Of all the games that all the teams in the NFL have left, two of the most interesting — perhaps the two most interesting — will be at Arrowhead Stadium.
They are both standalone prime-time games, the first on what looks like a frigid Thursday night against the Raiders, and the second on Christmas night against the Broncos.
The Chiefs have everything in front of them, full control of whether they will have a first-round playoff bye, a home playoff game, or any playoffs at all. It’s all theirs. They even have a chance at the AFC’s No. 1 seed, with a lot of help.
The implications of Thursday’s game...
If the Chiefs win: they are 10-3, in first place in the NFL’s toughest division, with the easiest remaining three games of the other AFC West contenders. The Chiefs would be a strong favorite against the Titans at home next week, likely a slight favorite against the Broncos at home on Christmas, and a slight favorite at the Chargers on New Years Day.
If you want to dream a bit, a win on Thursday means the Chiefs could take the top seed by winning out and having the Patriots lose twice — New England finishes with the Ravens at home, at the Broncos, Jets at home and at Dolphins. It’s possible. Unlikely, but possible, with Gronk out.
At the moment, the Chiefs would need to have a better record than the Patriots, because the first tiebreaker between the two would be conference record. Right now, New England is 7-1 against the AFC. The Chiefs are 6-2.
If the Patriots lose a conference game, the next tiebreaker would be common opponents. The Chiefs and Patriots have four: Texans, Steelers, Jets and Broncos. Right now, the Patriots are 3-0 in those games, with the Broncos and (another game against) the Jets remaining. The Chiefs are 2-2, with another game against the Broncos left. So the best the Chiefs can do is a push here, but that would mean two Patriots losses, which would mean the Chiefs could win on straight record and does your head hurt yet?
If the Chiefs lose: they are 9-4, and would need at least two Raiders losses to win the division. The Chiefs would still be in position to possibly win the division, because the first tiebreaker with Oakland would be division record. The Chiefs and Raiders would each be 3-1, with the Raiders still needing to play at San Diego and at Denver. At 9-4, the Chiefs would still control their playoff future, but would need help for a bye or home game.
Also, out of the dozens of questions this week — thank you all! — nobody asked about Alex Smith which means I want to talk about him here.
There were some complaints Sunday about the fumble, and missing that #GottaHaaaaDat throw to Spencer Ware on third down, but Smith still helped the Chiefs win and played one of his best games of the season.
I’ve been critical of Smith this year when he’s played poorly but it’s worth pointing out when he plays well. Part of his strength has always been in subtlety. He won’t create big plays out of mush, but he also generally won’t make mistakes that kill you*.
* Which is part of what made that interception at the goal line against the Bucs so horrendous.
Smith was good enough on Sunday. Some of this you can see in the numbers — 21 for 25, 270 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Some of it you can see in a contrast with the guy on the other side. Matt Ryan is more talented than Smith, a better quarterback than Smith, and in the conversation for league MVP this year.
Ryan made some throws on Sunday that Smith either can’t make, or rarely makes. But he also made two throws on Sunday that Smith doesn’t make, or rarely makes.
The two interceptions — technically, the pick on the two-point conversion is not counted on Ryan’s stats — lost the game for the Falcons and won the game for the Chiefs. They were both poor decisions, bad risks, and without those two throws the Falcons probably win.
You can take the cynic’s stance and say the Chiefs got lucky there, but it’s also true the defense was in position to take advantage of those mistakes, and that the Chiefs’ quarterback went through four quarters without making those regrettable throws. And this is how Smith outplayed an MVP candidate, on the road.
I touched on this in the game column, but let’s talk about the tendency many fans have to think more about the Chiefs’ ugly warts than their nice curves:
“The NFL has, basically, two kinds of rules. The first aims to prevent players from having fun, and the second aims to make sure all teams are flawed, even the ones coached by Bill Belichick.
“So in that context, finding teams that can win games like this is a sign of strength, not a mirage, the same way finding teams that lose games like this is a sign they’re probably at least a year away.”
I believe this in my core, and if you need some convincing, imagine if the Chiefs lost each of these four bonkers wins they have this year. They’d be 5-7, well out of the playoff picture, and would you telling everyone they’re really a good team because they’re a few plays away from being 9-3?
Hail no, you would not.
