The men who form a team unlike any in memory are wearing new division championship hats and yelling joyful expletives and making Christmas puns, and there should never be a point where any of us are so jaded that we can’t appreciate an accomplishment.
Or, if any of us are that jaded, at the very least we can appreciate jolly ol’ Chiefs coach Andy Reid dressing up as Santa Claus for his postgame news conference.
The Chiefs beat the Dolphins 29-13 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, clinching a second consecutive AFC West championship for the first time in the history of Earth.
This is the first time they’ve been to three consecutive playoffs since the 1995 season, and Alex Smith is having the year of his professional life, and Tyreek Hill is an honest-to-goodness star, and the defense is playing its best of the season — so why does this all feel at least a little uninspiring?
We turn now to Travis Kelce, perhaps the most honest man in the locker room, to ask if this season will be a success if the Chiefs don’t go farther in the playoffs than they did last year.
“No,” he said. “It’s not.”
If this is throwing a (very cold and) wet blanket on a party then, well, sorry. But this is how it was always going to be for this team, even after it lost all benefit of the doubt with six losses in seven games.
This is now three consecutive convincing wins, but they come after what was basically two consecutive months of convincing losses.
There was a time this would be enough, and if you are old enough to read these words you are old enough to remember that time — four years ago. That’s when Reid and Smith and John Dorsey and everyone else helped restore credibility to a franchise that had been shamed and made itself a league-wide embarrassment.
Consistency, is how chairman Clark Hunt put it. Stability, is how a lot of the rest of us saw it.
The Chiefs checked that box, though, and the same way an eighth-grader no longer gets credit for tying his shoes, a franchise that has won exactly one (1) playoff game in the last 22 (twenty-two) seasons does not get credit for avoiding a midseason meltdown and winning a mediocre division.
The men on this team once talked about the Super Bowl, and when they did others didn’t laugh.
So this can’t be it. A division championship isn’t enough, not without some postseason success. The Chiefs have lost in the division round each of the last two seasons — with one of the longest 2-minute drives in NFL history at New England in January 2016 and without giving up a touchdown against Pittsburgh in January 2017.
So, same question to Hunt: Will you consider this season a success without going farther in the playoffs?
“Probably in the moment, it’ll be hard to evaluate that,” he said. “That’s one of those things we’ll have to look back when it’s over. Certainly coming into the year, we had aspirations to not only make the playoffs but go deep in the playoffs. To make the Super Bowl. I don’t really want to comment on how I’ll feel at that time. Today we’re celebrating making the playoffs, and winning the division, because if we don’t do that then we don’t have the opportunity.”
In other words: No, he won’t consider it a football success, but he’s also far too restrained to say that publicly.
This is such a hard team to figure, and a frustrating one to follow. The Chiefs’ most inspirational player is injured, their most interesting player might be the backup quarterback, their best player has knees that could go on any snap, their best receiver has never played the position full-time before, and their starting quarterback has some of the best numbers in the league and many fans can’t wait to get rid of him.
They were the best team in the league through five games, the worst non-Browns team in the league for the next seven, and in many ways even better for the last three than they were in the beginning.
If you want to believe, good on you, nobody should give you grief for it. Part of being a fan is believing in the unlikely.
But for the rest of us, this isn’t enough. Can’t be enough. Teams worthy of trust don’t lose six of seven, including twice at MetLife Stadium, where only three other visitors have lost in 15 tries.
Teams worthy of trust don’t miss that many tackles, don’t settle for that many field goals, and they don’t build defensive schemes around pressuring the quarterback and then so rarely pressure the quarterback.
Let’s give the Chiefs one benefit of the doubt, and assume they can win a wild-card game (likely against the Ravens) at home (where the Chiefs have lost their last five playoff games, going all the way back to January 1994).
That will likely mean a road game against the Patriots or Steelers, and is there any reason to believe they’ll be able to stop Le’Veon Bell this time? Or that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won’t figure out how to isolate Daniel Sorensen and other Chiefs defensive backs not named Marcus Peters?
The Chiefs haven’t beaten a likely playoff team since Week 2.
From the very beginning, this team has accepted that it would be judged by the postseason. That is the cross to bear for talented teams, and it is a particularly heavy one here, because only the Jets, Browns and Lions have gone longer without playing in the Super Bowl.
Getting to the playoffs is nice, but mostly in the way that driving safely to the restaurant is nice. It’s not really the point.
The Chiefs lost any logical trust with those six losses. They can win it back, but only by winning it back.
Any skepticism they face is earned, and deserved.