The Chiefs could have lost this game, and there was a time not long ago that they probably would have lost this game. One play, as much as any other moment, is why they didn’t. Alex Smith, as much as anyone else, was a critical part of the difference.
Smith is usually Kansas City’s version of a Rorschach test, but he was an undeniable part of a 27-20 win over the Eagles on Sunday that in context was nearly as impressive as a blowout at New England last week.
His numbers — 21 of 28, 251 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions — were good enough. But if you watched, you couldn’t help but be struck by how it all played out. A week after everything went right, the same team won because it covered all the stuff that went wrong.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Smith said. “Really meaningful.”
A week ago, the Chiefs had the NFL’s win of the week, and no matter what players and coaches say when they turn themselves into robots for the cameras, that can be a hard thing to follow. Nobody stays on top for long. We know that in the macro, but it’s an easy thing to forget in the moment.
The Eagles were a rotten team for this moment, too. Good enough to win, but without the brand recognition or division rivalry to capture the imagination. A fearless young quarterback, a mean and effective defensive line. The Chiefs lost against teams like that last year, too. Twice. At home.
All afternoon, the Eagles won the fight. They hit quarterback Alex Smith so hard late in the second quarter the Chiefs called timeout. Patrick Mahomes began to throw, just in case. At that moment, this game was going one of two ways.
Either the Chiefs would wear down, and try to soften the disappointment, or they would spend the rest of the day being what they say they are — resilient, together, imperfect and relentless.
You can pick your moment here, because the Chiefs had a lot of them. Justin Houston got deep enough in the backfield that a pass deflected off his shoulder pad and into Chris Jones’ hands. Eric Murray saved a touchdown on a wild and fluky play down the left sideline just before halftime. Rookie Kareem Hunt had two more touchdowns.
But Smith’s moment, as much as any other, broke the Eagles. It was a third and four at the Philadelphia 25, midway through the fourth quarter, score tied. A stop there, and the Chiefs would hope for a field goal. Smith was five yards behind the center when he took the snap, but it was still less than three seconds before Vinny Curry — a bear of a man, at 6-foot-3 and 279 pounds — eurostepped left tackle Eric Fisher and had his hands around Smith’s waist.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the right guard, reached out to shove Curry, and maybe he knocked him off balance just enough. Either way, Smith bowed back, and his left knee dropped just inches above the grass before he took back his balance, stood, and sprinted ahead a blink before a rushing defensive end dove past.
“I had him,” Curry said. “He just broke loose.”
At that point, Smith was 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and 15 from what he needed for a first down. He found a spot on the left sideline, one yard behind the marker and one yard before a defensive back would’ve had time to make the highlights.
Two plays later, the Chiefs got the go-ahead touchdown on Travis Kelce’s soaring run. Kelce gets the credit for that (and the blame for one more unnecessary taunting penalty), and he should.
But Smith’s run — the strength to break free, and the speed to make it count — is one of a few moments that fundamentally changed the outcome of Sunday’s game.
“It’s awesome to have him as our quarterback and the leader of this team,” fullback Anthony Sherman said. “To know he’s going to give everything he has, regardless of what he needs to do with his body, it’s fun to watch. You know you have a quarterback who’s going to lay it out like that.”
Smith was not perfect. He’s made himself easier to defend by dropping his eyes after he breaks the pocket, because teams know he’s not going to throw. He still breaks the pocket too early at times. Both of these issues seem to have grown since his helmet bounced off the turf twice in Indianapolis last year.
But that was the most impressive run he’s had in some time, and his rushing for two first downs against the Eagles was a reminder of what he looks like at his best.
Smith’s replacement is now on the payroll, and whatever awkwardness or controversy comes from that must be diminished by the recognition that the Chiefs have won two games they probably would not have won with a rookie.
The Eagles hit Smith hard, and often, his shoulder driven into the turf and those self-defense instincts clicking in. Center Mitch Morse’s injury meant that the glue of the offensive line was gone, so there was less protection and more worry for the quarterback.
Smith also made another critical completion in one of those planned ad lib scenarios, he and Chris Conley recognizing single coverage late in the fourth quarter for a 35-yard play that set up the Chiefs’ last (and ultimately deciding) touchdown.
It’s not the ideal situation. Smith would be better if the draft capital spent on Mahomes went to improvements for this year’s team, and the Chiefs would be better if Smith didn’t have the limitations that pushed them to draft Mahomes.
But that’s illustrative of the larger point, too. A week ago, Smith shined in a standalone prime-time game in which everything went right. On this day, he shined again, but in a situation far different — vicious hits, protection breaking down, the challenge more about focus and decisions than raw talent and big throws.
There will be a time when Mahomes is the better option. Maybe even soon. But so far, two weeks in, the Chiefs are 2-0 because Smith is their quarterback.