I was less optimistic about the 2016 Chiefs than most, but this is a good team. There is value in being able to turn those 50-50 games, and I also think about two more arguments for The Chiefs As Super Bowl Contenders:
First, they have beaten both of last year’s Super Bowl teams, on the road, and have beaten two more division leaders (the Raiders and Falcons) on the road. Without going through everyone’s schedule, I believe the complete list of teams with four wins as impressive as those looks like this:
Second, at least in theory, this is a team that can still get better. All teams have injuries, I get that, but the Chiefs have had more than their share and should be getting healthier. Jeremy Maclin has played one snap since Halloween, and practiced last week, so I’m guessing the team’s most accomplished receiver might be a go on Thursday. Tamba Hali looks stronger than at any point since perhaps 2014. Justin Houston and Dee Ford just played their first complete game together.
No team should depend on full health, and there is always the possibility that a critical piece will be lost at some point in the regular season’s final four games.
But the Chiefs have already shown an ability to navigate at less than full strength, and we still haven’t seen them at actual full strength.
The Broncos game gets the edge because of how awful Alex Smith was for 3 4/5 quarters, because he then marched the Chiefs down for a last-moment touchdown on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage, and then threw the tying two-point conversion to a guy known for drops and being covered by Chris Harris, because they went down in overtime, and won a field goal that banked off an upright.
But I don’t want to overlook the bonkers-ness of that Panthers game. The Chiefs scored exactly zero offensive touchdowns that day, in part because Smith kept missing guys in the end zone, and only won because Marcus Peters had the arrogance to go for the strip against one of the biggest wide receivers on the planet at the end of the fourth quarter.
And I’m putting the Chargers game ahead of what we saw on Sunday, in part because I thought the Chiefs would’ve beaten the Falcons with or without Berry’s pick-two. The Chargers game was the biggest comeback in franchise history, and the Chiefs had won just one of nine games in which they’d given up 27 or more points in the post-Pioli world*.
* They weren’t good in those situations with Pioli, either, but “post-Pioli world” makes me giggle a little bit.
Course, now they’re 3-1 when giving up 27 or more points this season, which is a pretty decent way to describe this season.
I’m just excited that the Raiders game means something again. We live in a world in which some college students can’t remember the Raiders ever being good, and I know that makes a lot of Chiefs fans delirious with joy, but it’s also true the Chiefs have stunk for most of the 21st century. In 2012, these two franchises lost 26 games between them.
We could talk about Raider week, but it was sort of like talking about CD players, or grunge, or anything else that seemed cool in the 1990s. Talking about Raider week always makes you think of Marty Schottenheimer, and Marty hasn’t worked in Kansas City since 1998.
Now, they’ll meet with first place in the division on the line, and a combined 19-5 record.
I think fans hate the Broncos more now, and I know the players get up for the Broncos more than the Raiders, but it’s cool that this game matters again. Especially since it will apparently be colder than Rusty Kuntz’s heart when he said, “Bless his heart, Duda. He’s a good bat.”
Please allow me some nuance here, because yes, I do believe the Chiefs need Jamaal Charles to be the absolute best version of themselves.
But, no, I don’t believe they need Charles to make the playoffs, win in the playoffs, or even to go to the Super Bowl.
Guys, they won 11 games in a row last year after he got hurt.
Charles is a terrific talent, and his injuries make me sad, because he’s awesome to watch. If he was healthy, he would provide the Chiefs with something they don’t have right now, and I believe he would make a significant difference for the offense. If he returns this season — seems unlikely, but it’s possible — the Chiefs can find ways to use him as a bit of a pinch hitter and make a difference.
But at this point, you can’t say the Chiefs need Charles. They’ve been finding ways without him, for almost all of the last 24 games.
We’re all replaceable, man. Even those of us with ridiculous football talent and a place in the Chiefs ring of honor someday.
This is the Let’s Talk About Injured Guys portion of the program.
No, I don’t think it screws up anything. I find it impressive the Chiefs have been able to make things work this well without Maclin, either in the literal sense as he’s been injured, or the figurative sense when he was unproductive.
Because I saw something last week working on that Alex Smith column, and not just that the problems with the offense go* much deeper than any adjustment he’s making after his head bounced off the turf in Indianapolis.
* Or is it “went?” Let’s stick with “go” for now.
Maclin makes a difference. You can see it in the way the teams defend. Even when he was struggling, teams had to respect him, either rolling coverages to his side or at the very least not rolling coverages to the other side.
