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Those lucky Chiefs: Sunday’s game a perfect barometer for this team

·5 min read

This space values your mental health, we promise, but at the risk of triggering a bunch of TOO SOON responses, do you remember when the Chiefs were defined largely by bad luck?

Epic bad luck.

The missed field goals and the fumble in the No Punt Game and the touchdown when the other team fumbled and the other touchdown when the other team’s quarterback threw a pass to himself and the holding call on Eric Fisher and the offsides on Dee Ford and all of the rest of it.

Yes. You remember. Of course you remember.

Well, well, well. Look at the Chiefs now.

These guys stank for most of two months, then won four games in November with significant luck — the Giants played without their star running back and receiver, the Packers without their Hall of Fame quarterback. The Raiders had turned into a mess, and the Cowboys were missing a star receiver and left tackle.

They still haven’t played particularly well on both sides of the ball in the same game, other than against the Raiders, and, hey, just look at the AFC standings:

Ravens are 8-3 but haven’t looked right in more than a month.

Patriots are 8-4, but against a soft schedule with a rookie quarterback who isn’t asked to do much.

Titans are 8-4, but apparently dropping like a rock.

Chiefs 7-4.

Bengals are 7-4, but with the second-easiest past schedule and fifth-hardest future schedule, according to Football Outsiders.

Bills are 7-4 and might be very good! Or, they might be the team that lost to the Jags and got blown out by the Colts in November.

Chargers are 6-5 and haven’t won consecutive games since Week 5.

And THAT is the current AFC playoff field.

Another way of saying it: The Chiefs essentially college sophomore’d the first three months of this season, dragging out of bed after hitting snooze nine times, caught a few breaks and now find themselves on essentially even ground against opponents who’ve been grinding since sunrise.

And the Chiefs are healthy.

And their defense has found its mojo.

The rest of the AFC has given the Chiefs a three-month loan of sorts, time that should have been spent burying the two-time conference champions but instead has been propping the door open longer than an underachieving team should expect.

Consider that coach Andy Reid is famously effective after a bye and 27-5 against the AFC West in the last six seasons, and that the Chiefs just had their bye and play four of their last six games against the AFC West.

Look, it’s up to the Chiefs to make sure all of this counts. Of course. And they’ll have to play better now than they have since last year’s AFC Championship Game.

That means everybody, but the Chiefs are built financially and strategically around their stars, so it especially means their stars.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has to make better decisions. He’s had some bad luck, yes, but he’s also made some of that bad luck for himself. His genius has always been in finding the right risk-reward calculus, and he needs that back. He’s also ignoring opportunities to run, which could help open up the pass.

Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill rank 1-2 in the entire league in expected points lost from dropped passes, using data from Sportradar and nflfastR.

Tyrann Mathieu has been fine on the field, and his is the second-most important voice in the locker room, but with the notable exception of the pick-six in Baltimore, he hasn’t made the game-changing plays we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him make.

Frank Clark is currently on a heater and playing as well as he has at any point with the Chiefs, but the Chiefs will need that production to come more consistently than it has previously.

Chris Jones … actually, there’s nothing he needs to do differently.

The point is the pieces are all in place. We can have a discussion about whether the offseason was too hyper-focused on fixing the offensive line — to the exclusion of other improvements — but the offensive line’s remodel has been an unmitigated success.

The Chiefs could use more production in the pass game outside of Hill and Kelce — Clyde Edwards-Helaire remains an underused weapon there, which is strange — but nobody is offering sympathy for a team with this collection of talent and coaching.

The Chiefs have scored more than 20 points just once in their last five games. They’ve won all but one of their last five, so this isn’t being talked about as much, but consider that the Chiefs’ last such stretch came at the end of the 2014 season — the year no receiver caught a touchdown pass, and the only one of Reid’s teams here that did not make the playoffs.

The Broncos are third in the league in points against, and third in passer rating against. The Broncos are well-positioned to gash the Chiefs on the ground, and even if they probably can’t score enough to keep up, this will be a telling moment to see whether the Chiefs’ offense is working its way out of a relative funk.

The NFL may have done better for itself by giving the Chargers and Bengals the Sunday night platform and highlighting two of the league’s premier young quarterbacks.

But in terms of figuring out exactly where Mahomes and Reid are on their journey through the struggles, this could be as good as it gets.

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