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AFC West Playoff Race: Chiefs Rediscover Poise, Use Illusion to Beat Raiders

Andy Reid's Chiefs beat the Raiders to stay in front in the AFC West playoff race ahead of pivotal Week 15 showdown against the Chargers

Who would have predicted Kansas City 26, Oakland 0, after 50 minutes at Arrowhead on Sunday? The Chiefs, who had given away a four-game lead over their nemeses the Chargers in two months … who had lost six of seven … who were facing an Oakland team that had put up 31 on them seven weeks ago … who were coming off an embarrassing loss in the standings and in poise the previous week.

And then coach Andy Reid booted off the team for the week his best defensive player, cornerback Marcus Peters, for being such a child in a 38-31 loss to the Jets—throwing a penalty flag in the stands, leaving the field when he hadn’t been ejected, and returning to the sideline with no socks. The Chiefs, losing their poise so critically and so publicly. How very un-Reid like.

Biggest game of the season, with a suspended Peters, with a nervous fan base, against Derek Carr, one of the best deep throwers in football. Why Peters, and why now, before the biggest game of the year?

“I don’t weigh things out like that—at all,” Reid told me from Kansas City after Sunday’s 26-15 win. “I try to weigh what’s best for the team, and what’s best for the kid, regardless where we are in the season.”

It worked. The Chiefs, playing with the poise they lacked last week and in several previous weeks, scored on six of their first nine drives, and the play-design and play-calling was vintage Reid. With offensive coordinator Matt Nagy continuing his play-calling role, the Chiefs badly fooled the Raiders on the series that changed, and probably clinched, the game.

On the last play of the first quarter, Kansas City led 3-0 and had a first down at the Oakland 17. Alex Smith lined up in the shotgun, with running back Charcandrick West a sidecar to his right. Before the snap, wideout Tyreek Hill sprinted from left to right across the motion in front of Smith … but Hill wasn’t done yet. He pivoted and sprinted around the back of West and Smith. The ball was snapped. Hill looked for the ball, sprinting left. Smith pump-faked it to him. As that was happening, West motioned right and waved his right hand for the ball. Five Raiders either went toward Hill or took a step in that direction; two Raiders eyed and followed West. That left tight end Travis Kelce mostly alone in the middle of the field, minimal attention paid. And he steamrolled inside the 1 (originally called a touchdown, and then put back at the half-yard line).

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Next play: Three wideouts clustered in a tight triangle split wide left. Smith looked that way a couple of times. Then he simply handed it to the previously slumping rookie Kareem Hunt, and he burst in for the touchdown. Chiefs 10, Raiders 0, and the lead was never in single digits after that.

“Houdini would have been proud,” Reid told me.

Rich Gannon had it exactly right on CBS, when the triangle of deceptive wideouts were flanked wide left. “Look at this Kansas City offense,” Gannon said. “They want you to look over here. It’s a big part of their offensive philosophy: illusion and disguise.”

Told of Gannon’s analysis, Reid, who is as open about his offensive philosophy as president are about nuclear codes, thought of how he could avoid answering with specifics. “Listen, that’s certainly a part of what we do,” Reid said. “We try to do things that have a disguise to them. Teams know that.”

So the Chiefs live for another day … and another huge game. How happy is NFL Network to have the 7-6 Chargers at the 7-6 Chiefs on Saturday at 8:25 p.m. ET, as a standalone game on national TV? On a weekend of terrific games—Rams-Seahawks, Patriots-Steelers, Packers (with Aaron Rodgers presumably)-Panthers—no game will have as much at stake for both teams.

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Reid has been confounded by his defense playing well one week and offense not, and vice versa. Until the last 10 minutes Sunday, he got premier play from both sides. “I go in thinking we’re going to play like that every week,” he said. “Now, next week is the same deal. I’ll feel the same way.”

And now it’s the Chargers, coming off a rout of Washington, and the hottest team in the AFC west of Pittsburgh. The Chargers are 7-2 in their last nine, and Philip Rivers has been reborn.

“The Chargers are as hot as anybody right now,” said Reid, “and we’re going to be working on a short week. My mind is right onto the Chargers right now. I’m going to look at their tape.”