Who is this team taking the field wearing the red and yellow of the Kansas City Chiefs this season?
For the first nine weeks, they made that identity pretty clear.
They were a stout defensive team built around the pass rush of linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, bolstered by strong play up front of Dontari Poe and secondary play of Eric Berry and emerging defensive back superstar, Marcus Cooper. Their defense was winning by allowing less than 13 points per game and then scoring some points of their own.
The offense wasn’t great, but it was doing just enough to win. In some games, it shined like against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Giants. In others, like against the Buffalo Bills, not one member of the offense found the end zone.
Everyone has had an opinion on the Chiefs this season. Guys like Pete Prisco over at CBS Sports called the Chiefs the “worst 9-0 team in history” and Denver Post columnist Mark Kizla who called them a fraud before their Week 11 meeting with the Denver Broncos. Other members of the national sports media have praised the Chiefs, like Marc Sessler at NFL.com who thought they were “for real” despite their abysmal record last season and lack luster offensive non-production this season.
However, over the last two weeks it seems the wheels have fallen off the Chiefs train to some degree. After suffering their first loss of the season against the Denver Broncos 27-17, the Chiefs turned around and lost a heart breaker in the final 84 seconds of the game, at Arrowhead against a sub-standard San Diego Chargers team.
The Chiefs defense that was so stout for the first nine games of the season gave up a total of 918 yards of offense over the past two weeks to the Broncos and Chargers. Perhaps more alarming is the fact they’ve allowed those two teams to score a total of 68 points. That’s more points in two games than the Chiefs allowed in their first five.
Many people will point to the fact that the Chiefs lost, perhaps, their best two defensive players within two series of each other on Sunday. Tamba Hali went down with a sprained ankle early in the game and shortly thereafter, Justin Houston was sidelined with a sublexed (dislocated) elbow. While the prognosis looks good for a quick (perhaps this Sunday?) return for Hali, Houston looks to miss a bit more time with his injury.
But the truth is, this team has been playing without Houston and Hali for several weeks now. After posting a monster 10 sack game against the Oakland Raiders in Week 6 and then following that up with a five-sack game in a gritty win against the Houston Texans — including a sack-strip that sealed the victory for the Chiefs — in Week 7, the quarterback crushing well dried up. The team would only record one sack against the Cleveland Browns in Week 8 and then leave the rookie undrafted free agent quarterback Jeff Tuel untouched in Week 9 when the Chiefs faced the Buffalo Bills.
The excitement built during the Chiefs bye week for the AFC West showdown that was looming against the team many had already crowned as “Mid-Season Superbowl Champs” in the Broncos. Everyone — haters and Kool Aid drinkers alike — repeated the mantra that the Chiefs defense would have to get to Peyton Manning in order for the Chiefs to have a chance. For the second week in a row, that never happened. Despite the weak-sauce pass rush, the Chiefs defense still held the high scoring Broncos to their season-low point total in 27. Unfortunately, despite some improved play by Alex Smith and Dwayne Bowe, the offense took most of the game off and was only able to muster 17 points in the first loss of the Chiefs season.
Last week, exactly the opposite was the case. The offense had their best outing of the season behind solid quarterbacking play by Alex Smith and the resurgence of Jamaal Charles who, until Sunday, had forgotten where the end zone was since Week 6. Many have questioned whether or not Alex Smith would be able to “hang” in a shootout. With only 84 seconds left in the game against the Chargers, it had appeared that answer was a resounding yes. Granted, the vaunted Chiefs defense had given up 34 points when the Chiefs scored the go-ahead touchdown with only 1:24 left on the clock. Much of that could be attributed to the aforementioned injuries to the best pass rushing duo in the NFL. But nobody, from the fans in the stands to the guys who get paid to talk about it on t.v., foresaw the Phillip Rivers led Chargers marching down the field and scoring the game winning touchdown on a perfect pass to a guy who’s name I can’t pronounce and hasn’t caught a TD pass since the last time the Chiefs were the AFC West Champions. Andy Reid said it all. He trusted his defense to stop them when they came back out on the field. Yes, Hali and Houston were still in the locker room where they had been since before halftime. But they are only two pieces to an 11-man (and more when you talk about sub-packages) unit that was charged with stopping the Chargers.
So again, I ask you, who are these Kansas City Chiefs? Are they the smash mouth, in your face, eat your quarterback for lunch “Sack City Chiefs?” Are they the team that will hold the opposing offense to 13 points so that the offense can do “just enough to win?”
Are they the team that can and will win in a shootout because the defense will allow teams to score 28 or more points per game. Is Alex Smith a shootout quarterback? Are Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster shootout receivers? Can this team score quickly if need be to in order to come back from a deficit in the fourth quarter?
Truth be told, I don’t think this team is either of those things. Injuries hurt. Nobody knows that more than a Chiefs fan, as we remember the 2011 season when the team was decimated by injuries all season long. But even that year, the team was 7-9 and was a blocked field goal away from playing for a playoff spot in the Week 17 Showdown with the Denver Broncos. Teams can fight through injuries. It’s a fact of the game. Despite all the rules and safeties put in place to protect players, guys get hurt.
So where does that leave this team?
Heading into a critical Week 13 meeting with the Broncos, it’s time for the Chiefs to put up or shut up. There hasn’t been a more important game for the Chiefs all season. Don’t fool yourself, that Week 11 meeting between these two teams was just a warm up. With the playing field leveled by San Diego beating the Chiefs and the Sunday Night Miracle (I just made that up, by the way) in which the New England Patriots overcame a 24-0 deficit to storm back and beat the Broncos with less than two minutes left in overtime, this is the game to decide the AFC West.
Am I being over dramatic? You bet!
While something crazy could happen and either team could get a fluke loss in the last five games of the season, this is a must-win for both of these teams.
So both teams will need to show up this Sunday.
Alex Smith needs to deliver a performance akin to his showing last Sunday against the Chargers. It’s do-able. The Broncos defensive secondary is comparable to the Chargers. The team from San Diego dared Smith to air it out, and that’s what he did, with a considerable amount of success.
Jamaal Charles needs to find a way to have another 100 yard rushing day. He needs to remember where that end zone is and visit it often during the game on Sunday.
The Chiefs receiving corps, be it Bowe, Avery, McCluster or any one of the cast of characters Andy Reid and his staff like to put on the field, need to focus every bit of their energy into supporting their quarterback. Smith hasn’t quite lived up to his “high percentage completion” moniker this season, but let’s face it, he hasn’t gotten much help from the guys he’s throwing the ball to.
Most importantly, however, the defense needs to find a way to stop Manning. After all, the Chiefs aren’t the only team banged up at this late point in the season. The Broncos were without star tight end Julius Thomas this past Sunday, and as of the typing of this piece, he hasn’t been given a 100 percent “go-ahead” to play against the Chiefs. In addition, Manning, though officially off the injury report, is old and still nursing those sore ankles.
The Chiefs need to start fast and keep pushing against the Broncos. The coaches will have their hands full this week trying to game plan for what is being billed as “Chiefs vs. Broncos II The Battle for the West.” Okay, maybe nobody’s calling it that but me, but still, you know what I mean.
Above all else, the Chiefs have prove this week who they are. They likely won’t face a tougher opponent than the Broncos for the rest of the season and even in the playoffs.
Forgive the cliche, but it’s time to “put up or shut up.” John Dorsey, Andy Reid and Alex Smith have most of us believing and have all season long.
It’s time for them to prove it wasn’t all some kind of cruel joke.
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