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The 2021 Chiefs: from ‘broken’ to first place in less than a month

The 3-4 Chiefs were left for dead; four games later, they’re on track to be one of the AFC’s top playoff seeds.

NFL: NOV 21 Cowboys at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A month ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were licking their wounds after a 27-3 obliteration at the hands of the Tennessee Titans — which dropped the record to 3-4. They were tied for the worst record in the AFC West, trailing the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers by two games.

A popular word to describe the two-time defending AFC champions was “broken.” Specifically, it was used to talk about quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Since this tweet, the Chiefs have won four consecutive games — which has boosted them into the top spot in their division. The latest victory was the most impressive: the Chiefs beat the Dallas Cowboys 19-9 to improve to 7-4, placing them only one loss behind the top seed in the AFC.

The turnaround has been highlighted by stellar defense — but quietly, the offense has gotten into a more effective, comfortable rhythm over the last month. That starts with Mahomes, who never bought the idea that a short stretch of poor play made him or his unit unfixable.

“I knew we were never broken as a team,” Mahomes assured reporters after the win over the Cowboys. “We have too many good players, too many special guys on this team that go through the process, even when there are bad times or good times. We’re still early in the season. I know we’ve gotten to that second half, but our goal was to be on top at the end of the season, it’s not to win the regular season.”

There is no trophy for having the best record in the NFL after 18 weeks. It gets the team a postseason bye and home-field advantage — but there are no guarantees it will matter if the team isn’t playing at their best.

Take the last two Super Bowl champions, for example:

Kansas City was undoubtedly playing poorly as a whole to start the year, whether the offense was putting up numbers or not. Now — even without the gawking statistics — the team is playing more sound football; head coach Andy Reid agreed — and explained why that could be the case.

“Fundamentally, we’re probably playing better,” Reid told reporters in his post-game press conference. “I think the way training camps are now and the way preseasons are and that whole deal, it takes you a little bit of time to kind of get in the swing... Now that they’re warmed up and going, I think it gets better. Our guys have worked extremely hard on the fundamentals and as much tackling as you do here on dummies and so on.”

The fundamentals still weren’t perfect against the Cowboys: multiple dropped passes — including one that led to a turnover — killed the offense at times, and a lack of awareness by Mahomes led to a strip-sack. It gave Dallas an opportunity to shrink their deficit before halftime.

However, unlike the earlier games that spiraled because of turnovers, the team held it together and overcame them. The biggest reason was the defensive play.

After a historically bad start to the year, the Chiefs haven’t allowed over 20 points in a game since the Titans matchup; they’ve allowed 11.8 points and 294 yards per game in that stretch; those rates would rank first and third if expanded over the entire season, respectively.

That’s not how it works, obviously — but it shows how drastic the turnaround has been. It was okay to question it after handling quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Jordan Love; now they’ve held two quarterbacks that had been considered MVP candidates this season in Derek Carr and Dak Prescott to a few of their worst performances.

“Those guys have been playing better,” Mahomes said of the defense. “It got lost because the offense wasn’t playing very well, that we were winning games because of the defense. People were so used to our offense kind of going out there and putting up these numbers, but I would say it every week when I was right here at the podium, don’t lose how good our defense is playing.”

NFL: NOV 21 Cowboys at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Against Dallas, the defense might have had their most impressive game of not only the year — but in the tenure of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. They held the No. 1 offense in the NFL by points and yards to their lowest total of the season in both categories.

“To go up against an offense like that, that has put up so many yards, so many scores and touchdowns and to shut it down, that’s impressive,” Mahomes marveled. “For us as an offense when you get into these kinds of funks that we kind of did in the second half, we know if we can just grind it out, get a field goal, try to get a touchdown, then we’re going to win the football game.”

After a 2020 season that gave the Chiefs little resistance until the Super Bowl, this year’s squad is learning how to handle adversity. It’s what the 2019 team had to go through — and it makes each success that much sweeter.

“They’ve had to work for this,” Reid said. “I think when you have to really work for something and bear down, I think you enjoy it a little bit more and you’re not resting on what happened before, but you’ve earned this right here with the knot in the stomach and the ups and downs. So, you earn every one of these.”

Their work is not done; this midseason turnaround only matters if the success continues into the postseason and into February. This team knows that because the man in charge makes sure of it.

“We haven’t proven anything yet,” Reid emphasized. “You can talk about it all after the season – go find an island and go lay around and tell everyone about it. But right now, not so much.”

Contradictory to Reid’s words, the team is allowed one week to lay around and rest up — and it happens to be this coming one. With time to recharge and prepare for the home stretch, the Chiefs are in as good of a position as they could have imagined a month ago.

The only thing that may be currently “broken” is the confidence of the rest of the AFC contenders.