This week, I went back to watching the Chiefs’ 2011 game tape. While I had been primarily focused on losses to examine areas the Chiefs needed to improve, I had been saving one particular game as a snack somewhere down the road.
Beating the undefeated Packers was great. Stuffing the Donkeys to force them to enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak made me happy. But, nothing could compare to the emotions I felt when watching our team rise from the grave in Week 8 on Monday Night Football to take the division lead against the San Diego Chargers.
Triumphant Zombie Chiefs they were. It was the exact midpoint of the season and it looked like the Chiefs were about to shake off their crap injury luck and humiliating start and go back to being the AFC Champs that they were.
For starters, what made the game great was that it was one of the rare times that it was absolutely clear that all Chiefs fans believed. Arrowhead has always been one of the loudest, most inhospitable places to play for visiting teams, but our fans took it to a new level that night. Even watching it on TV from tens of thousands of miles away, I could see the difference. After playing like the worst team in the sport for the first two and a half games of the season, the Chiefs had brought themselves to a place where they had to play a game against a rival on national television at home for the division lead. On Halloween. There is simply no better setup than that.
I also had forgotten previously just how good the Chiefs-Chargers rivalry is. Of course, I personally despise the Raiders and even the Broncos much more vehemently, but that comes mostly out of the irrational, non-competitive parts of my brain. Now, with a hall-o-fame QB at the helm in Denver, all the focus has been on them and the race to beat them out for the 2012 title. But, in all that talk, it is forgotten that the Chiefs and the Chargers have together won seven of the last nine division championships. That means that Oakland and Denver together have shared just 22 percent of the division titles over the last nine years. It’s anyone’s guess how strong the Chargers will be this year, but one thing is clear: for the last decade, KC and SD have owned the title.
Unfortunately, although KC had achieved an impressive three-game winning streak to get them to that game, that place in time, the offense indeed did play most of the game like the undead. The Chargers far outgained the Chiefs, and the difference in the game came down to capitalizing on San Diego mistakes. Still, there was some magic in the air in Arrowhead on Halloween. Dark magic.
First off, Tamba Hali didn’t just play like a man possessed. He was a man possessed. Whatever evil spirit took hold of him was just toying with the Chargers’ offensive tackles all game. He forced more than half a dozen penalties, had two sacks, a timely forced fumble, and overall terrorized the bejesus out of San Diego blockers.
Cassel hit some really pretty passes.
Despite all of that, the Chiefs played a really poor middle part of the game. A signature of the Todd Haley era, the offense constantly struggled to get plays and substitutions in on time. This led to a comedy of errors at the end of the first half, in which the Chargers were on the run but KC was just far too discombobulated to do anything right. Eventually, everyone just scratched their heads and kicked a field goal. By the end of the game, the color commentators were repeatedly using the phrase “Poor Matt Cassel” as our beleaguered QB was having to basically organize the bloody mess himself.
Although I didn’t know this when I watched the game live, when McGraw went out down with an injury and Donald Washington went in to replace him, this spelled doom for the Chiefs. This time around, I knew automatically that this would be the turning point. Sure enough, San Diego came from 10 points behind to tie the Chiefs in the second half. After being totally ineffective in the passing game in the first half, once there was only one competent Chiefs safety on the field, SD hit big play after big play to drag themselves back into the game.
The game was also largely a microcosm of Jonathan Baldwin’s rookie year. He hauled in the catch of his NFL career (thus far) — a beautiful deep pass for a TD — but he also committed several mental errors. He dropped two balls, both of which hit him in the hands, and the second one bounced off of his breadbasket and into the arms of a San Diego defender for an interception. It was a Jekyll and Hyde game for what has so far been a Jekyll and Hyde receiver.
As much as Hali was playing out of his mind, when the Chargers were able to neutralize his pass rush (usually through unnoticed penalties), Rivers was as comfortable as if he had returned to his mother’s womb. Houston had not yet arrived to the scene.
And, while I am all for getting Houston to develop and mature into a legit pass-rushing threat, I am still not convinced that is what he is just yet. Three of his 5.5 sacks in 2011 came against the Bears – a bad quarterback behind a bad offensive line (seriously, Caleb Hanie finished with a worse 2011 passer rating than Tyler Palko).
This brings me to my next disturbing realization while watching this game. Like our match against the Packers, in this game, San Diego was playing like absolute dogcrap 80 percent of the time. They had nine penalties in the first half, they turned over the ball four times and missed an easy field goal. Given all of that, the Chiefs should have beaten them by 20. Instead, we beat them by a field goal in overtime.
In part, this is just how the Chiefs play. We keep every game close and work to go the extra mile by the end of the game. But that won’t cut it in the playoffs. Playoff teams beat their opponents into submission when they have the chance and are able to run their offense like a machine. While I have no doubt the Chiefs will be able to secure the division title again in 2012, this roster still has yet to prove that it can be dominant.
That is why I think it is important to remember the Zombie Chiefs and remember where we are coming from. We are not just coming off of an off year that was plagued with injures. No. We were a dead team that clawed its way back into the division race as ugly as it was, and played with every ounce of its potential to come within a single blocked field goal of the postseason again.
We need to remember that hunger of a zombie team that had been written off by the league. We need to remember what it was like to be the fans of a team standing behind the walls of the Alamo on Halloween, defending its title like champs when everyone expected it to fold. I know there has been a lot of gloating and optimism among myself and others on this site for all of the shrewd offseason additions and the swift recovery of our wounded stars. But, if we are going to take this team’s destiny to its full potential, we need to remember where we came from.
The 2012 season for me is just a continuation of our rise from the grave. The media can talk about Peyton Manning all they want. Tamba will be feeding on his brain and JC will be dancing in his end zone before long. To steal a motto from the Greyjoys, “What is dead can never die.” Long live the Zombie Chiefs!