After the Kansas CIty Chiefs narrowly escaped another last-place team on the road on Sunday, have we forgotten how hard it is to win in the NFL?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “How did the Kansas City Chiefs barely beat [insert team with terrible record]?”
Two weekends in a row! First, it was the Russell Wilson-stricken Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in a game where the Chiefs never trailed, leading by as much as 27-0, but only won by 6 measly points.
Then Kansas City had the audacity to let the Houston Texans—the 1-12-1 Houston Texans—take them to overtime in a road game in Houston on Sunday. I mean, seriously, does Houston even pay their players? Better question: do they pay their players as much as they pay the refs? What business does a terrible team like Houston have hanging around with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but Carl Cheffers might. Contrary to popular belief, and in the nature of gravitating back towards reality, Houston does in fact pay their players. While ranked poorly in comparison to other teams in 2022, the Texans defense does sport some names that would have made noise on more successful franchises in their careers. Guys like Jerry Hughes, Christian Kirksey, and Tremon Smith have crafted commendable careers on multiple teams. Rookies like Jalen Pitre and Christian Harris are working towards building a culture of nastiness on the Houston defense that will eventually carry the franchise out of the doldrums they find themselves in today.
Parity is something that gets acknowledged in most league circles with the exception of a few—in the fanbases of teams who have already “arrived”. Got your franchise QB and a few weapons around him? Check. Made the playoffs a few years in a row and look like you’re firmly on track to do the same this year? Bingo. Take that to an entirely different level and ask yourself: has your team hosted 4 consecutive AFC Championship games? There is only one fan base who can check that achievement off the list, and it seems like Chiefs Kingdom might be the farthest removed from the realization that parity in the NFL is genuine and it’s going to be something that our Chiefs continue to have to deal with.
Just look at the league standings. At the moment, there are only two teams in each conference that are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention: the Broncos (4-10) and Texans (1-12-1) in the AFC, and the Cardinals (4-10) and Bears (3-11) in the NFC. Six teams, including the Chiefs, have clinched either a playoff spot or their respective division championship. That means that there are still 22 teams left in the hunt for the playoffs at the moment. Of course, these teams have varying degrees of hope ranging from “not much more than a prayer” to “locked in but the division race is still tight”.
The AFC Wild Card picture is insane, with 9 teams within 3 games of each other with 3 weeks left to play. The Ravens are in the catbird seat at 9-5, but without starter Lamar Jackson at the moment. Behind them, the Chargers and Dolphins sit at 8-6 while the Patriots and Jets are an even 7-7. Just behind them the Jaguars, Raiders, Browns, and Steelers all find themselves with a puncher’s chance at 6-8. In the NFC, the same thing. The Giants are 8-5-1 but right behind them the Commanders, Seahawks, and Lions all have 7 wins. Even the trio of Carolina, New Orleans, and Atlanta – all at 5-9 – still are only a game back from winning their division with the 6-8 Bucs leading the way in an unexpectedly sad NFC South.
Everyone hangs with everyone in today’s NFL. The Chiefs are not alone in getting played closely by subpar opponents. Look at the NFC (and NFL’s) best team by record this year, the Philadelphia Eagles. Do we discount their 13 wins because they only beat the Cardinals by 3, the Colts by 1, or the Bears by 5 just this past Sunday? Do the 10-4 Bengals discount their record because of an embarrassing 19-point loss to the Browns earlier this year or a narrow victory over the 5-9 Saints? The 49ers LOST to the Broncos and the Bears and are everyone’s hot new toy heading toward the playoffs.
The point of this isn’t to say “hey, other people have problems so we should ignore our own”. That’s a fantastic way to lose accountability and lower standards and I’m certain no one in the Chiefs locker room is looking at it this way. The point is not winning by 14+ points every week is not something to lose your shit over, especially if the team is still winning. The Chiefs in a lot of ways are an ugly 11-3, but at the end of the day, there is no one in the AFC with a better record, only a team in the Bills possessing a tiebreaker. Will that hurt them in the playoffs? That remains to be seen.
This isn’t something that we should be surprised by in the Patrick Mahomes era, though. In fact, these head-scratching close games have been pretty regular against “subpar” teams and “bad” coaches. In 2019 Mahomes and the Chiefs narrowly escaped Detroit with a 34-30 win over the Lions, who finished that season 3-12-1 under the leadership of Matt Patricia. In 2020, the Chiefs beat the Matt Rhule-led Panthers, who finished 5-11, 33-31, and managed to squeak by the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons and head coach Dan Quinn by a score of 17-14. Both of these games were at home. 2021 saw the Chiefs barely eke out a Monday Night Football win against Joe Judge and the 4-13 New York Giants, and obviously, we all know where we stand with this year’s close calls against Frank Reich’s Colts, Nathaniel Hackett’s Broncos, and Lovey Smith’s Texans.
Where did the Chiefs end up in those previous seasons?
2019: Won Super Bowl 54
2020: Lost Super Bowl 55
2021: Lost in the AFC Championship game
Each of those close calls to subpar teams was a step in the right direction for those respective Chiefs teams finding themselves en route ultimately to a new, unique playoff push. Coming into 2022, there was no doubt that this would be a “retooling” year—you don’t rebuild with 15 under center—so to say that there would be question marks around the team’s identity would be an understatement. At any moment, even now, you will see as many as six rookies on the field at one time on defense. Offensively, the amount of snaps Mahomes has taken with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson, and Skyy Moore combined is still about 1,200 snaps short of how many he had with Tyreek Hill during Hill’s time in K.C.
The Chiefs have clear issues that need to be addressed to confidently assume that they can make it to the AFC title game for a fifth consecutive season. Turnovers have plagued the offense all year while a lack of takeaways from the defense has led to a -6 turnover differential – the fourth worst in the league. The emergence of running back Isiah Pacheco and Jerrick McKinnon’s clutch gene being on full display at times have been thwarted by continually confusing play calls from Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy, and the Chiefs’ offensive brain trust. Penalties have been killers at times.
But here we stand heading into a Week 16 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks with a couple of questions left to answer about this team, the most important being this: What is the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs’ identity?
To be certain, that has yet to be fully defined. And while there are only three short weeks left in the regular season and while two of the biggest games of the year have come and gone into the Win/Loss column as Ls, that doesn’t mean that we should be pressing the panic button as a fan base. The second hardest thing to do in the NFL is win games, and the hardest thing to do is win games consistently. The Chiefs have mastered both at a historic level over the course of the last 7 seasons. If anything, in 2022 the team’s identity is shaping up to be a unit that finds a way to win—good, bad, ugly, or worse.
This content was originally published here.