With four straight wins, the Chiefs have come charging into the crowded AFC playoff picture. At 6-3, they’re tied with the Colts and Browns for the third-best record in the conference, and a game ahead of five other teams (not to mention a half-game up on the 5-3-1 Bengals).
But what should we make of the Chiefs? Are they true contenders, or are they pretenders?
If you judged Kansas City solely off Sunday’s 17-13 win over the Bills, you wouldn’t take them seriously. The Bills wrote the book on how to lose a game—and it’s multiple chapters long—at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday. The most egregious error was Bryce Brown’s fumble at the 1-yard line (plus Scott Chandler’s muffed recovery in the end zone) on the opening drive of the second half. That carry should have made the score 17-3 and all but ended the game.
Offensively, the Chiefs were outgained (364 to 278), couldn’t convert third downs (3-for-13) and were overwhelmed up front by the Bills’ defensive line. Kansas City, which only had the ball for four plays in the third quarter, had two drives that netted 127 yards. The other 11 gained 151.
Sure, the Chiefs made plays. Ron Parker, an alumnus of Division II Newberry College who had been cut eight times during his career, forced the Brown folly and broke up three passes down the stretch. Albert Wilson and Anthony Sherman combined to force a Leodis McKelvin fumble on a punt return. And, of course, there were the two fourth-quarter touchdown runs. The first was a dazzling toss play to Jamaal Charles, who rewarded Andy Reid’s guts to go for it on fourth-and-1, going untouched for a 39-yard score. The second was the game-winner, quarterback Alex Smith diving to finish an eight-yard run with 8:59 left.
But this game was more about what the Bills didn’t do—three fumbles, all lost, poor decisions from Doug Marrone and his staff—than what the Chiefs did. And you’re naturally a bit skeptical considering Kansas City’s six wins have come against five teams that are currently out, or on the fringes, of the playoff picture (Dolphins, Chargers, Rams, Jets, Bills). The other win was over the Patriots, who bottomed out on that Monday night but are a completely different team now.
Yet that feels unfair. Any team that has the second-best scoring defense (behind Detroit) is going to be in every game for the rest of the season, provided it doesn’t go into a tailspin (like the Chiefs did last season… after an improbable early-November win in Buffalo, outgained 470 to 210 by a Bills team starting Jeff Tuel at quarterback). And with Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and emerging end Allen Bailey (who was terrific on Sunday) anchoring the front seven, Kansas City is tough against the pass and run, and capable of running defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s creative designer blitzes.
Offensively, everything still runs through Charles and backfield mate Knile Davis. But in the passing game, with the emergence of tight end Travis Kelce and spot plays from rookie receiver De’Anthony Thomas, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe isn’t the only viable target Smith has to rely on.
And it’s a shame the Chiefs’ offensive line was so poor against the Bills (especially the right side of Zach Fulton and Ryan Harris), because Smith seems to be on the verge of a breakout. He’s always been a solid quarterback, but he has taken another step this season, perhaps buoyed by his four-touchdown performance in last year’s playoff loss to the Colts. It was one of the few games in which Reid trusted Smith to be aggressive and carry the team. Both Reid and Smith seemed to have learned a lot in that game and it has carried over to this season. The Chiefs are no longer the Jamaal Charles show. Smith is fully capable of shouldering a lot of the load—if he has the time.
The offensive line could be the key area for these Chiefs. Outside of center Rodney Hudson, this is not a good group, at least not yet—and that’s taking Sunday’s dismal performance out of the equation. Left tackle Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in 2013, hasn’t come close to living up to that billing, or even the billing of a solid left tackle. Left guard Mike McGlynn and Harris are definition of journeymen with a combined nine teams (10 stints) on their résumés. Fulton, the right guard, is a sixth-round pick. With games against the Seahawks, Broncos, Cardinals and Steelers still to come, the performance of the offensive line will determine whether the Chiefs sink or swim.
The real opportunity for the Chiefs will come Nov. 30 when the Broncos come to town. Despite having a dynamic defense with the type of athletes in the secondary to matchup with the Broncos’ many weapons, Kansas City hasn’t come close to slowing down Peyton Manning (66.3 completion percentage, 9.6 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns against two interceptions and 118.8 rating in the three matchups so far). It’s perplexing because, if you were to draw up a defense to give Manning fits, the Chiefs have all the pieces.
If Kansas City can knock off the Broncos, that would serve notice that they have arrived as an AFC contender. But right now, they’re not on that level.
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