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Chiefs schedule will soon tell us whether they’re contenders or pretenders

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It’s always interesting to write about the NFL during the season. A big part of this is because of the way fans view the game. Due to the week-long stretch of dead time between each game and how relatively short the season is in terms of number of games (16 games is so paltry compared to other major sports), each game seems to have massive importance, especially losses.

The reality of the situation is that no one game defines a season for a team. Great teams suffer terrible losses. Terrible teams find a way to generate great wins (unless you’re Cleveland. Never Cleveland). At the end of the day, one win means... not a whole lot.

I write all of this to say that it’s perhaps not QUITE time to panic regarding the Chiefs. They sit at 7-3 despite a plethora of injuries to highly important players. That’s not a terrible place to be.

On the other hand, the Chiefs offense has shown a troubling lack of life over the course of the entire season. Even though it was efficient on a per-play basis against the Buccaneers, the reality is that they weren’t able to generate 20-plus points against a poor defense. That’s concerning, regardless of how much time of possession, the tempo of the game and just a few key plays affected the points scored. Context does matter, but so do results. It’s a tough balance to find.

I think the thing that’s really bothering Chiefs fans (at least, the thing that’s really bothering me) is that it doesn’t seem like the Chiefs have an identity. Prior to Sunday, we based the identity of the team around a good-to-potentially-great defense. Watching Tampa Bay march up and down the field definitely let some of the air out of that balloon (though Marcus Peters was a HUGE loss in a game with so many contested throws).

The offense, in the meantime, doesn’t really do much well. Spencer Ware is a beast, and Travis Kelce, Jeremy Maclin (when healthy), Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley form a solid group of playmakers. Yet something is missing. The offense isn’t a ground-and-pound, it doesn’t air it out much, it’s relatively predictable (if you can’t predict the screens at this point you haven’t been paying attention), and Alex Smith, despite an overall decent game against Tampa Bay, looks regressed from last season rather than progressed.

Again, it’s a team without an identity. And further, it’s a team that we’re not quite sure what the ceiling is. Can this team contend come playoff time? Is it doomed to miss the playoffs or be one and done? I don’t know, and I don’t think they do either.

Fortunately, we’re about to get a pretty good idea.

In the next three weeks, the Chiefs play at Denver, then travel to Atlanta, then host the Raiders on Thursday Night.

That’s a brutal schedule. All three teams are multiple games above .500 and have been in the conversation as potential contenders this season. Atlanta and Oakland have two of the best offenses in the league (that the Chiefs spanked Oakland at home makes them no less scary at this point, considering how wildly the Chiefs have fluctuated in play this year), and Denver has one of the best three defenses with stars Aqib Talib and Derek Wolfe likely returning in time for the AFC West matchup (at least, Talib is gonna give it a shot. Maybe his best shot. Definitely a pistol, that guy. He shot himself in the leg, let’s be real).

In other words, the Chiefs are facing three straight playoff caliber (and MAYBE Super Bowl caliber) teams in a row, two of them on the road. That’s ROUGH. The good news, though is that we’re not going to have to wonder who they are much longer.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not one to believe that even a three game stretch will generally make or break a season. However, it’s hard not to call this upcoming stretch the time for this year’s Chiefs to put up or shut up. If they go 1-2 or 0-3 against these teams, they’ll sit relatively close to .500 and (likely) be at least a game or two back in the division, with little chance to make up the ground. If they go 2-1 or 3-0, they’ll be in the driver’s seat to make the playoffs (especially if they win both division games) and will have proven they can stand and trade with upper tier teams in the league.

There are a lot of questions with the Chiefs. Can the defense get healthy (Ford, Peters, Howard, DJ and Houston are absolutely critical players who need to get right fast)? Can the offense find even last season’s level of competency down the stretch? Can Andy Reid stay out of his own way on third down and the red zone? Can Alex Smith quiet the ever-growing uneasiness in the back of my mind about his ability to move beyond “decent most days but rarely more and sometimes less?”

Stretches like the one we’re about to see are where contenders and pretenders are made. If the Chiefs can’t take two of three against good teams, there’s no reason to think they can win consistently in the playoffs. If they show up and show out down this stretch? No one is going to care about dropping a winnable game against Tampa Bay (well, outside of seeding, but I’ll worry about that later).

The Chiefs have arrived at their moment of truth, and it starts in Denver. As ever, John Elway stands between the Chiefs and success. It’s right out there for them to grab. Whether or not they will is another thing entirely.