How a 1-5 Chiefs team started rolling right into the playoffs
On Sunday, Oct. 18, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs walked off the field at TCF Bank Stadium following a 16-10 road loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Chiefs were 1-5 and were playing without their most dynamic offensive weapon, Jamaal Charles, who had torn his ACL the week before against Chicago. They were also struggling on the other side of the ball, allowing 26.5 points per game to that point. And because of these issues and others, they were a team seemingly without hope, as most 1-5 teams are.
But, incredibly -- some might say impossibly -- Kansas City hasn't lost since.
The Chiefs have won 10 straight games in the wake of that squandered opportunity in Minneapolis. They are 11-5 and now boast one of the top defenses in the NFL. They won't always wow you offensively, but they protect the ball better than just about every team in the league, and their quarterback, Smith, is validating the team's controversial decision to trade for him with a career year.
This Saturday, the Chiefs, one of just two teams since the AFL-NFL merger to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start, will be in Houston for a Wild Card matchup against the Texans -- a team Kansas City beat in Week 1, before it even figured out it was good. And while Vegas hasn't exactly pegged the Chiefs as Super Bowl favorites (as of Thursday, they're at 24-1 odds to win it), they're the type of team that the rest of the playoff field would likely rather not have to play.
All of which begs the question: How in the heck did this happen?
Well for starters, the Chiefs were probably never quite as awful as they appeared.
Of the six teams Kansas City played during its 1-5 slide to start 2015, five of them are in the playoffs, including the Packers, Broncos and Bengals, who started their seasons 6-0, 7-0 and 8-0, respectively. One wouldn't necessarily expect a team to stumble over every one of those hurdles, as Andy Reid's team did, but save for their loss to the Bears -- a game that saw the Chiefs blow a 17-3 halftime lead -- all of them can at least be rationalized.
Then there's the issue of the Charles injury. Once thought to be devastating to whatever faint hopes the Chiefs had of making the playoffs, it actually turned out to be a sort of turning point for the team. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have filled in decently -- and at times exceptionally -- in Charles' absence, and the Chiefs are tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (14) over the course of their run. But more importantly, the lack of a star back has allowed Smith to take more control of the offense.
Kansas City is never going to be the type of team to sling the rock all over the field like the Saints or the Cardinals, and Smith will likely never become a master of the deep ball. (Earlier this season, Smith and West hooked up for an 80-yard touchdown, the longest touchdown pass of Smith's career, but the ball only traveled about 15 yards in the air.)
However, what Smith lacks in flash he makes up for with guile. He's one of the smarter and more perceptive quarterbacks in the league, and his ability to make accurate reads at the line and not get himself in trouble -- at one point he went nine games without a pick -- has allowed the rest of his team to excel.
As a result, Jeremy Maclin, a budding star under Reid in Philadelphia, set a career high in receptions (87) and cashed in a 1,000-yard receiving season and eight touchdowns for a unit that didn't throw a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver last year. Plus, Travis Kelce, a 2013 third-rounder, made his first Pro Bowl and has established himself as one of the top tight ends (and dancers) in the league.
That being said, the Chiefs' turnaround has ultimately been predicated on the play of its defense -- a banged-up unit that needed a few weeks to truly find its rhythm. Even without the likes of linebacker Justin Houston, who missed the last five games with a knee injury but should be back on Saturday, Kansas City has held opponents to 12.8 points and 303.2 yards of offense per game during the streak. And they only seem to be improving as those players who are on the field get healthier.
Early on this season, Kansas City played without cornerback Sean Smith -- they've allowed just one team to score more than 22 points in a game since his return, and that was Cincinnati in his first game back -- and Smith and rookie Pro Bowl selection Marcus Peters have only gotten more solid as the season progressed, stifling passing games around the league.
Add to that the slow roll-outs of former Pro Bowl starters Derrick Johnson (torn Achilles), Dontari Poe (herniated disk) and Eric Berry -- a Pro Bowl pick just a year removed from a cancer diagnosis -- and it's no wonder teams are struggling so much to move the ball both on the ground (99.4 yards allowed per game during the streak) or through the air (203.8 yards allowed).
Finally, the Chiefs have gotten to a point where they simply believe they can win every week, and they have a coach who has been where they are now, and those factors are more valuable than you might think.
Everything that can go wrong already did for Kansas City, but they endured, and while they haven't beaten a playoff team since Week 10 -- a 29-13 thumping of the Broncos following the Chiefs' bye week -- seeing victories of any kind pile up is good for the psyche. Now they're heading into the playoffs against a team they already beat with a coach, in Reid, who has reached the postseason 10 times and led a team to a Super Bowl.
Reid will have Kansas City ready for whatever comes its way going forward, and while it remains to be seen whether the Chiefs can defy Vegas' odds and play into February, it should at least be good enough to get the franchise its first playoff win in 22 years.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.