By Jason Keidel
While the NFL prides itself on parity, it often borders on parody.
We’re all drawn to the bedrock notion (or illusion) that no matter how bad our team was last year, it could contend this year. And we’ve had just enough source matter to support these delusions. While we can always pencil in some monoliths, like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers or Broncos, as eternal contenders, we’ve had, over the last 20 years, the fruition of the gory-to-glory narrative to give it some historical heft. The Saints, Rams and Buccaneers are largely woeful teams that won Super Bowls since the 1990s.
Then we have teams that seem to be in playoff purgatory, clubs that are never galling yet never glamorous. Somewhere during the season we think they are about to make that leap from decency to dominance, only to be felled by their history, mystery or woeful sense of self.
This year that team is the Kansas City Chiefs, who always toe the line between 9-7 and 11-5, good enough to get into the dance, bad enough to leave early. Indeed, their last three seasons have followed that exact template — 11-5, 9-7, 11-5. Even when they go 11-5, they don’t do it right. Last year, they famously began 1-5, only to churn out 10 straight wins and play January football.
But it’s ended the same way every year since Hank Stram prowled the sidelines, barking for Otis Taylor and lauding Len Dawson. If you think back to historically great teams, the Chiefs never come up.
Fine team, fine football family, arguably the best home-field advantage in the league. Yet they never quite hurdle that game, whichever one it happens to be that year. They have a solid defense, but not sublime. Their running game is rugged, but their passing game is led by Alex Smith, the quintessential yet dreaded game manager. Their head coach, Andy Reid, is lauded as among the best in the game, though he’s also the perfect emblem for the franchise — a coach who took the Eagles to four straight NFC title games, but didn’t bag a Lombardi Trophy. Everything about the Chiefs screams almost. They tickle some title every year, then find some subtle deficiency that makes them unsuitable for success.
The Chiefs are, once again, asking us to suspend history and believe in them. And they’re making a pretty compelling case. At 9-3, they would be in first place in five divisions. Other than the Dallas Cowboys, the Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL, going 7-1 over their last eight games. But their last two contests speak to how dangerous they could be — should be — in January.
Two weeks ago, they defeated the Super Bowl champion Broncos on the road, where the thin air of Mile High — or whatever the stadium is now called — tends to suck the fourth-quarter life out of the opposition. And then yesterday, they strolled into Atlanta to play the Falcons, who have the hottest and most potent offense in the sport, and snuck out with a win. Has a team ever won on a pick-six on a two-point conversion?
Only Oakland has the jump on the Chiefs in the standings. But that can be fixed this week, conveniently enough, when Kansas City (9-3) hosts Oakland (10-2) at Arrowhead on Thursday night. And if you’re wondering where they stand so far this year, as all divisional foes play each other twice a year, the Chiefs spanked the Raiders, in Oakland, 26-10, on Oct 16.
A win on Thursday and they would be tied for first in the AFC West, but would hold the vital tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins. Frankly, few doubt the Chiefs are good enough to make the playoffs. They are the typical January football team. Now it’s time to find out if February runs red through the prairies.
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.