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How the Chiefs learned average quarterback play just doesn’t get it done

Remembering how two ugly postseason losses made the Chiefs reevaluate the way they had always obtained their quarterbacks.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Editor’s note: It’s “Best Teams to Never Win a Championship Week” on SB Nation. And though this week is much more fun this time around (given the Chiefs have just won the Super Bowl), there are still plenty of teams and players from over the years we wish could have experienced it. John Dixon wrote about the 1971 team on Tuesday and Matt Stagner recalled the 2003 squad on Wednesday.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid began his tenure with the red and gold in 2013 — and he couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial time for Kansas City football fans.

In the previous nine seasons, the team had only earned two postseason berths. Neither resulted in a divisional round appearance. The fan base was hungry for any level of success — and wanted it quickly.

Well... we got our wish, didn’t we?

The Chiefs added quarterback Alex Smith — a veteran game manager — to go along with a surprisingly talented roster and immediately began to compete. In the regime’s first season, a 9-0 start helped the team get a spot in the postseason. In their second year, a 9-7 record kept them out of the playoffs. But in 2015, the franchise really began to shine after a 10-game winning streak to end the regular season set up the team’s first playoff victory in 22 years.

Going into 2016, the franchise had momentum. The whole team was beginning to build continuity — while also adding contributors like big-time right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency and defensive tackle Chris Jones (and wide receiver Tyreek Hill) in the draft.

After three straight winning seasons, it was time for the Chiefs to take the next step: win the division, host a playoff game — and win it. The expectation was set, and the Chiefs came out looking to meet it.

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The year started off with the biggest comeback in team history. In a game that seemed like a microcosm of the 2015 season, the San Diego Charges dominated most of the game and had a 27-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. But then the Chiefs offense got white hot, scoring 23 unanswered points to win the game in overtime.

That kicked off a season of domination over the team’s division rivals. The Chiefs went 6-0 against the AFC West — including two overtime wins and a 33-10 butt-kicking of the Denver Broncos on Christmas Day — that solidified the Chiefs as the postseason’s second seed.

Arrowhead Stadium would host its first Divisional Round game since 2003 — and fans were buying in.

But they watched as one of the best Chiefs teams in years couldn’t manage to outscore a Pittsburgh Steelers team they had held to just 18 points on six field goals. The offense only scored touchdowns on its first and last possession — and the image of Tyreek Hill running open down the field is still scarred into my memory.

Divisional Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

That’s when the conversation about the quarterback position really picked up.

Smith was good, but was he really capable of being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback? It had to be the final straw for the organization. In order to get a great franchise quarterback, they were going have to draft one themselves — rather than trying to revitalize another team’s veteran. This led to the team trading up to select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Still, there were plenty of opinions that Smith was still the best starter in Reid’s offense. Whether fans agreed or not, Smith sure made it hard to argue against him when he came out firing in the 2017 season opener against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Smith finished the game with one of the best stat lines of his career, with 368 passing yards and four scores. He rode that momentum to a 5-0 start where he looked like a legitimate MVP candidate — but then the wheels fell off. A 1-6 stretch across midseason — followed by four straight wins — gave the team the division championship, but only a Wild Card berth in the postseason.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

While the season had been ugly at times, the four-game winning streak had some fans believing again. The team was hot, the offense was again playing well and the defense was coming alive at the right time. Could Smith look like the early-season version of in a deep postseason run?

If the 2016 opener was a microcosm of the 2015 season, the 2017 Wild Card game against the Tennessee Titans was a microcosm of the 2017 season.

The Chiefs had a great start, leading 21-3 at halftime. But then it all went south when a head injury forced Kelce out of the game. The offense became helpless — unable to score a single point in the second half — and the Titans came back to win 22-21.

At multiple points over that two-year span, the Chiefs could have been considered one of the best teams in the NFL. Yet during that time, they failed to win a postseason game — and it came down to their quarterback. Smith had proved more than capable of winning regular-season games, making the team competitive for the first time in nearly a decade. But once the Chiefs needed him to be a postseason hero, his performances had simply proved that the team’s failure to invest draft capital in a high-value quarterback had gone on too long.

The Chiefs had learned a hard lesson from their heartbreaking postseason failures. But as it turned out, they already had the quarterback they needed — and that their fans had always wanted.

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