This Chiefs team can play in the Super Bowl like this. Just like this. Flaws and all. Strengths and all.
This is year four of a movement that started with a core of Pro Bowlers and by now they are surrounded by enough support and competence that the Super Bowl has always been the standard they’ve reasonably set for themselves.
And this, a 21-13 win over the Raiders on a frigid Thursday night for a standalone national audience at Arrowhead Stadium, was good enough to be 10-3, first place in the NFL’s best division, the tailwind for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, and building a case as a Super Bowl contender.
This had everything. One of the craziest sequences you’ll see in the NFL: Tyreek Hill, after muffing an earlier punt, goes backward on a return, which is wiped out by a penalty, and then with the stadium chanting his name returns his second chance 78 yards for a touchdown, after which the Raiders punter was called for taunting.
Alex Smith was at his best and his worst, Derrick Johnson is likely out for the season, and Travis Kelce continues his Tony Gonzalez impersonation, with the added entertainment of mocking Raiders punter Marquette King’s dance.
“He told me I didn’t have any rhythm,” Kelce said. “I just looked at him, I was like, ‘We both know that’s a lie.’ ”
This is the 2016 Chiefs, wrapped up into one more win broadcast from coast to coast. The franchise has a reputation nationally for being bland, and at some point that will change as the team of Hill’s breathtaking talent and Hungry Pig Right and Marcus Peters’ punts and Kelce’s playground style is seen by more people.
But this is still a football team first, and a franchise desperate to rewrite its sorry playoff history, so the important thing for now is that this has every look of the best Chiefs team in more than a decade.
“We had a lot at stake,” running back Spencer Ware said. “We had some things we had to prove.”
They may or may not be the AFC’s best team. That will be determined in the playoffs. But they do have the AFC’s best resume.
In the last three weeks alone, they beat a top-three defense, a top-three offense, and a top-five offense. Two of those wins were on the road. The other gave them a season sweep against the Raiders, who have lost only one other game. The Chiefs have beaten both Super Bowl teams on the road, and three teams that are currently tied for first place in their divisions.
They have won 21 of their last 25 games, a stretch that started a month before the Royals’ parade.
“Everything we want to achieve is right in front of us,” receiver Jeremy Maclin said.
There is no such thing as a perfect NFL team. Not the Patriots, not the Cowboys, not the Seahawks and certainly not the Chiefs. We can nitpick the Chiefs, too. A column about their flaws would be packed with facts.
Smith comes with limitations, the Chiefs struggle to run between the tackles, the defense gives up a ton of yards, and a probably season-ending Achilles injury to Derrick Johnson presents real questions about both their run defense and spirit.
They are 10-3, in line for the No. 2 seed, but could easily be out of the playoff picture without a few miraculous wins. The Chiefs would be a deserved underdog in a potential playoff game at New England.
Any dummy with an internet connection can build a case against an NFL team. The problem with the case against the Chiefs is it depends on stuff that almost happened, or hasn’t mattered.
They almost lost to the Chargers, Panthers, Broncos and Falcons. Smith hasn’t been as good as he was in 2015, but the only time that cost the Chiefs was the interception in the end zone against the Bucs (and he actually played pretty well in that game otherwise).
Maybe these flaws will end the Chiefs’ season in the playoffs. No team is good enough for any of us to confidently say what will happen.
But if you focus as much on the Chiefs’ strengths as their flaws, as much on their wins as their near-losses, the case is stacked.
The Chiefs are among the smartest teams in the NFL. This is shown through metrics, and this makes three consecutive weeks where Andy Reid has outcoached the other guy. Kelce is a matchup problem for any defense. Hill provides a dynamism few teams possess and the Chiefs haven’t had for years.
The defense is terrific in the red zone, the Chiefs are among the NFL’s best in turnover margin, and they just beat one of the league’s best teams while going minus-3 in takeaways.
Smith was better throwing downfield against the Raiders than he has been all season. The Raiders’ defense is soft, but he’s been generally playing better lately and Maclin’s return should create more opportunities for everyone.
The NFL trains us to look at the negative. Coaches talk constantly of “not losing” a game before actually winning. Mistakes turn games, and games turn seasons, but even setting aside for a moment the fact that the Chiefs generally avoid those mistakes better than most teams the encouraging part is that they also do a lot well.
How many teams have three pass rushers as good as Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali? Peters is a game-changer at cornerback, Eric Berry is having perhaps the best season of his career. Smith remains good enough to succeed when the pieces around him are working properly, and the pieces around him have been working properly.
The point is it no longer takes imagination to see how the Chiefs can win in the playoffs. They can win like this, like they’ve been winning since the beginning of last October. They have impossible matchups on both sides of the ball, and a demonstrated ability to come from behind.
Any special teams coach who allows Hill a kick or punt return the rest of the season should be fined or fired, but even if they kick away it means hidden yards that help the offense.
The Chiefs have not been their best advocates. They have one playoff win in a generation, and being in the Broncos’ division makes them easy to overlook. Many of their wins have been more difficult than necessary.
But none of that matters. The NFL is legislated in a way that makes wins difficult for all teams, even the ones with Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
The Chiefs don’t dominate. But they sure do win. Over and over and over again, now on a national stage against a team than nobody else in the AFC has been able to beat. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness.
Teams win in the playoffs like this, too. That’s usually the point.