The 2018 Chiefs are a bit of an odd juxtaposition: endlessly intriguing, with obvious holes that could sink the whole thing.
In terms of pure excitement, we haven’t seen a Chiefs season like this in years, and in some ways ever. A generation of gripes about the team’s consistent refusal — through three general managers and seven head coaches — to draft and build around its own quarterback ends with the selection of a freakish talent with a photographic memory and just three years as a full-time football player.
But beyond Patrick Mahomes’ inexperience — both at football’s highest level, and generally with adversity — there are real reasons to believe 2018 is serving as something of a soft rebuild.
The Chiefs are a trendy Super Bowl pick in some circles, but the front office is sending signals that a step back this year will be palatable to reinforce a more serious push in 2019.
Or, at least, that’s what I see in this group.
Here, then, is a game-by-game prediction for what will be a fascinating season one way or another.
Editor’s note: Make sure you stick around for Sam’s colleagues’ predictions for the season at the bottom of this article ...
Sept. 9: at Chargers
The toughest divisio n game of the year comes at an inconvenient time, with Eric Berry’s health uncertain and the secondary in flux. Patrick Mahomes has never faced a defense this good, and much of what defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has used to beat Philip Rivers eight straight times is no longer in place, or compromised.
Sept. 16: at Steelers
The Chiefs might be catching a break, depending on how Le’Veon Bell’s ugly holdout goes, but either way this is a matchup that has rarely gone the Chiefs’ way. The Steelers are tough up front on defense, with first-round picks Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt reinforcements after Ryan Shazier’s scary injury. The only teams to beat the Steelers at home last year ended up playing each other in the AFC Championship Game.
Sept. 23: vs. 49ers
The 49ers were just 6-10 last year but 5-0 after Jimmy Garoppolo became the starting quarterback. He’s probably been overhyped nationally, even without some real injury concerns, but still the 49ers have reason to expect improvement. This won’t be part of that, though, as Jerick McKinnon’s ACL injury will make it tougher to run and the vulnerable secondary faces a brutal matchup.
Oct. 1: at Broncos
This is one of those swing games, a moment that can end up the difference between mediocre and the postseason. The Chiefs have won five straight against the Broncos, including three in Denver. The offensive line is a mess there, and they haven’t been to the playoffs since Peyton Manning retired. But Denver is still a brutal place to play, particularly in primetime, and Case Keenum should at least stabilize them at quarterback. A win here is entirely possible and would be a significant boost for the Chiefs, but difficult to predict.
Oct. 7: vs. Jaguars
This is a horrible matchup for the Chiefs. Jacksonville is loaded in most places besides quarterback, with a defense that can pressure up front and cover in the back. Leonard Fournette resembles the backs who’ve given the Chiefs so much trouble in the past, and this core has proven it can beat good teams on the road.
Oct. 14: at Patriots
The toughest assignment in the league is Foxborough in prime-time, and despite the Chiefs’ recent (regular season) success against the Patriots they’ll be a significant underdog here. This is the last of a brutal six-game start to the Chiefs’ schedule; the Patriots play three likely dogs before the Chiefs show up and will have 10 days to prepare.
Oct. 21: vs. Bengals
This is where the schedule begins to open up, and assuming a strong coaching staff and solid locker room are able to stay together, this is where we should see a young team start to improve. But the Bengals aren’t an easy matchup, with a disruptive defensive line led by Geno Atkins and two receivers who can change games in A.J. Green and John Ross. This is another of those swing games.
Oct. 28: vs. Broncos
The Chiefs’ home field advantage has generally been overstated, with a home-road split that varies less than the league average. But either way, a split with the Broncos seems likely, as long as the Chiefs can keep Von Miller from wrecking the gameplan.
Nov. 4: at Browns
The Browns should be much improved, even as that sounds like the setup for an easy joke. They’re strong at the skill positions, and Myles Garrett leads a defense that can be hard to handle. Still, GM John Dorsey has not had enough time to build the Browns to the point where they should expect to beat the Chiefs, even at home.
Nov. 11: vs. Cardinals
The Cardinals were among the teams heavily interested in drafting Mahomes last year, but are now building around some combination of Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen. This is a tougher game than it might appear on the surface — the Cardinals went 5-4 with Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton, and have a defense led by Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones.
Nov. 19: vs. Rams in Mexico City
The most plainly intriguing game on the schedule — on foreign soil, against one of the league’s most talented rosters, including cornerback Marcus Peters who is a virtual lock for at least two of the following: interception, personal foul, touchdown surrendered. The Rams might be the league’s biggest boom-or-bust team, full of game-changers with reputations as difficult teammates.
Dec. 2: at Raiders
The Raiders began self-destructing before the season started, and this is the annual Andy Reid Is Very Good After Bye Weeks game. Anything is possible in the NFL, but in this situation that includes the Raiders playing out the string with a coach who wants to turn most of the roster over and a city that is literally suing the team out of town.
Dec. 9: vs. Ravens
The Chiefs always seem to have at least one home loss you wouldn’t expect — last year it was the Bills, the year before the Bucs and Titans — and this is a good candidate. The Ravens haven’t been to the playoffs since 2014, but appear to be improving and could be transitioning to Lamar Jackson by December.
Dec. 13: vs. Chargers
Another potentially difficult game, particularly on a short week. But if you believe — like I do — that the Chiefs will improve as the season goes then this is a spot that should show up on the field.
Dec. 23: at Seahawks
The Seahawks are hard to figure. Russell Wilson is a nice place to start, but the core of the Super Bowl teams is largely gone. They missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2011. The Seahawks’ more recent draft classes just haven’t kept pace, and their home field advantage has eroded — 4-4 last year. Then again, if the younger players emerge, there’s still enough on this roster to get to 10 or 11 wins.
Dec. 30: vs. Raiders
This is a good one to end with, because the Raiders could be a mess. There is always the chance of a prideful One Last Stand, but with a Chiefs roster that should improve, you’d take your chances.
Regular season: 8-8
Postseason: Miss the playoffs.