By Jason Keidel
It’s rarely a good time when a team from a tropical climate travels north in December, especially around Christmas, when the frigid wind, brick-hard field, and rabid fans join forces. Like Sunday, when the Miami Dolphins (6-9) ambled up to Kansas City to play the Chiefs (9-6), which doubled as a 29-13 slaughter in the meat locker of Arrowhead Stadium; and the official end of Miami’s paper-thin playoff hopes.
It’s not just a tale of two cities or two teams. The Chiefs alone have had two seasons inside of one.
After dashing out to a 5-0 start – including an opening night whipping of the Super Bowl champion Patriots – the Chiefs were the chalk and talk of the NFL. Alex Smith was playing beyond the back of his football card. Tyreek Hill was doing his hybrid Daredevil / Spider-Man stuff on the gridiron, scoring touchdowns in every way legally possible.
And they unearthed rookie gold in Kareem Hunt, a third-round draft pick out of Toledo, who was leading the NFL in the entire RB catalogue the first half of the season. But after slamming into the vaunted rookie wall, Hunt has recharged his batteries, and has rumbled for 362 yards, 88 receiving yards, and four TDs in his last three games.
And the Chiefs (9-6) were desperate for the boost. After that 5-0 start the Chiefs went 1-6, leading the public and pundits to winder if they’d not only blow a high playoff seed or the AFC West, but also miss the playoffs altogether. But now they’re 3-0, and Sunday’s win over Miami clinched the division title for the second straight season. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed the 5-0 Chiefs would somehow gag the AFC West to the 0-4 Chargers, who got sizzling just as the Chiefs got slumping.
Better to slump in October than December, and while the Chiefs looked so lost for seven games, they’re firing on all cylinders now. Wildly talented and slightly tormented CB Marcus Peters has his head right, and has stopped racking up penalties and tossing flags into the crowd and instead is disrupting defenses. After serving a one-game suspension for his public meltdown a few weeks ago, Peters had two interception and a forced fumble against the Chargers two games ago, which helped nudge the Chiefs closer to the division crown. And with his forced fumble and fumble recovery on Sunday, Peters has contributed to five turnovers over the last two weeks. Which is a big reason why the Chiefs have given up 13.7 points per game over the last three, while bagging nine turnovers.
And while the Chiefs sprung leaks all over the squad, they’ve still scored 388 points, fifth most in the NFL. We keep hearing that Alex Smith is a glorified backup who’s only starting because Andy Reid traded for him. Gibberish. For the “Give the darn ball to rookie QB Patrick Mahomes” crowd, consider how Mr. Smith is faring so far this season.
First, close your eyes, block your biases, wipe your emotional slate clean, and just listen.
If I told you that your starting quarterback, through 15 games, threw for 4,042 yards, tossed 26 TDs, just 5 INT, with a robust passer rating of 104.7, you’d thank the Lord and prep for the playoffs. If I asked you before the season who’d most likely post those passing numbers, you’d answer Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.
It’s Alex Smith, perhaps the most publicly questioned, doubted, or abused starting QB in the NFL. All he does is win and produce. But he’s had a few hiccups in January, so his regular season stats are simply cosmetic until he at least plays in a Super Bowl. He’s not Brady or Rodgers, which makes him a common QB criminal. But to brand him a game manager – that toxic handle that makes all QBs wince – is a bit myopic.
If any Chief has a more tattered playoff reputation, it’s Smith’s head coach. Between his careers in Philadelphia and Kansas City, Andy Reid has had his mail forwarded to January, and even reached a Super Bowl. But since he fell three points short in that game – against Brady and Belichick, no less – Reid is saddled with a bio as a bridesmaid. There are 32 NFL teams, and at least 22 would fire their head coach to hire Andy Reid.
Maybe the Chiefs weren’t as good as their 5-0 start suggested, but they’re better than their current, 9-6 record implies. They won’t get a bye week this year, and will, at best, get one home game, which portends a most thorny portal to the Super Bowl. Just remember, the Chiefs are the only team to beat the Patriots (12-3) and the Eagles (13-2), the two Super Bowl favorites. And there’s ample history of lower-seeded teams streaking to the Super Bowl. Just one 3-0 streak in January will get the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl since 1970.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.