When Maclin isn’t there, defenses have more manpower to cover Travis Kelce, and there is no amount of pick-your-poison with Tyreek Hill.
Hill is so talented, but he’s still raw enough that his best production is always when it’s schemed for him to be one-on-one. He’s had a lot of really nice moments this season, but those one-on-one opportunities are much rarer than they would be if Maclin was on the field.
Speaking of Hill ...
... yes, and not only do I believe this, I believe he has a chance — a chance — to be the Chiefs’ best offensive weapon over the next few seasons.
Now, there are a dozen qualifiers I could throw out here. He needs to refine his route running, needs to be able to adjust to more attention from defenses, and perhaps most of all, needs to continue to work the way he is now — when he’s a rookie fifth-round pick with, well, you know — after he’s had success.
One of the hardest things in professional sports is handling success, and that’s true of anyone.
You already see some subtle things. Teams tend to punt away from him when he’s on the field, and the Chiefs aren’t using him on kick returns as often now, preferring to save him for an expanded role in the offense.
But of all the reasons to be optimistic about his football future, I think the biggest may be his aptitude. The Chiefs did not expect this. They thought they were getting a return guy. A possible upgrade on De’Anthony Thomas. Maybe, at some point down the line, in a few years, a deep threat on offense.
Reid’s system is famously tough on rookie receivers, and more demanding of receivers’ brains than bodies. Hill just did not have a history that suggested he’d be able to take it all on this quickly, or this well.
When Hill was drafted he said he wanted to be the best fifth-round pick ever, and that’s obviously a silly statement, because Herschel Walker and Rodney Harrison and Robert Mathis and Zach Thomas and Mike Webster and others were fifth-round picks.
But he can be a damn good player, and a difference-maker for the Chiefs, not just this year but going forward.
Yes, I do.
When David Glass told me he was open to being persuaded, I thought there was a chance this could be the same dance we’ve been through in past years. But that feels like a long time ago.
In past years, I don’t remember Moore saying anything as strong and late in the offseason as “we’re simply not in a position to add to our current payroll.” I could be wrong about this, clearly, but I think I’ve had a good handle on their shifting financial stances in the past and the indications I see from others all point to Glass being dead serious about halting payroll at their current obligations.
Moore is unfailingly loyal to Glass, both publicly and privately, and like someone else in the organization told me last week, “It can be frustrating but we can’t complain about it because we all knew what we were getting when we came here.”
The complaints exist, of course, because these are human beings and this is their life’s work.
But it’s a good thought, even so.
They’re not pursuing a fire sale. That is not true.
David Glass has made it clear he wants a payroll freeze, which I believe he deserves criticism for in the final year of this championship core being together. It’s possible the Royals could make some cut-to-the-bone trades at the July deadline if they’re out of it — particularly since the new CBA diminishes draft-pick compensation — but that’s not the same as a fire sale.
There was a time I was the only one pointing out that the David Glass Is Scrooge stuff expired in 2006. Nobody wanted to hear it until it showed up in the standings, and I get that, and only bring this up to say I’m not just firing shots at the owner. The payroll will naturally go down next year, and the years after, and that terrible TV contract Glass signed is set to expire in a few years.
Costs are going down, and TV revenue is going up, and we haven’t mentioned franchise value going up 800 percent since his purchase.
What this does is make it harder for the Royals to win in 2017, and shortchanges the championship core that made Glass’ franchise a success.
We’ve been talking about this for months, but without an increase in payroll for 2017, any improvements to parts of the roster (starting pitcher, a bat for right field, second base or DH) will have to be accompanied by losses in other parts of the roster (Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas or another major piece traded away).
Building in a small market is always difficult, and will always force difficult choices, but the way this should work is you extend a bit in the years you can win because you know there are other years you’re loaded with young players making smaller salaries.
The Royals have worked hard to extend their window. Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Sal Perez, and Yordano Ventura are signed beyond next year. Glass and Moore have been clear that the goal is consistent success, more than a build-and-release operation like the Marlins, but this is the kind of core you spend years working toward.
Particularly without a lot in the farm system to use either at the deadline or to win in 2018 and beyond, it’s disappointing that the owner isn’t giving this group the best opportunity he can.
I agree with this! Or, at least, the first part.
Just by #math, and if we include wild cards, an average team should have more than a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs. Thirty teams in baseball, and 10 make the playoffs. That’s one in three. If you want to be a downer and leave out the wild-card loser, it’s still a shade better than a one in four chance.
