This is the Chiefs’ fourth year under Andy Reid, and it’s poised to be their best yet. Last season he won the team’s first playoff game since 1993, this season he took their first AFC West title since 2010. Now the team is poised for even greater things. But first: a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Kansas City Star Chiefs beat writer Terez Paylor joined The Ringer NFL Show to talk about what it will take for the team to make it to the Super Bowl.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcription has been edited and condensed.
The Chiefs Have Been Building Toward This
Robert Mays: What is going to be different this time around? What makes this Chiefs team capable of knocking off not only the Steelers, but perhaps the Patriots next week?
Terez Paylor: The first thing I think the Chiefs have going for them is that they’ve been here before. It’s hard to pull like a ’99 Rams and win the Super Bowl out of nowhere. That’s hard to do. Most teams build toward it. There’s some shared ails along the way. Some tough losses, some building-block moments. If you look at this Chiefs team — under Andy Reid for the past four years — there’s been a ton of continuity, and that matters. They’ve had some really tough losses. Think of the mountain they’ve had to climb to get to even this moment, of winning the AFC West and going 12–4.
Let’s think about that. 2013, Andy Reid’s first year, we have a great season, and then they lose in the wild-card round to Indianapolis by blowing a 28-point second-half lead. The team grows from that.
The next year, they miss the playoffs entirely. Still have a winning record, but you’re building on that.
Last year, they started 1–5, the death-walk start. The media has to start asking questions about job security. Andy Reid remains the same guy. Doesn’t change anything, at least not outwardly, he just makes a few tweaks here, keeps his calm. His team still plays hard for him and they bounce back to win 11 in a row and win their first playoff game in 22 years before getting bounced in New England because they couldn’t rush Tom Brady. That’s a tough loss. A lot of people thought they could win that game.
Now let’s look at this year. There’s expectations, right? And some teams wilt under the pressure, other teams rise to it. This team, they rose to it. Oakland had been in first place almost all year. The Chiefs came back at the end of the year — thanks to some help, like Derek Carr going out — but nevertheless, they won their first AFC West title since 2010. My point is, they’ve really been building toward this moment in a lot of ways. There’s been playoff experience. The goal before the year was the Super Bowl. I think that matters.
They Have the Offensive Talent
Paylor: Tyreek Hill gives them a [talent] that they haven’t had. This is a guy that can take it the distance from anywhere on the field. They’ve been missing this since Jamaal [Charles] got hurt. So now you’ve got three real weapons on offense. These are the best three weapons they’ve had here in a really long time on offense: [Travis] Kelce, [Jeremy] Maclin, and Hill. You can’t cover them all; one of them is going to get single coverage. I think that has a chance to help take the offense to the next level, which they need to do. That starts with Alex Smith. But having those weapons will help him.
Mays: And Tyreek Hill, it’s obvious what he’s given them. But with Kelce, it’s been a bit more incremental. He was a good player a couple of years ago. Now he’s the most important player on that offense, arguably, outside of the quarterback. That transition has just become very huge for them, getting to a new gear offensively.
But the Injuries on Defense Could Be the Achilles’ Heel
Mays: I feel like, on defense for them, it’s kind of a mixed bag of injuries. You have Justin Houston coming back, but then you lose a guy like Derrick Johnson, and Jaye Howard’s been gone for most of the year. Guys in the middle of the defense have gone down, but the guys on the edge have come back. In your mind, is Justin Houston playing because it’s the playoffs and he’s going to play? Or do you feel like he is back to where he was, say when he came back against Denver, in terms of his health?
Paylor: I think he’s playing because he has to play. I don’t know that though. The truth, none of us know how he’s going to be until he gets out there. It’s never a great sign when a guy has got swelling on a surgically repaired knee. But the fact is, they’re going to need him. Hopefully for the Chiefs, the weather isn’t too bad and he’ll be able to give them their typical run defense. Because Jesus, Le’Veon Bell, man. I’ve never seen a guy just so patient. He just waits and he waits and he waits and he waits, and he lets that giant line he’s got wear down people, and then it empowers him to keep playing through the whistle and be physical. And he just waits and waits and waits and waits and waits and then the moment there’s a hole, poof, he’s right on through it. Glider. He’s a really good back. My point is, we need as many solid run defenders as you can get. Especially with the fact that Derrick Johnson isn’t in there. I think it’s going to be tough for the Chiefs to probably be able to hold Le’Veon Bell down with an even box. I think [Eric] Berry is going to have to cheat down, and they’re going to have to take their chances with the passing game. Which could actually play in our benefit if the weather is poor and the field footing isn’t very good.
Mays: I totally agree. And usually in the past, even last season, if you were going to defend the Steelers ,you were going to say, “Alright, they really like to sling it around the yard. They have Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown and [Ben] Roethlisberger’s really tuned in.” And they could push it down the field. But right now, it just feels like first and foremost, the way they want to build that offense is with Bell. And then you look at the Chiefs’ run defense. Like you said, no Derrick Johnson. This team finished 26th in run defense DVOA. They gave up 4.4 yards per carry. It’s not a good run defense. So in order to even have a prayer of slowing him down, that’s right, I think you’re going to have to walk Berry down, you’re going to have that be your no. 1 priority and say to the Steelers, “You haven’t shown an ability to beat people over the top in 10 weeks. We’re going to make you do it against us.”
But It’s a Coin Flip, Baby
Paylor: I think this is going to be a fun game to watch. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to come down to whether this offense can match the Steelers. Because the Steelers are getting their points. You’re not holding them to seven points or something, they’re going to get theirs. I think it’ll be a big-yardage game for the Steelers. The Chiefs are going to have to force some timely turnovers; they’re going to have to keep in mind that end zone and hold them to field goals. Then the Chiefs offense is going to have to score. They’re going to have to score and come away with some touchdowns. And a special teams score with Tyreek Hill wouldn’t hurt either. You can run on the Steelers a little too rough, you can do it up the middle. Now their defense has looked better, a little more like the ones we’re used to seeing recently, but you can pound up the middle on them a little bit. Spencer Ware could have a day. And you’ve given Andy Reid two weeks to prepare, so he should have some stuff dialed up for this game. It’s a winnable game for the Chiefs. But it is 50–50; it’s a coin flip, baby.