- It’s still early, and being 4-0 doesn’t guarantee anything when it comes to the NFL postseason, but Alex Smith is playing the best football of his life and the Kansas City Chiefs look like legit contenders
Three weeks ago, when the Chiefs began this 4-0 run with an unexpected takedown of the world champions in Foxborough, Alex Smith was asked to compare where his team is now compared to when it had last played the Patriots. That previous game was the AFC divisional playoff, in January 2016, and it was not as close the final score (Patriots 27, Chiefs 20) may have indicated.
Smith passed on the chance to make any grand comparisons. “We’re both different teams than we were then,” he said. It was mostly a polite wave-off to the question—but at the same time, it was also a direct hit on the truth of the 2017 season. They are, in fact, different teams. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to name a Super Bowl favorite in early October, but the Chiefs are it.
Monday night’s 29-20 win over Washington was far from a perfect performance. The normally stout Chiefs defense gave up big chunks of yardage, and sloppy penalties by the Washington defense kept Kansas City drives alive five times—including a costly defensive offside on Washington linebacker Preston Smith on a third-and-goal in the third quarter, which led to a Chiefs’ TD rather than a field goal.
But on Tuesday morning, at the quarter-pole of the 2017 season, the undefeated Chiefs are the best team in football.
Kansas City has had annual success since Andy Reid took over in 2013, earning three seasons with 11 wins or more and three trips to the postseason. Four years ago, in Reid’s first season, they also started 4-0. But this year seems different. In past seasons, there was a ceiling on how far the Chiefs could go. Their offense had languished in the bottom half of the league in yards gained, and there was that big immovable object in the AFC, the Patriots.
The Chiefs asserted themselves against New England in this year’s opener, with a 42-27 win that represented the most points ever yielded by a Bill Belichick-coached team in Foxborough. It would be foolish to doubt the Patriots’ ability to respond after their (relatively) slow start to the season, because the last time they began 2-2, in 2014, they won a Super Bowl. New England’s weakness has been on defense, and even with some personnel limitations, you can bet a Belichick-led team will be able to clean up the blown communications that have led to giving up big plays. But while the defending Super Bowl champions are working to find their footing early on, the Chiefs are hitting their full stride.
For about a decade and a half, the Patriots have been the measuring stick in the AFC—and the NFL—which is why that January 2016 game in Foxborough is an important reference point. That night, the gap between the Chiefs and the upper echelon of the AFC felt like a wide one. Justin Houston was essentially sidelined for that game, playing just a handful of snaps due to a knee injury. And the question of whether or not this offense—whether or not Alex Smith—could be enough to surmount Tom Brady and New England was a very real one.
In 2017, Houston is finally healthy and has made a big play in the fourth quarter every week. And that Kansas City offense? It ranks second in the league in yards gained, just behind New England. Smith is playing the best football of his career after the organization drafted his successor, Patrick Mahomes, in the first round this spring. Young players like Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Travis Kelce catalyze that big-play ability often lacking from the offense in years past. Plus, Reid is creative as he’s ever been as a play-caller, scheming an entertaining offense marked by shovel passes, and the Wildcat, and goal-line runs plucked from Smith’s days as an option quarterback at Utah.
A few weeks ago, retired offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, whose younger brother, Mitchell Schwartz, is the Chiefs’ starting right tackle, made an interesting point about the difference in Reid’s creativity this season compared to previous ones. “Andy always has the most creative first 15 [scripted] plays of the game, the formations and personnel groups and plays,” Schwartz said. “For whatever reason, especially last year, they’d go in lulls where they just got really boring. This year, they didn’t do any of that. They are throwing wishbone backfields out there, running shovel passes to Kelce, a bunch of things that last year they wouldn’t do. It’s fun to watch.”
The results show up in their record. But a word of caution: The outlook, based on past seasons, for teams that begin 4-0 is mixed. Two teams began 4-0 last year, the Vikings and the Broncos, and both missed the playoffs. In 2015, on the other hand, of the six teams to start 4-0, five made the playoffs and two advanced as far as the Super Bowl. In 2013, both Super Bowl teams started 4-0. Altogether, over the last five years, 75% of teams that started 4-0 made the playoffs. But, the Chiefs have bigger goals than just making the playoffs.
Those goals were, in part, seeded in that very same playoff loss to the Patriots a year and a half ago. They may have seemed far-off that night, but they now feel tangible. Smith would later compare the Chiefs’ playoff run during the 2015 season, in which they turned in the club’s first postseason win in 22 years, to his time in San Francisco when young players’ appetites were whetted by the experience of playing meaningful football in January (and February) with eyes of the entire league on you. “Once you have tasted that, and what that’s like, it puts this thing in the back of your brain, that you just want to get back playing in bigger stages,” Smith said previously. “I think it is so great for young guys to experience that.”
The Chiefs have steadily made their advance. They’ve built their roster with the kind of players who could help close the gap—Schwartz, Hill, even Mahomes, who has brought out the best in Smith. In 2016, they won their first division title under Reid. This year? They’re the early favorites to win it all.
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