KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Two weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were barreling toward the playoffs. They had won five straight games and become one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
Now, their playoff hopes are suddenly in peril.
The Chiefs were routed 29-16 by the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. On the heels of a loss to previously winless Oakland, the defeat all but eliminated Kansas City (7-5) from contention in the AFC West, and makes its wild-card pursuit no sure thing down the stretch.
The Chiefs have trips to Arizona and Pittsburgh and home games against Oakland and San Diego, and it may take three wins in those four games to have any shot at the playoffs.
''I do know we have a high-character team and that they will work like crazy to get back and do better than this,'' Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. ''We've stalled the last two weeks, so we've got to get this thing turned around and get us straightened up.''
The biggest problem the past couple of weeks have been painfully slow starts.
The Chiefs dug themselves a 14-0 hole early in the second quarter against the Raiders before falling, 24-20. Then against the Broncos, they went three-and-out on their first three possessions and allowed Peyton Manning and Co. to seize a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Even though they climbed back into the game, closing within 26-16 on a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were unable to make it all the way back for the second straight week.
''Our defense was out on the field the majority of that first half. Couldn't help them out,'' Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. ''To start off the game with those three-and-outs like that, you're just not helping the team, and not getting into any rhythm hurt us.''
Just how humbling was the defeat to Denver?
Well, Smith was sacked six times. And when he did get the ball off, he still took a lick, including a questionable shot to the back by Von Miller that resulted in a personal foul penalty.
So much for a passing offense that was supposed to be rejuvenated with the return of Donnie Avery from a sports hernia surgery and the signing of Jason Avant, a rangy, veteran wide receiver who had put together a few good years for Reid when both were in Philadelphia.
The running game proved to be even more anemic. Jamaal Charles carried just 10 times for 35 yards, and the Chiefs had 41 yards rushing total.
The performance was painfully akin to the game that Kansas City played in a 26-10 loss to Tennessee to open the season, when Charles ran seven times for 19 yards in a similarly humiliating defeat.
''We just have to start faster,'' Charles said. ''We just have to execute.''
Easy to say, not so easy to - well, execute.
Asked this past week what Kansas City can do to get off to better starts, Reid talked about everything from playcalling to performance to personnel. But even the veteran coach struggled to come up with a solution for the Chiefs' trouble early in games.
''Well, I'd look at myself first. I'm calling the plays,'' Reid said. ''Was I giving the players an opportunity to make plays? Then I'll go back and look and see if we were executing properly.''
The answer in both cases may turn out to be negative.
While it has been easy to place the blame on the Chiefs' popgun offense, their defense hasn't done a whole lot better. They gave up a season-high 214 yards rushing to the Broncos, the second time in the past three weeks that an opponent has gone over 200 yards.
They also struggled to get pressure on Manning, who has proven to be their kryptonite.
''It's disappointing,'' defensive tackle Dontari Poe said. ''But we have a couple more games to play. It's not like this was the last one. We still have some stuff to fix. We'll come out this next game and play better.''
NOTES: Charles came out of the game with a bruised knee, Reid said Monday, but should be available for Arizona. ... S Eric Berry continues to undergo testing to determine the nature of the growth that was found in his chest. The mass is believed to be lymphoma.
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