Sentiment favors Mike Pettine, common sense favors Bruce Arians, and both are understandable: The Browns look feisty, the Cardinals look superb. Arians’ Arizona bunch posted a 7-1 mark through the first half of the season despite playing three tilts without quarterback Carson Palmer and missing a half-dozen critical defensive players at one point or another. In the angriest, most physical division in football, the Birds are the toughest dudes on the baddest block.
It’s not as if Andy Reid lives in the NFC South.
There’s Big Red, all cheeseburgers and dimples, his Kansas City Chiefs 6-3 and in the playoff picture (again) despite a schedule that the computers said over the summer would be the seventh-toughest in the loop, despite the fact that he gets to dance with Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers a total of four times a season. The Chiefs are 4-0 versus the AFC East, whacked Tom Brady around as if he were a pinata, and already have victories at Miami (5-4), San Diego (5-4) and Buffalo (5-4) in their 2014 goodie bag.
More to the point, they’ve done all this with a patchwork offensive line; with a rookie placekicker; a rookie punt returner; without a receiving touchdown from any wide receiver through 10 weeks (still); and without the services of one of the best middle linebackers in franchise history (Derrick Johnson), one of the key pieces of their defensive line rotation (Mike DeVito) and, for the most part, the most decorated member of their secondary (safety Eric Berry). In a fall that was expected to be a transitional year or, perhaps, a gentle step back, the Andy Gang hasn’t skipped a stinking beat.
The Chiefs do what they do, and with the highly bizarre (and painful) exception of that 45-44 wild-card loss at Indianapolis this past January, what they do is close. Kansas City went into Sunday allowing just 3.5 points per game in the fourth quarter, tops in the NFL; they trailed only Seattle (3.9 points for the Seahawks, 4.0 for the Chiefs) in that same category a year ago. Sure enough, Reid’s believers outscored Buffalo 14-0 over the final 15 minutes to escape upstate New York with a 17-13 victory, the franchise’s fourth straight win, and a pivotal one as far as potential AFC postseason jockeying goes.
As with the Rams and the Jets, the Chiefs drew a nasty defensive front in Buffalo, one that’s a beast to run on. But as with Team Fisher and Gang Green, Reid didn’t abandon the ground game despite a miserable slog at the outset. After the first quarter, all-world tailback Jamaal Charles had carried the rock five times for no yards. Still, the Chiefs never dropped the chisel, never stopped hammering away.
It took a long time — longer than the previous two weeks, the Bills are that tough in the trenches — but the cracks, little by little, began to mount. Reid even helped the process with a little sleight-of-hand early in the fourth quarter. On a fourth-and-1 at the Bills’ 39 about a minute into the period, down 13-3, the Chiefs set up in a tight power set.
But instead of plunging fullback Anthony Sherman or Charles up the gut, quarterback Alex Smith faked the dive and pitched out to Charles wide left, who cut outside and then found an open lane back up the middle of the field, then — as per usual — outran everybody into the end zone for the Chiefs’ first touchdown of the afternoon. Charles’ final 10 carries: 98 yards and a score.
After Sherman forced and recovered a fumble on a Leodis McKelvin punt return to set up a short field, another score (this time on a Smith option keeper) and a lead, the Chiefs even reached the magic 24-carry total that has been a benchmark since Reid’s arrival: a 16-5 record when they hit or surpass it, a 1-4 mark when they don’t.
That’s knowing what you’ve got, knowing how to maximize it, knowing how to shape it and — most important — knowing how to get players with their own agendas, their own families, their own posses, to pull on the same rope.
It’s knowing Ron Parker, the journeyman defensive back waived or cut six times by three different teams from July 2011 through December 2012, batting away three passes, two of them in or near the end zone late in the contest, and slapping a ball away from Bills back Bryce Brown just a few steps before he can reach the end zone. It’s adding safety Kurt Coleman, who would later wrap up Brown on a shovel pass at the Kansas City 3, a tackle that turned a potential seven-point red-zone trip for Buffalo into a short field-goal conversion instead.
Fortune favors the bold, even if it hates the Bills: Four red-zone visits, zero touchdowns, two field goals, one fumble lost, one turnover on downs. The Chiefs haven’t surrendered a rushing touchdown through nine games, nor have they allowed a 300-yard passer.
That’s coaching, too.
Through his first 25 regular-season tilts in charge of the Chiefs, Reid is 17-8 — which, you guessed it, also happens to be the best record in club history by a Kansas City coach after his initial 25 contests. Marty Schottenheimer, the architect of the ’90s renaissance, was 13-11-1 out of the gates; Hank Stram, the pilot of the first Great Red Dynasty, was 12-13.
Coaches, like quarterbacks, are ultimately defined by their Januarys. Like seasons, the legacies are shaped largely by how you finish. Although you’ve got to admit: It’s been one absolute hell of a start.