Chiefs could ride soft schedule into improbable postseason
Dec. 17, 2015
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When the Kansas City Chiefs' schedule was first released, the assumption was that if they could only weather the first six weeks, they would have a good shot at returning to the playoffs.
Then they won just one game.
But after the brutal opening stretch against some of the NFL's best teams, the Chiefs (8-5) have a pillow-soft finishing kick. It begins with a trip to four-win Baltimore, where third-string quarterback Jimmy Clausen could be under center Sunday. Then it continues with three-win Cleveland and finishes with six-win Oakland, both of those games in the friendly confines of Arrowhead Stadium.
Suddenly, that 1-5 start seems like a distant memory. And after seven straight victories to set up the final three weeks of the season, the playoffs seem like inevitability.
"We're trying to make history," said running back Charcandrick West, who has gone from no-name fill-in for injured Jamaal Charles to a fantasy football hero in his own right.
"This is a special team and I really believe that," West said. "All of us believe that."
There is no argument the Chiefs aren't playing better than they did early in the season, when they followed up a victory at Houston with five consecutive losses. Alex Smith went more than 300 passes without an interception, the running game steadily improved behind a congealing offensive line and a defense that most assumed would be among the league's best has finally started to play like it.
The Chiefs have even overcome a litany of injuries to big names. Charles has been out for weeks, while All-Pro linebacker Justin Houston is out for the foreseeable future by a knee injury.
But more than anything else, Kansas City's tilted schedule has helped it climb out of its hole.
Over the first six weeks, the Chiefs played four times on the road — then headed to London for a "home game" against Detroit. That stretched included a game against Denver on Thursday night. The result was an inability to get into the kind of Sunday-to-Sunday rhythm that most teams crave.
Then there was substance of their opponents.
Among those first six teams, four are presently atop their division with another in second place. Two of them (the Broncos and Bengals) have won 10 games, while the Packers have won nine and the Vikings have won eight. All of them except Chicago are in the middle of the playoff hunt.
Their combined winning percentage is .615.
Now, consider the seven teams that Kansas City has beaten in successive weeks. Only the Broncos are atop their division, and five of the seven have losing records. They've beaten three-win San Diego twice, and the four-win Lions were in the midst of a coaching upheaval when they met.
Their combined winning percentage is .412.
Still, facing lousy opposition is only part of the equation. The Chiefs still had to take advantage of it, something that Baltimore failed to do after a similarly tough start.
"The way they turned it around, it's something we'd hoped to do as well, earlier," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They were able to pull it off. All the respect in the world for them."
The Chiefs still have work left to make the playoffs, though. Even after seven straight victories, they are merely tied with the Steelers and Jets for the two AFC wild-card spots. And while they hold the tiebreaker over both of those teams, they can ill afford to stumble down the stretch.
The three remaining opponents have a combined 13-26 record, which means their winning percentage is roughly half that of the first six weeks of the season, and even worse than what Kansas City has faced during the third-best winning streak in franchise history.
"We've faced a fair amount of adversity," Chiefs offensive lineman Jah Reid said. "Each week's a new week, and you can't let it carry over. You have to learn from it and put it behind you and apply what you know for the next week."
So far, the Chiefs have learned from those tough lessons early in the season.
Notes: Dr. James Andrew confirmed that LB Justin Houston has a hyperextended knee during an exam Wednesday. The Chiefs still hope he returns this season. ... LB Tamba Hali (knee) and DL Mike DeVito (concussion) practiced Thursday. Both are expected to play Sunday.
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