The coming days will pump more nervous anticipation through Kansas City than any period since the Royals were in the World Series, and more Chiefs angst than any two-week period since 2003. And you probably remember how that ended.
The best Chiefs team in more than a decade won the AFC West with a 37-27 win over the Chargers here, possibly the last NFL game in San Diego.
They earned a first-round playoff bye, the AFC’s No. 2 seed, and a home playoff game with a sweep of the division, Andy Reid’s coaching, John Dorsey’s roster, Tyreek Hill’s speed, Eric Berry’s strength, Dee Ford’s emergence, Travis Kelce’s stardom, Dontari Poe’s jump-passing and a thousand other factors that fed a 12-4 record.
It all feels so perfect right now. With a very notable exception against the Titans, the Chiefs have played most of their best games since Thanksgiving. This should be a party, and it will be, until it isn’t, which will be when the worrying starts. Because nobody does angst like Chiefs fans.
Well, not many, anyway.
“I’m sure it’s no worse than Cleveland,” said right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who played the last four seasons there. “But I definitely understand a fan base looking for some wins.”
The Chiefs are in a rare position, and not just because only four of 32 teams get first-round byes, and not just because the Chiefs haven’t been one of those teams since Dick Vermeil:
They know their first playoff opponent will be a rematch.
If the Steelers beat the Dolphins, then Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will come to Kansas City. If not, then the Raiders-Texans winner will come to Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs beat the Raiders twice, lost at the Texans, and were annihilated at the Steelers.
So, no matter what, the Chiefs will know their first playoff opponent. They will know what worked, what didn’t, and then begin the layered art of adjusting to what they believe the opponent will adjust on.
With all of that, surely they have a preference, right? Even one they won’t share publicly?
“Nope,” said Eric Fisher.
“Nah, nah,” said Jeremy Maclin.
“It’s never about your opponent,” said Eric Berry.
Some of this is misdirection, if not fibs. There is a case to be made for each. The Chiefs beat the Raiders soundly, twice, and their quarterback depth chart is now a tire fire. The Chiefs lost in Houston, but the rematch would be at home, and they beat the Texans in the playoffs last year and would see another messy quarterback situation.
There’s even a case to be made for the Steelers, and we know this is true, because a Chiefs player was making that case to a teammate after the game. The case is, basically, that the loss on Oct. 2 was a long time ago, that the Chiefs have vastly improved, and would have more to learn, improve and feed upon than the Steelers.
Or, you know, could’ve been postgame bravado.
Either way, one thing that echoed around the locker room — other than rap music, high-fives, and hugs anyway — is that the Chiefs’ success or failure this postseason will have much more to do with how they play, rather than who they play.
Maclin won two division championships in Philadelphia but said this is the best team he’s been on. This will be Tamba Hali’s fifth postseason, and he says this is the best team of his 11-year career, too. You would hear the same answer from anyone on the roster, probably, except for quarterback Alex Smith, who would almost certainly say it’s too hard to compare different teams.
But over and over, they make a point that’s supported by a season in which they won three games against playoff teams and lost two home games against non-playoff teams: the result will depend upon their own concentration, preparation, and ability to block out the pressure of the postseason much more than a particular matchup.
Reaching the playoffs, or even a division championship, has never been the goal. They finally erased the embarrassing fact of no playoff wins since Joe Montana a year ago, and this has always been about the Super Bowl. Nothing else.
The Chiefs have had legitimately high hopes before, occasionally. They’ve been squashed in heart wrenching ways that have become known by short hand around Kansas City — the 28-point lead in Indianapolis, The No Punt Game, the Elvis Grbac Game and The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named.
That’s where the angst comes from. The nerves. It’s a well-earned fear from fans, one that doesn’t tend to seep into the world of coaches and players. They have to approach the postseason armed with routine, and dip around the pressure with a plan.
Hali has been part of four playoff losses with the Chiefs. He points out that the last two have been decided by a handful of plays, so the important thing is to learn from that, to be ready for this opportunity. Maybe the win in Houston last year, and the long string of wins in close games this season, are proof they’ve done that.
Those are differences, and Hali could talk about more, but he will point out the most obvious.
“What’s different is our offense, and to be specific, that Tyreek Hill,” Hali said. “He really changed the game for everyone.”
That’s a whole different conversation, and one we’ll get into over the next two weeks. There is something different about this team. Hill is part of that, certainly, but not all of it.
The Chiefs’ history exists, too, and it has trained a city to prepare for the worst, if not expect it. The angst is part of the fun, if we’re honest. That’s part of what makes this time of year feel alive. Two weeks until we know whether it’s real or not. That’s most of what makes it feel aggravating.