Two months ago, it appeared the Kansas City Chiefs were in the midst of a lost season. They're now closing in on a playoff berth.
The surging Chiefs can improve their postseason chances by matching the franchise record with a ninth consecutive victory Sunday at home against the lowly Cleveland Browns.
''I like the football team," coach Andy Reid said. "I like the makeup, even during that (losing) time. We have some character guys."
There's no AFC team hotter than Kansas City (9-5), which has turned a 1-5 start into a potentially special season. The Chiefs have averaged 29.8 points and allowed 12.3 while going undefeated since a five-game skid.
''Everybody knew what this team was capable of,'' receiver Jeremy Maclin said. ''Now we're kind of putting it together, (but) we still have a way to go before we get to where we want to be.''
That might be easy to say as the Chiefs try to equal the club mark for consecutive wins set with a 9-0 start in 2003 and matched 10 years later. However, Reid's players never got down while he stuck behind them during those early struggles and especially after star running back Jamaal Charles suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5.
''We just put our heads down," Reid said. "We try to do that every week. It's just winning or losing in this league is a small margin between it. I felt like we were close, but you have to do it.''
A victory Sunday and a loss by Pittsburgh or New York will put Kansas City in the postseason for the second time in three years. One game behind first-place Denver in the AFC West, the Chiefs could still win their first division title since 2010.
Kansas City seems to be in good shape to continue its success as it takes on Cleveland (3-11), which is in the running for next year's top overall draft pick. The Browns are 29th averaging 18.1 points and were held to 230 yards in last Sunday's 30-13 loss at Seattle.
Johnny Manziel has thrown a touchdown pass in four straight games and led a 15-play, 80-yard opening TD drive last weekend. But he's facing a Chiefs team that's second in the NFL with a plus-15 turnover differential and a defense whose two touchdowns in last Sunday's 34-14 win at Baltimore equaled the amount they allowed.
''Our guys are playing with a lot of energy and a lot of confidence,'' said linebacker Tamba Hali, who hasn't been ruled out despite having surgery on his broken right thumb suffered last week. ''We're on a mission."
Offensively, Maclin has caught four TD passes in as many games. Charcandrick West scored on a 38-yard run last weekend and has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in two games after posting 2.7 in his previous three.
Cleveland has allowed at least 30 points in six of seven games and yielded a season-high 182 rushing yards against the Seahawks.
"There are just a handful of plays a game where the other team executes and we don't and we're allowing big plays," embattled coach Mike Pettine said. "Like I said, the effort, the energy is there but just the level of consistency that's required to win is not."
The Browns' defense will be missing linebacker Armonty Bryant after he and safety De'Ante Saunders were arrested Christmas morning after a traffic stop. The State Highway Patrol says Saunders was cited for driving under the influence, and a gun was also found in the car.
Bryant will not travel with the team so he can tend to the legal matter.
Though the effort might be present until the end, the Browns' 16 losses in the last 19 games have Pettine's run as coach in danger of ending after two seasons. That would be another setback for a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002 and is nearing the end of an eighth consecutive losing season.
''Any time you make a change in an organization on the coaching staff or you make a change in the organization, there is a one step back that you have to take and that is just a part of making a change,'' Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said.
"It does take time to teach people the new philosophy, the new procedures, the new schemes and certainly this NFL game is something that takes more than one or two years to be really good in a scheme. ... There is a level of proficiency that you can get in a year to be OK, but it really takes a few years in a scheme before you can get really good at something.''
Alex Smith threw two TDs in Kansas City's 23-17 home win over Cleveland in October 2013.