, the first playoff win in a generation this past January.

You could go back further to get Joe Montana on Monday night in Denver, games like that, but that’s probably a project for another day.

This is on my list for the week, to basically get an intelligent answer for this question. The easy thing right now is to say the offense stinks, that there is no solution, and their ceiling is to lose a playoff game while scoring 13 points somewhere.

And maybe that’s true.

But I want to put some thought, and phone calls, and time watching games into this because I do think it’s the critical question for the rest of their season.

My feeling at the moment is that the Chiefs aren’t as far away as they have seemed for most of this season and particularly the last three games. Jeremy Maclin is a critical piece of this, and even as he’s been injured and largely unproductive his absence messes up the receiver rotation and makes for one less dangerous player on the field.

Alex Smith has to wear his share here. He’s been bad, particularly since the two non-concussion concussions, and his underperformance has been the single biggest thing holding the Chiefs back.

But, anyway, I’m going to try to explore some of that this week. The Chiefs were ninth in the league in scoring last year, and third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. If Smith can be his 2015 self or close to it, they should in theory again be a good offense — even if Maclin doesn’t return to form, Hill gives them a weapon they haven’t had in many years.

Speaking of Hill ...

... yes, I was very critical of the draft pick, largely because of the Chiefs’ past, and because of who they often claim to be as an organization, and because all of that “due diligence” is hopeful nonsense. They have no idea how Hill or anyone else who’s ever pleaded guilty to or been convicted of domestic abuse will be in the future.

I still feel that way.

This is nuanced, and I hope you stay with me for the rest of this answer, but first a few qualifiers:

▪ I think we all are hoping for the best with Hill as a man, not just for his sake, but for his victim and their baby.

▪ Domestic violence is an emotional topic, and my view on this is laced with emotion.

▪ Even as I believe domestic violence is under punished by our justice system, and otherwise mishandled by weak or no prevention or eduction, I recognize he has done and is doing everything demanded of him by the courts and as such should be free to earn a living.

▪ Part of my confusion about the Chiefs doing this was that Hill’s football talents did not appear to be worth the risk. The Chiefs talked of him mostly as a return man, and Andy Reid’s offense is famously difficult for even the most talented rookie receivers.

Now, I feel strongly that we should all recognize that Hill’s performance on the football field and his performance away from football have nothing to do with each other. He could lead an exemplary life and fail as a professional football player the same way he could make the Pro Bowl and fail in what the courts have asked of him.

Following and caring about sports often forces us to compartmentalize things. Just like the world in general, sports are full of good people who don’t succeed and bad people who do, and I don’t even intend this to say that Hill is a bad person. I don’t know him, just like you don’t know him, and just like neither of us really know any athlete we watch perform — and I say that as someone who interacts with these athletes regularly.

There are some athletes we can have suspicions about, and the Chiefs have several. I believe that Alex Smith is an exceptional man. I believe the same is true of Tamba Hali, and Eric Berry, and others. But I don’t know.

So I believe the more we can compartmentalize this, the better. Tyreek Hill is a supernatural football talent. He may very well be the fastest man in a league full of physical freaks, and he’s also blessed with good hands and an ability track the ball in the air, on the move, in the midst of football’s chaos.

Enjoying the experience of watching those gifts does not require being OK with what he pleaded guilty of doing, the same way being frustrated when Smith throws a pick at the goal line does not require dismissing his heroic — and I don’t use that word unless it applies — work with foster kids.

It would be wonderful if Hill lives a full and joyous life, without any drama, and it would be reassuring to some if football played a part in that. Again, I think that’s what we’re all hoping for, and by all accounts he’s done nothing but the right things so far.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with viewing him as an entertainer. He’s one hell of an entertainer.

I do think there is room to do more of this, but a couple subtle things to keep in mind:

▪ Offense and defense do not operate independently. The Chiefs’ biggest strength is their defense, and you want to protect that. Running quicker offense means more short possessions, and less rest for all those playmakers on defense.

▪ The Chiefs aren’t running the hurry-up until the game situation demands it, at which point the game situation is also influencing how the other team plays defense. Terez mentioned this on the postgame chat, but the Broncos (mistakingly) went to a two-high prevent which made it much easier for the three-wide, no-huddle Chiefs to move the ball.

▪ Part of the hurry-up’s success could also be that teams aren’t preparing as much for it. Use it all the time, and that changes.

Now, all that said, yes, I absolutely believe they can find more spots to go hurry-up. I believe that Smith’s smarts become more of a factor in this context, and that it can be a good way to slow down the defense’s pass rush, and keep them in matchups that favor the offense.

The Chiefs offense is based on timing, and rhythm, and sometimes going no-huddle can help create that. If nothing else, it gives the Chiefs an advantage in that their guys have generally been together for a while and as such should have a better understanding of what they want to do.

But I hope we’re not pushing for this to be the K-Gun of the 1990s Bills.

No.

I believe Mizzou fans are quite capable of multitasking their frustration in many different places.

