How Good are the Chiefs Without Justin Houston?

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Nov 16, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston (50) celebrates after the Chiefs stopped the Seattle Seahawks on fourth down in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won the game 24-20. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The answer should be “better.” But by how much? And will it be good enough to keep their playoff hopes alive by the time he returns in the second half of the year?

Obviously, there is no certainty about how good this team will be during the season in the middle of June. Just take a look at the following list of post-draft power rankings they have received from several reputable sources:

CBS Sports – 21st

ESPN – 14th

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King – 4th

That is an incredibly diverse spread. That diversity reflects the fact that there are still a lot of unknowns in Kansas City. Houston’s presence throughout the first part of the year is the biggest, but far from the only thing left to be determined.

What is not in controversy is that the teams Kansas City will face during the time Houston could be out are thought to be pretty darn good. Those same three sets of power rankings that could not decide where the Chiefs belong, consistently ranked four of their first eight opponents in the top 10 of the league, and placed a fifth opponent at either 11th or 12th. That is a lot of playoff contenders to face – period. Much less without the benefit of an elite pass-rusher like Houston.

I do not want to overstate the value of a single player. As important as Houston is to the defense, and the team as a whole, football is still the most team-oriented of the major team sports. As noted before, Hali is coming back and Ford should be a bigger contributor this season. The rest of the defense should also be as good or better than last year.

And if the offensive line can hold long enough to give Alex Smith time to develop a rapport with Maclin, De’Anthony Thomas and Travis Kelce, then there should be less pressure on the defense than in 2014. And if coach Andy Reid can commit to routinely giving touches to his All-Pro running back, that pressure should be even less.

And that brings us back to the question of whether the Chiefs can be good enough without Houston over the first half of the season to keep their playoff ambitions alive?

I think they can. Even if the pass rush is not as strong for the first half of the year, Kansas City should by no means be a pushover. While the additions to the line and the receivers are not likely to make anyone mistake Smith for Aaron Rodgers when the Chiefs visit the Packers on Monday Night Football, K.C. should still be able to compete in every game they play.

Even if they come out of the BYE at 4-4, the second half of the schedule is lighter and should allow them to go 6-2  with only one or two upsets. And finishing the year at 10-6 is generally good enough to make the playoffs (according to Sporting Charts, there have only been 19 teams who had ten wins and missed the playoffs since 1978).

That may not be most exciting way to get into the playoffs. And for all the personnel moves that the Chiefs have made this offseason, the prospect of increasing 2014’s win total by one sounds like a letdown.

At the end of the day, though, this is just speculation. But if it happens to be true, would you really care how they got in if the Chiefs make the playoffs healthy and are carrying late-season momentum? I sure wouldn’t.