I don't know if you'd heard, but the Chiefs made the playoffs.
No, I'm not kidding! They actually turned around a lost season that had all of us sitting around wondering where it all went wrong. No team had come back from 1-5 to get to the postseason in FORTY-FIVE YEARS. It just wasn't happening. We all knew it. Heck, I'm one of the more optimistic people you'll talk to and I was writing articles about how the Chiefs are just not that good.
Uh ... whoops?
The Chiefs have proven me, you (probably), and pretty much everyone on the planet who follows football wrong over the course of the last few months. They haven't lost a game since October 18. I was wearing shorts the last time the Chiefs lost. In Minnesota. Now it's zero degrees and I'm wondering why I live here, but I digress. The point is, the last time the Chiefs lost a game there were we were planning for Halloween. Now Christmas is over. It's insane.
Of course, since we're Chiefs fans, we tend to be a little skeptical of anything good. We wait for that much-feared other shoe to drop, expecting it to be a doozy. Despite my optimism I tend to fall into that group. The Chiefs can't REALLY be this good, right? They can't actually make noise, in the playoffs, right?
Well, I don't know. If I knew that, I would make a fortune gambling and spend all my time breaking down individual plays for you guys. But here are a couple of things I DO know...
1) The Chiefs defense, prior to the Browns game, was ranked third in the NFL in weighted DVOA
What is DVOA, you ask? Well, I don't have time to explain the whole deal to you, so here's a link. Basically, it's the most in-depth statistical analysis you can find on the interweb, in which success of teams on every single play is compared, factoring in the strength of opponent and game situation. Football Outsiders compiles those stats, and they are absolutely the best in the business.
"Weighted" DVOA comes into play later on in a season. As the year goes along, Football Outsiders starts giving more "weight" to recent stats and less weight to stats from Week 1, 2 and so forth. Which makes sense. How a team was playing in Week 1 isn't nearly as indicative of the current state of the team than how they played in Week 16. It's a marvelous tool for making sure teams that start hot aren't unduly awarded as the year goes on.
DVOA is consistently a better indicator of how a team is performing than basic stats like points and yards allowed because they account for strength of opponent and game situation. For example, what's a superior defensive effort; allowing an eight yard completion on third and seven against a horrible QB, or allowing a nine yard completion on third and 10 against Tom Brady? Obviously the latter, even though you're technically allowing more yards.
Anyway, what's interesting is that in the last two years DVOA has actually somewhat predicted the Chiefs defense would struggle against superior competition. In 2013 we were all raving about the defense, but DVOA gave a weighted ranking of 14th in the league by the end of the season. In 2014 the defense was worse, ranked 20th in the league.
So even though the Chiefs defense may not seem significantly better when you look only at base stats, when you account for situation and schedule they're SIGNIFICANTLY better.
Of course, you knew the defense was good. That's nothing compared to...
2) The Chiefs offense, prior to the Browns game, was ranked fourth in weighted DVOA
You go ahead and re-read that. I'll wait.
It's not a typo, or a mistake, or the case of a Chiefs-biased source doing something screwy. The simple fact is that the most objective, weighted statistical measure out there rates the Chiefs offense far higher than even most fans do.
The Chiefs (on the backs of Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware, and Alex Smith) are the No. 1 rated rushing team in DVOA. They've done that without Jamaal Charles, which is absolutely remarkable. One of Smith's major strengths, especially as of late, has been his ability to gain yardage and first downs with his legs at the right times. That's been the strength of the team.
The reason the Chiefs aren't dragged down by the tepid passing game is that by DVOA (again, success on each play weighted for opponent and situation) the Chiefs passing attack is ranked 14th. Is that great? Absolutely not. Is it decent? Absolutely. And when you've got a rushing attack that works well, being decent is enough to drag an entire offense up.
For comparison's sake, the Chiefs were ranked 10th in weighted DVOA on offense in 2013. Last year they were ranked 11th. Neither are bad numbers, but they're obviously a healthy margin below fourth (math!!!!!).
So what am I telling you? I guess I'm telling you that it looks like the Chiefs might actually be, you know, good. Like, better than a lot of other teams good. And if you disagree, you hate numbers. And science. And possibly America. And this throw.
Here, cheer by watching Alex Smith make a throw I literally did not think he was capable of making. SHEESH. pic.twitter.com/GwcCpDrAaB— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 29, 2015
(Before you ask, yes, that's a play I'll be looking at. It's eerily similar to Smith's TD to Jeremy Maclin against the Ravens, just better defended with a throw that's boiling lava hot)
You know what has me the most quietly hopeful about this team, though?
3) The Chiefs have been playing for their lives for over two months
Basically, every game the Chiefs have played in since October 18th has been for their playoff lives. Because of those pesky Bills (contending for playoffs until they met the Chiefs), Raiders (same), Steelers, Jets, and seemingly every other AFC team, losing just hasn't been an option.
The Chiefs clinched a seat at the table Sunday. That marked the ninth straight "must win if you want to make the playoffs" game they had won, and was the third "holy crap this is stressful" game during that stretch (maybe even the fourth, depending on how you viewed the Raiders game).
During the winning streak, the Chiefs have seen a little bit of everything.
They've had games where they went up early then put the boot to the opposition's throat (Lions, Broncos, Chargers). They've had games where it seemed in doubt for most of the game only to have the Chiefs pull away in the fourth (Steelers, Raiders, Ravens).
They've had a game an inferior divisional opponent put up a ridiculous fight and had to be stopped AT THE GOAL LINE (Chargers part two, and I'm still stressed about that one).
They've had a game in which they went down two scores early and looked horrific, only to come back and win in tough, dramatic fashion (Bills).
And now they've had a game in which they went up big early and were seemingly on the verge of crushing a clearly inferior opponent, only to have a series of weird plays (Johnny Manziel is like one long weird play) create a really close, tense game. Oh, did I mention the Chiefs were without their bookend pass rushers, who also happen to be much better edge run defenders than their replacements? Yeah, I did. Well, it happened, and the Chiefs sucked it up and pulled it out.
My point is, the Chiefs have had to fight, scrap, claw, punch, and squirm their way to the playoffs this year. There was no easy road. People can say this and that about some of the teams the Chiefs have beat the last two months, but the simple fact is many of those teams have high-quality wins on their record and were considered contenders before getting ruined by the Chiefs.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that more of football is mental than we'll ever realize. A common criticism of Andy Reid's Chiefs has been that they are mentally soft and fold at the first sign of trouble. Frankly, it's a reputation that seems well earned at times.
This year's squad, though, isn't buckling when they get punched in the mouth. They aren't having letdown games like they did last season after tough wins. And they aren't giving in when things start going wrong the way they were early on in the season.
Basically, you've got other teams getting ramped up for the increased pressure of "lose and you're done for the season." In the meantime, the Chiefs have been in that mode for months. And they know, more so than any other team in the playoffs, that no matter how bad things get there's a chance to turn it around.
I sure wouldn't have picked the Chiefs starting 1-5 if given the choice, but there's something to be said for having your back against the wall. There's something to be said for taking the absolute best shot someone has and seeing that you're still standing afterward.
Again, I have no idea what happens next, but I'm excited to find out. Because, hey, maybe the Chiefs are just that good.