Well, that game was bonkers. Not typical. Night games are always tough because of deadlines, and games that turn a thousand ways are always tough because your topics are always changing.

When a game presents only one of those challenges, it’s not a big deal. The Steelers game was easy, because we all knew what we were doing by halftime. The Panthers game was fine, because we didn’t have the print deadlines taunting us.

This game had both.

I’m lucky to work with these guys. During football season, I probably spend more time with Terez, Blair and Vahe than anyone else but my wife and kids, and I can honestly say I am always happy to see them. They are among my favorite people. We work together ridiculously well, and I’m confident they’d all say the same thing.

All of that makes all of this so much easier.

And I’m grateful for it, because it doesn’t exist everywhere.

I mention all of this because it really is important in how we deal with deadline stress. There is an inherent need to give and take, from all of us. Terez and Blair are gracious when Vahe or I rip the angle they might want to take, for instance, and I hope that we find ways to pay it back.

In general, the communication about topics has to be clearer between Vahe and I, and clearer between Terez and Blair. The columnists can overlap with the beat writers more than with each other, and vice versa.

So Sunday night, I’ll just speak for myself, I went through at least three or four different columns. Justin Houston looked like a great column for a while. At some point, it switched to be very harsh on Alex Smith. At another point, it was more big picture about what losing that game meant for the rest of their season (it would’ve pushed the Chiefs to the fringe of the playoff picture with a very tough road game coming up, for starters).

There were probably more than I’m forgetting, and I know Vahe went through a similar cycle, each of these ideas explored to varying degrees — for me, the Houston column was mostly just outlined, but I got pretty far on the big picture look at what losing that game meant.

But, as often happens with these late games, it all blows up and you end up writing something new on the fly. Basically, I just tried to sum up the absurdity of what happened, with a little looking ahead at the end.

I didn’t intend it this way — and actually had no idea it would be this way when I started writing — but I felt good that the column reflected both what I felt watching the game and what I read as the mood of the postgame locker room.

Those guys were stoked they won, in awe of the way it happened, but very clear about needing to correct the mistakes they made and holes that remain in what they’re trying to accomplish.

One other thing that I like about how the four of us work together — each of us helped the others with quotes, and/or thoughts we had watching the game or being in the locker room that might help.

I don’t think Blair or Vahe would be offended by me saying Terez is the absolute best at dishing perspective, but I think the rest of us do our best, too.

Then, after we’re done writing, we gather for the postgame chat which always tends to be a bit of an unwinding at the end of a long day. I was astonished and grateful for how many of you guys stuck with us the other night, too. I think we started around 2 in the morning Kansas City time, and it was apparently the most commented video we’ve done this season.

You guys are terrific, and I can speak for the other three in saying the energy and interaction with you all is a huge part of what makes this job so fun.

The quick answer: better than 2016.

Depth charts can be deceiving, but I only count five seniors on the first-string offense and defense. That doesn’t include Charles Harris, who I’d expect to enter the draft, and I’m sure there will be some other movement but that’s a pretty good place to start.

The offense should be better simply based on experience, and the defense should be better if there is more stability both from the coaches and players.

I’m obviously just guessing, and I’m not the best one to guess, in part because I thought this was going to be a bowl team this year. But I do take encouragement from a team that has nothing to play for coming back from down 24-7 in the last game of the season against a rival headed to a bowl.

That’s a sign the players still care, and that the coaches still had their attention and respect, even with nothing but pride to play for.

The hope, then, is that a young, first-year head coach is taking some lessons from a rough debut. Odom’s decision to change the defensive scheme was curious, and that’s just one small example.

The important thing is always what kind of talent a head coach and his assistants can attract. This is still early, obviously, but I see that Mizzou is tied for 57th in Rivals’ rankings. Missouri has always been at its best when it finds players who outperform those rankings, but still, it’s a sign.

Obviously the 2017 recruiting class doesn’t have much to do with how the team will perform next season.

I’m expecting a bowl. For Odom’s sake, I hope it’s a bowl.

I HAVE OPINIONS ABOUT THIS.

You are dead wrong, and a possible Scrooge, although I do agree with you about the Mariah song.

I believe that playing Christmas music or putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving should be punished by the courts. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, vastly underappreciated in no small part because it’s forced to be its wonderful self in the growing and gift-wrapped shadow of Christmas.

But once you put all the Thanksgiving leftovers away, all bets are off, and you need to either be merry or get out of the way. In the Mellinger house, we get our Christmas tree on Black Friday morning, playing Pandora’s Christmas station in the car on the way there, on the way back, and all dang day as we put the tree up and decorate and enjoy a fire in the fireplace if it’s less than 80 degrees outside.

Christmas music is an important part of all of this. You don’t have to like every song. I happen to enjoy “Little Drummer Boy,” but if you think it sounds like a college frat hazing song, well, I can see that too. Maybe you like “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” but to me it’s incredibly creepy and the guy needs to take no for an answer.

Whatever. Particular taste is not the point here. The point is that you are dead wrong because Christmas music is great.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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