Almost everything seems to be coming up aces for the Chiefs right now.
When I look at how the last few months have gone (absent a single, mystifying, “why did you not bother to show up” loss to the Titans), it’s hard not to be impressed with the Chiefs’ 2016 season.
They’ve beaten elite-defense-oriented teams like the Broncos. They’ve beaten elite-offense-oriented teams like the Falcons. They’ve beaten elite quarterbacks. They’ve won on the road. They’ve fought off adversity during games (is it me, or would past Chiefs teams have folded after that pick-six brought the Chargers within a field goal?). They’ve come back from down in the fourth quarter multiple times. In short, the Chiefs did a lot of things this season that many of us (myself included) doubted they could do.
And on top of that, the Chiefs appear to be rounding into their best shape of the season just in time for the playoffs.
Think about it. Throughout the season, we’ve seen some pretty up-and-down play from both the offense and the defense (though certainly more often the offense than the defense). Every time the offense began to play well, it seemed as though it was accompanied by the defense allowing multiple scores in a row. Then the defense would clamp down and the offense would clam up. Time and again we wondered what a complete game from the Chiefs might look like. Well, the last two weeks, while hardly perfect, have seen the Chiefs inching ever closer to that goal of a complete game. And both have resulted in games that weren’t even close (the 10-point win against the Chargers was absolutely, definitely never in doubt starting at halftime).
And what’s more, we’re seeing a lot of things come together that point to the ceiling being even higher.
We could talk about a lot of different factors that appear to be working in the Chiefs’ favor at the moment, but there are just a few little things coming together that give me some real hope that the Chiefs are ready to make some noise.
Role Player Emergence
Any team that wants to make a run in the playoffs needs some role players to step up. Yes, the stars are the guys who need to take you there. But they can’t make every play of every game. Any Super Bowl run requires someone unexpected to help out. And right now, Charcandrick West and Chris Conley look ready to do so.
Conley has taken some heat this season for a bit of inconsistency. In my opinion, the problem the Chiefs have with Conley is that he has all the physical attributes you look for in a very, very good wide receiver (good size, strong hands, good physical strength, high top-end speed). Because of this, we get frustrated when he doesn’t dominate like we’d like to see.
However, Conley quietly played a crucial role against the Chargers, catching passes on several third downs and setting up the Chiefs for a chip shot field goal late in the second half.
Chris Conley had a solid day after a tough drop to start off, with multiple 3rd down catches and this beauty on the sideline. pic.twitter.com/1Nls1og8gD— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 2, 2017
Conley played EXACTLY the role the Chiefs needed him to play against the Chargers: a secondary option in a varied offense that can make opposing defenses pay when they forget about him in order to focus on Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Jeremy Maclin. The Chiefs don’t need him to dominate games, they just need him to take advantage of the 4-5 targets that come his way when good defensive coordinators gear up to stop the usual suspects. And more than at any other time this year, Conley looks like he’ll be able to do just that.
And then there’s West. You know, fans have sort of come full circle on West. He went from perhaps a bit overrated last season (the West vs. Ware debate was never a particularly close one in my opinion) to a bit maligned during this season. But over the last two games, despite a YPC average that’s fairly low due to running down the clock at the end of games, West has stepped up. He’s doing just enough to show that he can contribute (particularly as a receiving back, which has always been his strength) when called on.
Of course, I can’t talk about role players making plays without mentioning Daniel Sorensen. He’s another player who has gone from maligned by Chiefs fans to widely praised due to his knack for making big plays. His interception against the Chargers was another HUGE moment in a season where he’s has multiple momentum-swinging moments.
If the Chiefs want to make a run, they’ll need Conley, West and Sorensen (along with Terrance Mitchell, who continues to look solid and whose film I’ll try to review during the bye week) to contribute, and all of them look ready to answer the call.
Jeremy Maclin Getting his Groove Back
It’s been a tough year for Maclin. He lost a close friend early in the season, battled a nagging injury that kept him off the field for a great deal of the season, and just generally looked a little out of sync with Alex Smith.
Against the Chargers, while Maclin didn’t have a huge day statistically, he looked a great deal more like the player we saw all of last season.
The reports of Jeremy Maclin's demise were greatly exaggerated. This was a beautifully-timed connection between him and Alex. pic.twitter.com/f1MUUByORW— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 2, 2017
In addition to this gorgeous play early in the game to set a tone for the offense, Maclin came through on a couple of crucial moments when Alex needed a go-to guy. We’re generally a fickle group as fans, and it became easy over the last few months to forget that Maclin is a very, very good wide receiver who means a great deal to this offense. For the first time all year, he seems fully healthy and on the same page as Alex. That’s good news for the Chiefs, and bad news for anyone who wants to make their offense one-dimensional.
The Tyreek Hill Factor
There are a few differences between the Chiefs’ offense that will go into the playoffs this year and the one that we saw in last year. Obviously, Maclin being healthy (as we just discussed) is a big deal. The offense treating Travis Kelce as a focal point (finally) is also a very big deal.
However, the most obvious difference between this year and last year is the presence of Tyreek Hill, whose game-changing speed and unexpectedly polished ability as a receiver gives the entire offense a dynamic it lacked since Jamaal Charles was healthy: a guy who is a very real threat to score from anywhere on the field, every time he touches the ball.
Hill’s role on the offense has grown throughout the season, and at this point he’s clearly one of the focal points. It’s worth noting that Andy Reid was quoted during the broadcast as stating he was surprised how much Hill was being doubled by the Chargers. Having another legitimate threat to account for means the Chiefs can’t simply be shut down by a defense focusing on Kelce, or Maclin. In today’s NFL, you need multiple playmakers to keep defenses honest. One guy or two guys can be accounted for. Once you get to three, you’re creating a dilemma that really can’t be solved by defensive coordinators, and they’re left hoping one of your guys has an off day.
A Healthy Shot
It seems odd to refer to health when we’re talking about a team missing it’s best player on offense and its best run defender, but that’s where we are at. When compared to last season’s postseason run, the Chiefs have a chance to be a much more complete team when they next take the field.
Justin Houston and Spencer Ware are both highly important to any success the Chiefs want to achieve in the playoffs. Houston because he’s one of the best players in the NFL and a genuine game changer against both the run and the pass, Ware because he’s a very solid running back who is capable of beating up on defenses and forcing them to respect the run.
I cannot overstate how big a deal it is that the Chiefs will get a bye week to rest up and prepare for their next opponent. The swelling Houston has dealt with should, in theory, have the absolute best chance possible to heal up, while Ware’s sore ribs can take a break from his punishing running style.
The usual Andy Reid after a bye week advantage isn’t quite as pronounced as normal considering the Chiefs won’t know which opponent to prepare for until next weekend. That said, narrowing it down to two teams (while those teams have to prepare for each other rather than the Chiefs) is absolutely an advantage for Reid, who remains one of the most brilliant game-planning coaches alive. But even with that edge, the best part about obtaining a bye week is the chance for Houston to be ready to go.
The Chiefs have a number of other things that seem to be going their way heading into the playoffs: Alex Smith is playing efficiently and is hurting teams with his legs again, Chris Jones gives an interior pass rushing presence they lacked last season, and the offensive line appears to be gelling. The only concern I have right now is run defense, which would be hugely boosted by Houston’s return (though is still something that will worry me in the coming weeks).
In short, almost everything (at least on paper, based on what we’ve seen recently) is coming up Chiefs at the moment. Here’s hoping it continues into the playoffs.