The Chiefs’ season has been one hell of a roller-coaster ride. Over the first five weeks of the year, they looked like the best team in football, sprinting to a 5–0 start on the arm of a suddenly aggressive Alex Smith and the legs of rookie sensation Kareem Hunt. Both players were at or near the top of the early-season MVP race, flourishing — along with the team’s seam-stressing tight end, Travis Kelce, and its take-the-top-off-a-defense threat, Tyreek Hill — in Andy Reid’s hybrid offense, which meshed college spread concepts with pro-style West Coast schemes. Without star safety Eric Berry, who tore his Achilles in Week 1, the defense had given up plenty of yards early on, but made up for that by creating key turnovers. The early returns indicated that this Kansas City team had a championship formula. Then, the wheels fell off.
The Chiefs lost six of their next seven games, and the early-season Super Bowl favorites were suddenly in danger of failing to secure a playoff berth. Reid’s offense had gone away from many of the college-style plays that it’d had so much success with early on, Smith had regressed to the dink-and-dunk version of himself we’d seen for most of his career, Hunt’s production plummeted, and the turnovers the team’s defense had been relying on had all but dried up (just two combined takeaways across their six losses).
Crucially, the Chiefs couldn’t seem to find a way to play a complete game. If it wasn’t one thing, it was the other — in losses to the Steelers, Giants, and Bills, the defense did enough to get the job done, but was let down by an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way. In losses to the Raiders and Jets, it was the inverse: the defense wasted solid offensive performances, surrendering 31 and 38 points, respectively. After the team’s 38–31 implosion against the Jets in Week 13, you could’ve counted me among those who had written off the Chiefs as a real threat in the AFC.
But it’s a long season, and the apparent quality of just about every team ebbs and flows from week to week or month to month. Injuries are always a major factor in performance, balls bounce the wrong way and affect the outcomes of games, and every squad must go through adversity at some point or another. For Kansas City, that adversity came in the form of an eight-week stretch in which it won just one game. But with back-to-back wins in the past two weeks, both against division rivals in the Raiders and red-hot Chargers — the latter of which all but guarantees the Chiefs the AFC West crown — the Chiefs’ season has entered what looks like its third act. In this act, they’ve apparently figured out how to show up and play in all three phases.
Offensively, this mini-resurgence started with a rededication to the ground game. Three weeks ago, Reid handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, and Nagy’s gone back to the team’s early-season plan. They’re leaning heavily on Hunt again as the foundation of the team’s offense, and the elusive rookie back has gained over 130 yards from scrimmage in two straight games and found pay dirt three times. That success on the ground has been a boon for Smith, too, because as defenses have been forced to respect the team’s rushing attack, it’s opened things up in the passing game. Nagy’s offense has turned back to a heavy dose of “college”-style plays, also, and the run-pass option has become one of the team’s offensive bedrocks — a scheme that spreads defenses thin, gives Smith easy-win throws, and best utilizes Hunt, Kelce, and Hill’s run-after-the-catch talents. It helps, too, that Smith is aggressively attacking downfield again, like he did on Saturday when Hill lined up one-on-one against Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward. Even Hayward, one of the league’s best shutdown corners, was no match for Hill’s speed, and Smith hit Hill perfectly in stride:
Tyreek Hill made Hayward look legitimately slow here. This is why "just press him" isn't a viable solution: you risk getting torched. And that was a great throw by Smith. Air under it, just let Hill outrun the defender right to the ball. pic.twitter.com/gpgraOPl1B— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 17, 2017
Another important factor in Kansas City’s resurgence is that the Chiefs offensive line has played well of late, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has really stood out — he shut down Chargers pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram in the team’s win last week and hasn’t surrendered a sack in 11 straight games.
The defense has started to pick up some of the slack, too. Since Week 11, Kansas City has given up an average of just 18.8 points per game — seventh-best league wide in that stretch — and that includes that 38-point disaster against the Jets. Cornerback Marcus Peters came off his suspension last week looking like a man reborn, picking off two passes and forcing a fumble in the team’s big win over Los Angeles. The Chiefs pressured Philip Rivers all night, with defensive tackle Chris Jones and safety Eric Murray grabbing a sack each, and Justin Houston, who has 9.5 sacks on the year and registered five pressures on Saturday, has the ability to take over a game on the edge. The team’s seen major improvement at the linebacker spot, as well, getting contributions from a pair of recent trade targets in Kevin Pierre-Louis and Reggie Ragland. Ragland’s been a force against the run, with a league-best run stop percentage (13.5) since Week 10. He’s solid in coverage, too, surrendering just 0.40 coverage yards per snap in that stretch (first). Most important, though, is that the Chiefs are back to creating takeaways, with a combined seven forced turnovers in the past two wins.
Add in the Chiefs special teams unit, which remains one of the best in the league (ranked fifth per Football Outsiders DVOA), and the Chiefs — when they’re on — have the ability to beat you in every phase. Rookie kicker Harrison Butker has been a revelation, Dustin Colquitt’s a Pro Bowl alternate, and the combination of Hill (punt returns) and De’Anthony Thomas (kick returns) makes Kansas City tough to prepare for in any aspect of the kicking game.
No one’s going to blame you if you’re not ready to fully buy in to Kansas City’s turnaround just yet — and it’s worth pointing out that Football Outsiders currently gives the Chiefs just a 1.3 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. That eight-week free fall did happen, after all, and a pair of wins over division opponents isn’t enough to erase it. But in a surprisingly exciting AFC playoff field that features a couple of powerhouses in the Patriots and Steelers and (likely) a pair of dark-horse contenders in the Ravens and Jaguars, it does feel like the Chiefs are getting overlooked. When everything’s clicking, like it has been the past two weeks, Kansas City has a formula for postseason success — an offense led by a veteran quarterback playing the best ball of his career, a physical and versatile rushing attack featuring an elusive back in Hunt, a pair of explosive downfield targets in Kelce and Hill, an opportunistic defense, and a top-tier special teams unit. In the NFL, all you have to do is punch your playoff ticket, and then anything can happen. With a win over the Dolphins this week (or a Chargers loss), Kansas City will clinch the division and home-field advantage in the wild-card round — and the Chiefs look like a team that’s getting hot again at the right time.