The primary storyline surrounding the Kansas City Chiefs’ remarkable 3-0 start to the 2013 season is that it’s all about the quarterback and the coach. And to a point, it absolutely is. Andy Reid and Alex Smith — both ready to start anew after undesirable exits from their respective prior longtime places of employment — have brought new energy, new life, and quite frankly, an upgrade of talent to both the sidelines and the quarterback position.
Quarterback and coach. Kindred spirits.
You can’t deny the impact that has on an organization. As one ex-player told me this week in regards to the Josh Freeman stuff in Tampa Bay, “Aside from the coach, the most important person in the facility is the starting quarterback.”
So, yes. Smith and Reid are top three storylines here.
But man, I’ve been awfully impressed with the defense. And that storyline, well, it’s not quite as sexy, and it certainly isn’t as simple to explain. The Chiefs’ defense, ranked 20th in the league a season ago, is currently second in the league in points, allowing just 11.3 per game through three weeks.
New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has employed a ferocious pass rush attack that’s worked around the strengths of its key players. Last year, for example, Dontari Poe — a rookie still finding his legs in Kansas City’s 3-4 scheme at the time — was eating up guards and tackles, allowing Derrick Johnson to rack up tackles.
This year, in Sutton’s new defense, Poe is free to rush the passer, which he is doing at an alarming rate (3.5 sacks through 3 games) for someone who is 6-3, 350 pounds.
Cornerback Brandon Flowers, the excellent six-year vet who’s been Kansas City’s primary cover guy, is now playing in a man-to-man scheme, free to muscle up and take primary wideouts on one-on-one. Sutton’s formula is working, but this is as much a story of ineptitude and failure as it is of great success.
Look at the Kansas City defense on paper and it’s one first- or second-round draft pick after another. Futile for so many years, the Chiefs wisely loaded up on the defensive side of the ball year after year. With draft picks early in the first and second round, the Chiefs developed talent.
It shouldn’t come as some great surprise that Kansas City’s defense is showing flashes this year. Starters Poe, Flowers, Tyson Jackson, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Sean Smith (who came over from Miami), and Eric Berry were all selected in the top three rounds of the draft.
Perhaps it just took Reid’s experience, Sutton’s leadership and new GM John Dorsey’s guidance for them to all blossom together.
Houston’s been the revelation. In just three weeks, he has 7.5 sacks and 17 tackles. Ask around the Chiefs organization about his emergence and they’ll point to Sutton and ex-coach Romeo Crennel, but they’ll also lead you to Hali. The two have a mentor-protégé relationship, and have gotten even better through that partnership.
The Chiefs are on the up-and-up and it’s a great thing for one of the game’s most fervent fan bases. But this is as much about the defense as it is the offense. Reid and Smith will be the first to tell you it’s a complete team effort.
This Week’s Peter Schrager Podcast
Best episode yet? I think so. Two esteemed guests and some riveting conversation. John Koblin, sports media reporter for Deadspin.com, takes us behind the scenes on how his site has uncovered some of the biggest scandals in sports over the past decade. How’d Deadspin get to the bottom of the Manti Te’o scandal? Fascinating stuff. NFL on FOX rules analyst and “Fox Football Daily” personality Mike Pereira shares his thoughts on the future of the game, whether Ndmaukong Suh has been disciplined enough, and the lives of NFL referees off of the field. Need a good Ed Hochuli story for the water cooler? Pereira has you covered. Download here.
Cheat Sheet Trivia of the Week: Just three teams since 1990 have made the playoffs after starting a year 0-3. Name the last team to do so and their wide receiver who set an NFL postseason record for receiving yards in their wild-card loss.
Now, on to the pick.
Last Week’s Record: 9-7
Overall Record: 28-20
San Francisco at St. Louis: St. Louis was a house of horrors for the 49ers a season ago, especially for Colin Kaepernick. The franchise QB had one of the worst efforts of 2012. I know St. Louis made me look silly the past few weeks (I picked them to beat both Atlanta and Dallas) but I’m not giving up on that defense just yet. It’s for real. I expect the dome to be rocking and for the 49ers to fall to 1-3. Oh, and I just received a press release letting me know that Nelly will be on NFL Network. Set your DVR “Country Grammar” fans! The Pick: Rams 27, 49ers 17
The Result: 49ers 35, Rams 11
SUNDAY, 1 P.M. ET GAMES
Baltimore at Buffalo: I don’t know how or why Jacoby Jones ended up on a party bus with a stripper named Sweet Pea after Sunday’s game, but I do know it stole all the headlines from what was a fantastic win over the Houston Texans in Week 3. The Ravens — as they’re wont to do — should quietly improve to 3-1 without much fanfare or national attention on Sunday. The rest of the country will wake up in November, I imagine, and see that the Ravens have more than merely recovered from that opening night debacle in Denver. Whether or not anyone takes notice is another story. The Pick: Ravens 27, Bills 20
Chicago at Detroit: It wasn’t the wisest move in the world and I’m certain head coach Marc Trestman wasn’t thrilled about it, but Jay Cutler lowering his shoulder and looking like Natrone Means on a quarterback scramble Sunday night was just plain awesome. Remember when he exited the NFC Championship Game due to injury in 2011 and everyone questioned his toughness? There are no doubts about Cutler now. In a contract year, with a beautiful wife and child in his corner, he is the man. The Bears — my man Art Stapleton’s preseason Super Bowl pick out of the NFC — look awfully good. I’m taking them Sunday in Detroit. The Pick: Bears 26, Lions 21