I don’t understand what the Tigers are doing, the Twins are probably a few years away, and the White Sox are a bit of a mess. The Indians will be the prohibitive favorite in the division, and rightly so, but there are no guarantees.
The Royals have at least a puncher’s chance here. Their margin for error is smaller than the Indians’, and shrunk even more by Glass’ unwillingness to bankroll roster upgrades, but it’s all there — Hosmer, Perez, Moustakas, Gordon, Cain, Dyson, Davis, Young, Ventura, Herrera ... these were most of the best players on the world champs two years ago.
Danny Duffy is better, and Ian Kennedy was much better last year than a lot of Royals fans give him credit for. There is a deep bench of promising arms to strengthen the bullpen, and perhaps the rotation.
So, yes. Absolutely. The Royals can do it.
My low-key favorite part of this is that there are Mizzou fans who claim to be over Kansas who will buy all the Roos gear* if this impossibility were to happen, and there are Kansas fans who claim to be over Missouri who will be furious at the question and your lower-case “k.”
* Some of it’s pretty sweet, by the way.
UMKC is interesting, by the way. I’m actually going to have something more on that program later in the week, but it’s a cool story. Kareem Richardson took a difficult job, but there is some momentum around the program to better promote, recruit, and compete.
They’ve made some progress, too. It’s a strange compliment, but Missouri and K-State have essentially refused to play UMKC again after the Roos beat Mizzou and nearly beat K-State last season.
All that said, I don’t think anyone believes a win on Tuesday is possible.
Kansas, by the way, is going to win the Big 12 by two games. Maybe more. We’ll talk more about them as the season goes on but I believe that with the right progress in the right areas (mostly with the bigs) this could be KU’s best team since 2008.
I suppose I tend to be an optimist about these things but I do think they’re getting better. Now, the first obvious disclaimer is that it would be fairly difficult to not get better from the last two seasons, and the test for whether Kim Anderson will be around for the 2017-18 isn’t improvement — it’s degree of improvement.
Also, no basketball program, particularly one with decent facilities and recruiting base and in the SEC, is doomed for a decade. Things can change so quickly.
But, yeah, I don’t think it takes an acid trip to see Mizzou making the necessary progress by the time the season is out. Terrance Phillips is a point guard you can build around, Kevin Puryear can play, and there are enough pieces around them to compete. The most encouraging thing might be that the best players are mostly freshmen and sophomores, including the top-five scorers.
One of the keys will be Anderson’s ability to keep everyone together, and focused. There’s a bit of Harry High School in taking away the team’s practice jerseys, but he knows his guys better than the rest of us, so if they respond well to it then good for Kim.
True, story and my first two thoughts about it:
▪ This is very cool.
▪ Filling out an actual ballot is much more difficult than all the fake votes I’ve made in the past.
I’m probably 60 percent of the way through, but already have found opinions I had going in changing. In my view, at least, there are a few no-brainers: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez. I understand the arguments against so-called steroids guys, but I’m also expecting to vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez.
After that it gets more difficult. I expected to vote for Lee Smith, but the more I look at it, the less sure I am. I was absolutely certain I’d vote for Trevor Hoffman, but I’m starting to have some doubts there, too.
I didn’t think I’d vote for Mike Mussina, but the more research I do, the more I’m open to it. Vladimir Guerrero is interesting. Same with Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker and many others.
There is no simple way to do this, either. It’s more than simply numbers. Even a mostly statistical candidacy like Martinez comes with a sliding scale of how much to care about him being a DH. Walker’s numbers were obviously boosted by Coors Field, but until looking at it recently, I didn’t realize he actually had a higher OPS on the road than at home in his 1997 MVP season.
I think Guerrero should be in, but it’s his first year, and while I don’t believe in the he’s-not-a-first-year-Hall-guy-but-I’ll-vote-for-him-later logic, I could see him getting pushed off my ballot if there are 10 other guys I want to vote for.
So, I don’t know. I’m getting close to being able to send it in. I consider this a great privilege, and something I take very seriously, so I want to give it as much thought as possible.
I also believe in transparency for these things, so I’ll put my ballot on Twitter and Facebook and expand on my thoughts either here or in a column.
This is in response to my tweet saying I believe too many executives are in the Hall of Fame, but that I believe Selig is deserving.
