Todd Haley sure loves his quarters. I'm assuming he slices every pizza into fourths and inserted a lot of coins into an NFL Blitz game when he was younger (get it, quarters?). Lame joke, yes. But if you follow the Chiefs close enough to read articles at Arrowhead Pride, then you're also aware that Haley speaks of the importance of breaking down seasons into segments of four, and that makes the upcoming month of games the fourth quarter of the 2011 season.
It's been a trying one for the Kansas City Chiefs. A quick recount of the 2011 season lands just south of a Shakespearean tragedy: the lockout shortened off-season that everyone endured; the locker room tangle that hangs between Thomas Jones and Jon Baldwin that cost the rookie half a season; the unwatchable preseason games that led to the season-long questioning of Todd Haley's decisions; season ending injuries to Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki, Brandon Siler, Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel; the historically poor start to the season; the much-discussed tension between Pioli and Haley; the invigorating four game winning streak following by an equally deflating four game losing streak.
In short, the 2011 season for the Kansas City Chiefs is the kind of thing that leads people to hit the reset button on a video game system out of frustration that they just need to start the whole thing over again. Yet the NFL season still has one quarter left to go: the fourth quarter.
On the outside looking in, the Chiefs shouldn't have much to play for. It's a losing season with several key players missing, so they could easily call it a loss and focus on the long-term evaluation of players and think about success in 2012. But a closer look reveals that the final quarter of the 2011 season is actually the most important of all.
Here are a few reasons:
1. Playoff Positioning
Believe it or not, despite everything that's happened, the Chiefs are 5-7 and within two games of the division lead. The better news is that the Chiefs end the season with games against the two teams above them: the Broncos and Raiders. Anything is possible in the NFL and being two games back with four games to go and one game against both of our primary competitors is a spot that no one could have predicted if they'd known the rigors of the Chiefs season ahead of time.
So if anything, the last quarter of the season is important to the Chiefs in the same way that any other game should be -- they need to win to make the playoffs. If they can muster some divisional wins and surprise some favored teams (i.e. the New York Jets this Sunday and the Green Bay Packers the next), the Chiefs could be the surprise champions of the AFC West. Likely? No. Possible? Yes. And it's that remote chance that the Chiefs will take after everything they've endured.
2. Todd Haley's Hot Seat
The season is long. The temperatures get cold. Players are hurting from week after week of gladiatorial punishment. If a team is losing, they're going to start to quit (if they haven't already). If a coach has lost his team, they'll show signs of it late in the season. If a team doesn't show up in December, quite frankly, then that coach is likely toast. So the Chiefs have a chance here to show what they think of Todd Haley -- and Todd Haley has a chance to show his coaching prowess.
They've already displayed a toughness on defense that has media coast to coast raving about Romeo Crennel. And Haley seems to have the locker room focused. But these next four games will challenge that -- especially if the Chiefs cannot pull off an upset in the next two weeks. If the Chiefs fall from playoff contention, focus will quickly turn to the off-season for fans and perhaps the front office. But if the Chiefs are still fighting their division rivals hard in the last week in a snowy Mile High Stadium, Todd Haley's team will have done him a major favor.
3. Future Momentum
Let's imagine a perfect world where the Chiefs win out and go 4-0 in this last quarter. Let's even make it slightly more realistic and say they go 3-1, which means they likely beat the Jets, Broncos and Raiders. If that happens, the Chiefs also beat the Bears at Chicago to close the season with four wins in their last five games. And that gives the Chiefs momentum as they closed the season.
The media loves this and teams can definitely sense it as they head into the next year. The Detroit Lions were the off-season darlings because they finished 2011 so well and they became the sexy choice for playoff sleeper in the NFC. Imagine how much love will come the Chiefs way if they finish well, land at .500 on the year and do so without some of their best impact players.
Add another round of free agency and a draft class to the return of dynamic players like Berry, Moeaki and Charles (and maybe even Cassel) and you have the makings of a very popular choice to return to the playoffs in 2012.
The AFC West has shown this season that it's wide open for any team interested enough to take it. The Chargers have several holes in major places. The Raiders traded their future away for an all-decade team from, well, a decade ago. The Broncos are... well, to say anything one way or the other about their current winning streak is to lose every reader here to another endless Tim Tebow debate.
All that to say, this fourth quarter of the season holds a lot at stake, not only for this year but for the near future. If the Chiefs close things out well in 2011, the team will undoubtedly learn a lot about themselves, their head coach and their chances to compete given a fresh slate and a healthy roster. Here's hoping they take everyone by surprise.