The same holds true each NFL season, though after Sunday, it bears repeating: When you’re only six games into the year, you don’t know what you don’t know.
After six weeks, the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers looked like the class of the NFC. Obviously, that’s no longer the case on the last day of November. The Detroit Lions dropped five of their first six and appeared to be regressing at every turn – now, they’re riding a three-game winning streak. The Houston Texans were 2-4 and embroiled in a ridiculous QB controversy; now, they’re 6-5 and currently hold a playoff spot.
But that’s nothing compared to what the Kansas City Chiefs have done lately.
Because not only have the Chiefs won five straight games after a 1-5 start to take over the lead for a wild card spot, they’ve done so while actually playing like one of the five best teams in the league. Do they actually have a realistic shot at the Super Bowl?
After beating the Buffalo Bills 30-22 on Sunday, Kansas City dispatched their third potential playoff team over the last five weeks; they also beat the Steelers by 10 and the Broncos – suddenly the sleeper pick in the AFC – by 16, in the game that might have ended Peyton Manning’s career. Going into Week 12, the Chiefs had jumped up to fourth in ESPN’s FPI rankings and sixth in Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings. Their standing among the NFL’s best should only improve after beating a Bills team that was ranked in the top 10 of both of those lists.
And they’ve done it with a cast that’s tailor-made for a comeback story.
Like quarterback Alex Smith, who went 19-of-30 for 255 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions on Sunday. Of course, Smith lost his job in San Francisco to the now-benched Colin Kaepernick and was traded to Kansas City one season removed from posting the best stats of his career. The former number one overall pick has not thrown an interception in any of his last eight games, the longest active stretch in the NFL.
And then there’s Jeremy Maclin, the receiver who tore his ACL in 2013 and missed the entire season with a year left on his contract. His former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, signed him to a one-year “prove-it” deal and then he did just that – going off to the tune of 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Eagles still let him walk away. He’s on pace for over 1,000 yards with Kansas City, and his three touchdowns are three more than all of their wide receivers combined last season.
Finally, there’s running back Spencer Ware.
Jamaal Charles, the epicenter of the Chiefs’ offensive attack, tore his ACL just five games into the season. That only compounded the hopelessness that many had for Kansas City’s chances of a turnaround. The team turned to Charcandrick West, a second-year undrafted free agent with zero career carries, but West hurt his hamstring in Week 11 though and was replaced by Ware, a sixth-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks two years ago. Ware had just three carries as a rookie and was released in 2014 after being arrested twice for suspicion of DUI that year.
The Chiefs picked him up and he has been forced into action over the last two games, but he’s just another example on this team of why you never give up: Ware has responded with 234 rushing yards, 6.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns.
Kansas City now enters the home stretch of the season with a real shot at finishing 11-5.
Over the next five games, the Chiefs play the Oakland Raiders twice, the San Diego Chargers, the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns. None of them have a winning record. While it will be difficult for KC to catch the 9-2 Broncos, there isn’t another team in the AFC wild card race that looks nearly as deadly. It could set them up with a first-round playoff game against the winner of the AFC South, which could very well be a team that is .500 or worse. At that point, there wouldn’t be a team in the entire AFC – from New England to Cincinnati – that would want to face Kansas City.
By then, how they started will have absolutely no meaning at all. Only how they finish. Let’s not even bother to call it a comeback.