As the NFL playoffs approach, attention tends to gravitate towards the top and the bottom of the playoff scenarios. Many are focused on the New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks for the top seeds, as well as the potential playoff spoilers like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Baltimore Ravens. But don’t overlook the team that few are talking about today that could actually be the number one seed in the AFC before you’ve even done your Christmas shopping.
The Kansas City Chiefs have been quietly working their way up the standings and Andy Reid has a legit chance to get back in the Super Bowl for the first time since 2005. If you, like millions of others, haven’t been tuning into the NFL this season, then you might have missed how this happened.
It started with a 43-14 blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 that Reid took full responsibility for, saying that he didn’t have the Chiefs ready to play. Though even if he wanted to shoulder the whole burden, he wasn’t going to be left alone in that responsibility as veterans like Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, Alex Smith and Jeremy Maclin added that they hadn’t executed well enough to compete, while also agreeing that it was “not the end of the world,” as Reid had put it. “We’ve seen teams flip the script on this and take a beating like this and come back with a vengeance and turn the season around,” Maclin told reporters after the game.
Little did we know how prescient Maclin’s optimistic statement would prove to be.
Since that loss dropped Kansas City to 2-2, they’ve won seven of eight games including road wins over the Raiders, Denver Broncos, and just this past Sunday, a 29-28 victory over the Falcons in Atlanta that improved them to 9-3. They had to comeback late in the fourth quarter to win, but luckily Berry was there to return the Falcons’ two-point attempt for two Kansas City points that gave them back the lead with a little over four minutes to go.
Matt Ryan goes for 2. Eric Berry has other plans pic.twitter.com/taPMPLeqaz
— Barstool Sports (@barstooltweetss) December 4, 2016
The Chiefs now trail Oakland by just one game in the AFC West and potentially are also just one game from being the top seed in the conference. It also happens to be true that Kansas City hosts the Raiders on Thursday night, and with a win will have swept Oakland on the year to give them a substantial advantage in the division with just three weeks to go. (How about that: There’s actually a relevant Thursday Night Football game.)
The answer to the question of how the Chiefs got this good while flying under the radar is more simple than it may seem. They’ve been good since Reid arrived four seasons ago; they almost always win the turnover battle; and finally, they’re talented as fuck.
Reid and general manager John Dorsey have built a defense with All-Pro players at every level, including one of the best linebacking corps we’ve possibly ever seen and a secondary that has arguably the top two players at their positions.
Berry, who returned last season after a cancer scare put his life at jeopardy in 2014, is playing as well as he ever has. In addition to his game-winner on Sunday, he also had a pick-six that gave Kansas City their first lead of the game. Alongside him is cornerback Marcus Peters, the NFL leader in interceptions since he entered the league last season, with 13. Upfront are 2012 first round pick Dontari Poe and rookie second round pick Chris Jones. But since the return of 2014 sack-leader Justin Houston three games ago, it’s hard to imagine a better middle of any defense in the last decade.
Houston has four sacks in the last two games. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson has been to the Pro Bowl in four of the last five seasons and he’ll be going back again this year. Third-year linebacker Dee Ford had 10 sacks in Houston’s absence, putting him among the NFL leaders and justifying the selection of him in the first round in 2014. And rounding out the unit is Tamba Hali, who might be past his prime, but is still valuable and has been to the last five Pro Bowls.
With that combination of great talent, Kansas City is first in turnovers, first in fumbles forced, second in interceptions, and third in rushing touchdowns allowed. They’ve done so against some of the best offenses in the league, including the Raiders, Falcons, and New Orleans Saints. It bodes well for any potential playoff matchups they could have against Oakland, New England, Pittsburgh or the Tennessee Titans, and is also quite reminiscent of the teams that Reid built in the 2000s with the Philadelphia Eagles, when he won 10 or more games eight times and reached four conference championship games in a row.
Those Eagles featured players like Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas and Lito Sheppard. The focus may have often been on Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, but it was the defense that kept Philadelphia as a playoff threat all those years.
This Chiefs defense is better and more talented than any of those teams.
So regardless of whether or not Smith can “lead” Kansas City to a Super Bowl despite throwing just 11 touchdowns in 11 games, don’t overlook that he’s only thrown 24 interceptions in four seasons under Reid, the fewest of any starter during that time and exactly what the Chiefs need from a quarterback who will be lead by his defense. Tight end Travis Kelce may also be the best all-around player at his position now that Rob Gronkowski has been ruled out for the rest of the year, Maclin could return this week after missing the last four games, and four-time Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles has a slight chance to return in time for the playoffs. Even if he doesn’t, backup Spencer Ware has over 1,100 total yards and multi-talented rookie Tyreek Hill has 36 catches over the last six weeks, which over a full season would equate to 96 receptions and nearly 1,000 yards.
Many of these players can be described as sneaky, under-the-radar, and underrated. For now. If the Chiefs beat the Raiders this week, they could find themselves as the top-seeded team in the AFC and then they’ll have to play the part of the giant, the favorite, the team to beat for a chance to make the Super Bowl in Houston. That’s not necessarily something they are used to, but if they keep winning, it’s something they deserve.
Don’t be too surprised when it happens.