Back in Week 8, the Kansas City Chiefs were 3-4. Hardly anyone gave them a chance to make the playoffs — much less win their sixth consecutive AFC West championship or contend for the AFC’s single postseason bye.
The defense was a mess. The offense — while still capable — couldn’t be counted upon to close out games without costly mistakes. Kansas City was in serious trouble — and at that moment, faced one of the league’s most difficult remaining schedules.
And yet... eight games later, the Chiefs found themselves in a position where they could still earn the AFC’s first seed.
A big chunk of that came through the team’s own efforts. A very smart trade for edge rusher Melvin Ingram — an acquisition that the team very much would have preferred to make in the offseason, but simply couldn’t afford — began to unlock the defense’s potential. Patrick Mahomes started to learn how to face the reality of being the league’s most-feared quarterback. The completely rebuilt offensive line continued to learn how to work together — to become more than just the sum of its parts. In moments, the special-teams unit stood up and made plays that made the difference in games — much as it had done during coordinator Dave Toub’s early years in Kansas City.
All of those things were significant factors as the Chiefs put together a string of eight consecutive victories. To be sure, a few of them came in fortunate circumstances, too. Facing the Green Bay Packers with Jordan Love as their starting quarterback made it easier for the Chiefs to earn a victory in Week 9. The Dallas Cowboys were without key contributors when the teams met in Week 11. If the Los Angeles Chargers had won the overtime coin toss in Week 15, who is to say that they wouldn’t have emerged with a win?
But none of that is to minimize Kansas City’s turnaround. Instead, it is to once again recognize the genius of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, who once told Kansas City reporters, “The ball is shaped weird. Sometimes it bounces funny.”
It’s a simple fact: in a league built on the idea that any team can win on any given Sunday, an eight-game winning streak not only requires a very good team, but also a small measure of luck, too.
And on Sunday, Lady Luck turned her back on Kansas City as the Cincinnati Bengals shocked the Chiefs with a last-second 34-31 victory.
Again, that’s not to say that Chiefs players and coaches didn’t make mistakes. They did — and some of them were very bad. But the game’s outcome also turned on the ball bouncing in Cincinnati’s direction. Quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase were indeed amazing — but they also made one low-percentage pass reception after another. It was reminiscent of Mahomes’ connections with Tyreek Hill during the 2018 and 2019 seasons: it was as if the two of them could do no wrong — especially when a game was on the line.
To put it another way... let’s see how Burrow and Chase do two or three seasons from now, when opposing defenses tailor their schemes specifically to keep them from making plays. Like Marty Schottenheimer always said, “The other guy is on scholarship, too.”
The Bengals also gained an advantage from what seemed like an extraordinary number of officiating mistakes. If you want to believe that this was the result of an evil conspiracy — in which the league sent out a memo dictating that the Bengals should emerge with a win — then I can’t stop you; it’s very doubtful there is an argument that will change your mind.
But here’s another fact: officiating mistakes have been part of the game since its inception. The main difference now is that after most of them, we get to pass judgment on them from our couches — and in high-definition slow-motion from multiple camera angles.
One thing, however, has never changed: teams that win games do so by getting past those errors — and on Sunday, the Chiefs just didn’t do that. It’s not that officiating mistakes didn’t give Cincinnati some competitive edges. They did. It’s just that Kansas City made enough miscues of its own that those disadvantages ended up making the difference.
But despite all of this, a few things remain unchanged. One is that the Chiefs are a very good football team that has earned — for the fourth consecutive season — the right to be among the postseason’s top seeds. Another is that the Chiefs’ goal is still within reach. And finally, we know that even from the second seed — which the team can set as the minimum with a win against the Denver Broncos on Saturday — the Chiefs can reach it.
After all... they’ve done it before.