OAKLAND, Calif. –- The Kansas City Chiefs became the most unlikely NFL division champions of the season on Sunday in the comfort of their own homes.
Fittingly, the stunning conclusion to the Chiefs' improbable division title occurred with the team already well into its Sunday evening plans. Audible: Add champagne to Kansas City’s dinner menu.
Three hours after Kansas City pounded Tennessee 34-14 to put pressure on San Diego and knock Oakland out of the playoff mix, the Chargers responded with a ridiculous 34-20 loss at Cincinnati. The Chiefs are 10-5 and the Chargers, one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments this season, are 8-7.
When play began Sunday, it seemed like a long shot that the AFC West race wouldn't go into Week 17.
But a long-shot champion is exactly what we got.
The result was a sudden end of the Chargers’ four-season reign over the AFC West. Even more newsworthy is the fact that the Chiefs won their first AFC West title since 2003 and that they will be headed to the postseason for the first time since 2006.
“That’s my time to have a little family time and I actually got to see a couple plays, but the kids are going crazy,” Kansas City coach Todd Haley said about his whereabouts during the Bengals’ upset win in quotes distributed by the Chiefs. “My wife’s sister came into town with our niece and so everybody was kind of going crazy around the house. When my phone started ringing I knew good things were happening.”
Going into the season, the Chargers once again looked like the clear favorite to win the division. If anyone was going to make a run at San Diego, it appeared it would have been the Raiders. While the Raiders have made strides, there is no bigger turnaround story than the Chiefs.
Kansas City entered this season with 10 wins in the past three years and it seemed like it was still a couple of years away from being a legitimate playoff contender. During training camp, both Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and Haley -- who are both probably in line for some postseason hardware -- said they were pleased with the direction the program was taking in their second season. But they still thought the team had strides to make.
Now, the only place Kansas City is going is the playoffs.
The Chiefs are currently on pace to be the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs and face the New York Jets in a first-round game that will be played either Jan. 8 or 9. The Chiefs still could be the No. 4 seed if the Colts win next week and the Chiefs -- who probably will be resting several players -- lose to Oakland. The Chiefs will play host to either the Jets, Baltimore or Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Kansas City is 7-0 at the New Arrowhead Stadium and with its strong run game, tough-nosed defense and the efficiency of quarterback Matt Cassel, there’s no reason to believe this unlikely story has to end after one week of postseason bliss.
In the meantime, Kansas City will enter preparation for Week 17 not anticipating a division-deciding game against the Raiders, but figuring out whom to rest against the Raiders and how to get to the playoffs as healthy as possible. All Oakland can focus on is being the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to sweep its division and not make the playoffs. Twenty-nine teams in that span have swept their divisions. All 29 teams went to the playoffs.
If the Raiders win at Kansas City, they will be 6-0 in the AFC West, but looking nowhere but toward 2011. The problem for Oakland is that it is 2-8 against the rest of its schedule, including 0-6 against the rest of the AFC.
After the loss to the Colts, Oakland players (who said they did not know that Kansas City won earlier in the day, which is believable because the scoreboard never gave an update from Kansas City) were not in the mood to speak about the Chiefs’ unlikely division title or their playoff chances.
“You need to win your division,” Oakland tight end Zach Miller said. “Those head-to-head games are so important. But you just have to win games, period. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing AFC, NFC or AFC West. There were games that were totally winnable and we didn’t finish or something happened.”
Added cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha: “It’s crazy to see that we’re not going to be in the playoffs and we’ve got a chance to be undefeated in the division. It’s a little weird. You say the best team in the division goes, but it’s really off of your record, but I don’t know."
The Chiefs and Raiders have gone in different directions since Oakland beat Kansas City in overtime in Week 9. The Chiefs were 5-3 and the Raiders were 5-4. Since then, though, the Chiefs have lost only twice and the Raiders have won only twice.
Now the word “playoffs” is no longer a banned word in Kansas City (Haley wasn’t allowing his players to use it in recent weeks).
“Now, that we’re in you can say whatever you want, but I probably won’t say it a whole bunch,” Haley said. “I’m proud of the guys. There are a lot of people that have struggled through some tough times and reward in this business is winning and winning big games and we haven’t won any big, big games, but we’ve won a bunch of games this year. That’s really good for everybody involved; that’s what you do it for.
"This just gives us an opportunity to maybe play in some big games and bigger games and we’ll see how far we’ve come.”