One quick point, and most of you know this: writers only vote for players. I have no say on Selig, or John Schuerholz, or any other executive. Those, along with players who don’t make it in the 15 years of eligibility on the writer vote, are determined by different forms of a veterans’ committee.
All that said, I believe there is an argument that Selig was the best and certainly most influential commissioner in baseball history.
Hear me out, because I know his approval rating among fans would probably be well below 50 percent.
Selig was the single greatest force tugging a sport stuck in black-and-white into the world of HD and then LTE.
He was commissioner for more than two decades, from a time of cookie-cutter ballparks and stale bubble gum to unprecedented labor peace and TV broadcasts on your cell phone.
We’re all products of our time, so I get that all sports have seen increased TV revenue over the last 25 years, but Selig surfed the wave with Interleague play, expanded playoffs, video revenue and 20 new ballparks. MLB’s Advanced Media is Selig’s baby, and critical, both for the owners and fans. Revenue went from $1.7 billion his first year to nearly $9 billion his last year.
His two greatest accomplishments, I believe: the labor peace, and revenue sharing that has both kept teams like the Royals in existence and helped produce a level of parity that I think is often overlooked and in many ways surpasses even the NFL.
Look, I’m not blind to the man’s faults. The World Series canceled under his watch. He and the players union can share the blame for the steroids problem, and he was in charge of the labor policy when owners were found to be conspiring against free agents.
It remains embarrassing for MLB that executives on the league’s side are repeatedly enshrined while Marvin Miller is not, and of all the arguments against Selig, “don’t put him in until Miller’s in” might be the one that holds the most weight to me.
But Selig was an unquestionably powerful force for baseball for more than two decades. He benefited from some tailwinds with TV revenue, but also had to fight other forces against him.
He was less than perfect, but I believe left baseball in far better shape than he found it.
One last point on this: I mentioned above that I’m inclined to vote for Bonds and Clemens, but I do hope that Selig’s induction to the Hall of Fame can soften some other voters’ stance on steroids. Selig was the commissioner when this was all going on, and he’s being (deservedly, in my opinion) inducted, so let’s all calm down a bit.
Yeah, I’m fine with it.
That probably makes me a bad sports columnist, because disagreeing with the picks is popular and easy copy, but I think the committee has a hard job that’s impossible to do perfectly, and besides, any discontent that moves us closer to the better and inevitable eight-team playoff is OK with me.
Penn State is the team with the biggest gripe, and I understand the case about winning what’s generally viewed as the toughest conference and still being left out of the playoff.
But there’s a simple solution to that: don’t lose a game by 39 points. Or, don’t lose to Pittsburgh. Your choice.
We all look at things through our own bias, so I’m empathetic with Penn State fans who feel like they’ve been cheated here, but there’s also some appropriate personal accountability.
Penn State would be in the playoff if it hadn’t lost a football game by 39 points. Win that game, and I don’t think there’s any doubt they’re in. Heck, lose by a touchdown, or 10 points, and the argument is a lot stronger.
But my heart does not ache for a team complaining about being left out when it lost a game by 39 freaking points.
The obvious answer is relegation/promotion, and in theory that would be interesting in American sports, and maybe I’m being too literal here, but I’m not sure how that would work in reality. In baseball, for instance, you couldn’t just use the minor leagues because those teams are tied with big-league clubs.
You’d have to create entirely new leagues, so more teams, and I think the argument can be made that the biggest professional leagues here are already at the saturation point.
So I’d make the case for something more subtle, which is the Premier League’s rule about visiting fans being able to purchase tickets at a fixed rate. This would probably work best in the NFL, or even college football, but anything that can be done to promote more fans going to more games in person in more places is good for the sport.
I actually think the Premier League could go even further with this. It has every opportunity and incentive to put a cap on all ticket prices. Domestic and international TV contracts make ticket sales a relative scrap of the total revenue, and so much of what makes the Premier League popular to the rest of us is the British fan intensity.
There are potential issues with the secondary ticket market here, but that could be navigated a few different ways, including by making the tickets electronic and non-transferrable.
Also, legalized gambling.
As far as things in American sports to transfer to the Premier League, my understanding is that the Premier League is even worse than the NFL in terms of media and fan access. The mixed zone is a curse word among any American reporter who’s covered the Olympics, and there does not seem to be the same availability of athletes and coaches to speak to fans through the media.