Sam Mellinger

The Chiefs used to plan their season around Raider Week. Now, it’s just another step

A rivalry turned to mush is a sad man wearing spiked shoulder pads and a face covered with black and silver paint. If you saw this man alone, at night, you would definitely cross the street to avoid him. If you saw him here, surrounded by other sad faces, you might might instead giggle.

“You’re trash!” he yelled at Chiefs players and coaches coming off the field. “That was just your quarterback!”

The Chiefs won their last game at the Oakland Coliseum 28-10 here on Sunday. That’s a blowout score, which is a bit of a lie, because in a lot of ways there wasn’t a lot separating the teams.

The Raiders led 10-0 after the first quarter, and this old dump started rocking again with AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells and the screams of fans wanting to make the most out of one last year of their team playing here.

By now, you know what happened. Mahomes happened. He always does, or at least he always has in each of the 21 games he has quarterbacked for the Chiefs. Twenty-one games. If he was struggling, his coaches would be saying it’s still so early in his career that you don’t know what he’ll be. And they’d be right.

But that’s not how this is going, obviously. He won the MVP last year, dragging an uncooperative defense to within a coin flip of the Super Bowl. People said he couldn’t be as good this year, but so far he’s been better — 55 completions in 77 attempts for 821 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.

In NFL history, only four men have thrown for more yards in their first two games, only six for more touchdowns and only two for a higher passer rating (136.3)

Mahomes has turned one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries into something like personal theater, his own highlight show, which is rather unnecessary because he’s had so many already. He is playing a different sport at the moment, the real-life version of a skilled gamer on easy mode.

The Chiefs could have lost this game. In some years, they have lost this game. Division rival, on the road. Mahomes’ ankle still throbbed. His best receiver watched with his arm in a sling. The left tackle played sparingly because of a groin injury. They gained just 31 yards rushing on 22 attempts.

And none of that mattered.

“You did a good job, Mahomes!” the man in the spiked shoulder pads yelled as the quarterback passed, and is this what it would look like if Wile E. Coyote dapped the Road Runner?

Everything is different around this team now, and you could see and feel that in the wake of another win with Mahomes — the Chiefs are now 16-5 in his starts, including 14-3 against the AFC and 7-1 against the AFC West.

Tammy Reid, the head coach’s wife, stood outside the locker room and fist-bumped everyone who passed, even the writers. Inside, players checked their phones and went back through key moments with each other. The mood could be described as pleased but unsatisfied.

The people outside that room will remember this game for Mahomes’ transcendent second quarter.

The people inside the room are remembering it mostly for the parts that didn’t go well. This, as much as anything, is what a team that expects — not hopes, but expects — to win the Super Bowl looks like.

“Collectively, we can all do better,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said.

“We understand we’re winning games, but we’re winning games by not playing our best,” defensive end Frank Clark said.

“You know, we only had like 20 yards rushing or something,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said.

But ...

“But, well, yeah,” Schwartz said. “It’s a big but.”

Football is a trip. The Chiefs spent much of the last two decades on a desperate and (if we’re honest) lost search for a team like this. At times they were disorganized or dysfunctional, confident in the wrong things. They invested in the wrong players, presenting a hollow confidence in hopes of fooling themselves.

In those days, a win like this would set off a party. They would dance. They would sing. They would howl.

Now, they analyze.

No music played in the postgame locker room, at least not for a while, and even then the volume stayed low and the sound cut off after a few minutes. Receiver Demarcus Robinson did an NFL Network interview through his cell phone, and some teammates teased him for a bit — “Let ‘em see them pearly whites!” Mecole Hardman shouted — but it would be grossly inaccurate to call this a celebration.

Allowed up close, in these genuine moments, it isn’t hard to see which teams expect and which teams hope.

This group made that transition at some point last year, when it became apparent that Mahomes was not just good and not just good quickly but in fact a transformative force who could lift a franchise from consistently in the playoffs to potentially holding parades.

That changes everything, which explains the mood. This is a fun team, with players who genuinely care for each other. They spend all day at the practice facility, and then go home and hang out more. They vacation together. Not just position groups, either. As he left the locker room on Sunday, cornerback Kendall Fuller jokingly taunted receiver Tyreek Hill about beating him on Mario Kart. Hill vowed revenge.

Tight end Travis Kelce called playing on this team “the most fun rush that I’ve ever had in my life, man.” Sammy Watkins called seeing a pass from Mahomes spiraling through the air “the best feeling.” Clark said the offense is so good he wants to “grab that popcorn and watch those boys go to work.”

Reid has always encouraged fun, believing it to be not just an acceptable but a necessary component of success.

That can be a difficult balance, and there are times in the past that this group has overstepped. Kelce has, for instance, and is up front about that. A joke at the wrong time, or a line that distracts from the task.

There seems to be less of that now. These opportunities don’t exist for most teams, or in most seasons. Mahomes turns just 24 on Tuesday and is surrounded by a shameless collection of skill-position talent and one of modern football’s greatest offensive minds.

So it can feel like this is just how it will be going forward, that the Chiefs are the sport’s biggest threat to the next Patriots and will be contenders every year. But football is cruel, and the men who devote their lives to it know that truth.

These moments are precious, then, the success not an excuse to let up but an obligation to go harder. That’s different now. It’s all so different now.

“I’m not going to lie,” Kelce said. “That’s been the same from what I can see since training camp. Guys have known what we have is special. We’re just trying to keep building the beast every single week.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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