After his Chiefs put the Ravens down 34–14 at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, coach Andy Reid put it succinctly:
“I’m proud of our team today.”
He should be proud of his team, and not just today. The Chiefs have overcome the loss of franchise running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL in October, and the knee injury to top pass-rusher Justin Houston that will keep Houston on the bench through at least the rest of the regular season. They have leaned on rookies, unlikely heroes and veterans playing as never before to bag their eighth straight win, becoming the first team in NFL history to do so after losing five straight games before then. After a 27–20 win over the Texans in Week 1, Kansas City dropped five straight, and all seemed lost. That last loss, an ugly 16–10 game against the Vikings in mid-October, looked to be a turning point for Reid and his team.
It was, but not in the way anybody expected. Not only have the Chiefs kept winning, they’ve done so against some of the league’s better teams. They beat the Steelers (who were without Ben Roethlisberger) and the Broncos (thanks in part to Peyton Manning’s four interceptions), and they’ve taken care of business against the type of teams playoff contenders must handle.
The Ravens, who look like a practice squad accidentally starting due to a harrowing stretch of injuries, certainly fall into that category. But the Chiefs didn’t let down, and at 9–5, they’ve officially entered the group of lower-seeded teams nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
How have they done it? Charcandrick West, an undrafted second-year running back from Abilene Christian who didn't gain a single yard in his rookie campaign, finished with 76 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Quarterback Alex Smith continued his run of efficiency, completing 21 of 25 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. Since the start of Kansas City’s winning streak, Smith ranks fifth in the league in passer rating and has made surprising strides as a deep passer. Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, who was prone to giving up big plays in the season’s opening weeks, has been in lockdown mode in the second half—he’s given up just one touchdown since Week 7 and put the capper on the win over the Ravens with a 90-yard pick-six. Safety Eric Berry has overcome cancer to play at his usual high level.
Still, Reid is pushing for more.
“We’re not near where we want to be," he said after the game. "We have a lot of room to improve. We were playing a lot of young guys. At one time we were playing more young guys than anybody in the league, early in the season. It’s been kind of fun, their maturation process. It’s been kind of neat seeing Eric Berry go from kind of playing to now playing at such a high level. It’s important right now that we stay focused at this time of year. We dug ourselves such a hole. We’re just barely crossing .500 by a couple of games. We have to keep our concentration in focus and keep improving.”
Whenever the Ravens got close to making the game competitive, the Chiefs would shut them down and capitalize on their mistakes. A long Kamar Aiken touchdown reception thrown up for grabs by third-stringer Jimmy Clausen at the end of the first half accounted for the Ravens’ final points.
All in all, Sunday’s win adds onto one of the best coaching jobs Reid has ever pulled off. Everything is working well for this team right now: The offense and defense are in sync, mistakes are few and far between, and the backups have stepped up when called upon. Dee Ford has seen more time with Houston’s injury, and the 2014 first-round pick has really come around, with three sacks against the Chargers last week. Offensive tackle Eric Fisher, the first pick of the Reid-John Dorsey era in 2013, has allowed just a handful of sacks in 2015 after a fairly disastrous first two seasons.
“There’s a lot of talent in the NFL, and every team has talent," Smith concluded. "There’s a lot of parity. But, what sets this team apart is that we have a lot of character. We have great focus and we play hard together. That’s sometimes the difference in this league. On this winning streak, it has seemed like the defense salivates, so to speak. They see a mistake and they jump all over it.”
Once in a while, you’ll see a team that has things clicking on all cylinders, and the Chiefs are unquestionably the AFC's most obvious exampleright now. They may have come on too late to win their division, but once the playoffs come around, they’ll be hard to deal with.