New York Giants at Kansas City Chiefs: The Giants haven’t been 0-3 since 1996. What was going on back in that September? America was still in awe of Michael Johnson’s performance at the Atlanta Summer Games, Charlie Hayes, Doc Gooden, Wade Boggs, and the rest of the New York Yankees were headed towards their first World Series since the ’70’s, and the Macarena, a beautiful song by the band Los Del Rio, was the No. 1 song in the nation. The words Los Del Rio make Nelly’s “Country Grammar” seem new. Could the Giants go 0-4? Yep. The Pick: Chiefs 24, Giants 20
Pittsburgh at Minnesota (London): Before the season, this game looked like a clash between two titans. Now, it just looks like an ordinary dog of a game between winless teams. Sorry, London. You give us John Oliver, Ricky Gervais, and the Beatles, and we give you this. Doesn’t seem too fair to me, either. The Pick: Steelers 20, Vikings 16
Arizona at Tampa Bay: I took the Bucs to beat the Patriots last week and if you watched the first half of that game, you’d know that Tampa should have been leading after two quarters. But the Bucs just can’t seem to get out of their own way this season. I’m not making excuses, but Tampa Bay’s a few unfortunate plays away from being 3-0 and the toast of the league. At the very least, they could be 2-1. It’s awfully hard to see a big turnaround from a team that just benched a quarterback who sleeps through team photos for a rookie making his first start in Mike Glennon. But I’ll go with the Bucs at home, here — just one more time. The Pick: Buccaneers 24, Cardinals 23
Indianapolis at Jacksonville: Blaine Gabbert is back from a hand injury and is expected to start. Yep. On to the next one. The Pick: Colts 28, Jaguars 20
Seattle at Houston: Former Saints player Scott Fujita and I have a running joke this season and, so far, I’ve been the brunt of it every single time. When he picked the Seahawks to win the NFC on my podcast before Week 1, I responded with, “Ugh. The Seahawks. You too?” I was just sick of the bandwagon and tired of the hype. Well, they’ve lived up to it and then some through three weeks. But can they win a big game on the road, a game against a defending division winner in its building. I don’t know. I’m going with the Texans in this one. And if Seattle takes care of business? I promise I’ll consider buying a ticket on the lovefest express. The Pick: Texans 24, Seahawks 20
SUNDAY, 4 P.M. ET GAMES
New York Jets at Tennessee: Who had “Jake Locker to Justin Hunter” in the “Game Winning Touchdown Pass of the Week” pool last week? Is anyone in such a thing? I want in, if so. New York hung over 500 yards on its former defensive coordinator last weekend. They’ll do no such thing to Gregg Williams’s unit on Sunday. The Pick: Titans 21, Jets 16
Philadelphia at Denver: Five years from now, we’ll all look back at some of the headlines, beautiful things written, and insane stuff said by talking heads following the Eagles’ performance Week 1 and we’ll be amazed. Chip Kelly hasn’t quite reinvented the game of football, now, has he? Peyton Manning on the other hand? Well, we’re watching history every week with this Denver team. The Pick: Broncos 37, Eagles 27
Washington at Oakland: Tough not to think of Washington and Oakland and envision Marcus Allen running around the entire Redskins’ defensive line in Super Bowl XVIII. It’s been a bad start to the year for RGIII and the Shanahans. It’s going to get worse. Give me Oakland in front of a raucous Black Hole. The Pick: Raiders 21, Redskins 13
Dallas at San Diego: Both Chargers’ losses have come in the final 40 seconds. Heartbreaking, really. On paper, they’re a 1-2 team that just can’t get out of their own way. In reality, they should be 3-0 and challenging those Chiefs and Broncos in the AFC West. Need an upset special for the week? Give me the rare home underdogs. The Pick: Chargers 34, Cowboys 31
New England at Atlanta: I’ve been overly critical of the Patriots this year. Even though it hasn’t been pretty and Tom Brady has missed several open receivers in all three games, they’re still 3-0 and I shouldn’t take anything away from that. I don’t see them beating the Falcons in Atlanta, though. Mike Smith’s guys have now lost both of their road games in painful fashion and the Saints hold an early two-game lead (with the tiebreaker) in the division. Atlanta can’t afford to lose this one, even if it is a September regular-season showdown. 1-2 is bad. 1-3 is trouble. The Pick: Falcons 31, Patriots 23
Miami at New Orleans: Way back when, under different leadership, the Dolphins passed on Drew Brees and his balky shoulder so they could sign Daunte Culpepper instead. Those guys (hello, Nick Saban!) are long gone, and there’s a new group in the Miami front office. And how about these Dolphins? A week after I write perhaps the most glowing (*and maybe, the only) thing about Ryan Tannehill ever penned outside College Station, he makes me look smart with a game-winning drive over the mighty Falcons. Can he score a third road victory in four games on Monday night? I don’t see it. If Rob Ryan’s D continues to perform the way it has through three weeks, nobody’s winning in the Superdome this year. The Pick: Saints 34, Dolphins 16
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: In 1998, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from an 0-3 start to finish 10-6 and qualify for the playoffs. Their leading wide receiver was Eric Moulds, who trashed the Dolphins’ secondary for 240 yards in a 24-17 wild card round loss.