KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Their public mantra after a colossal defensive collapse was "no excuses." It's in their best interest if that's what the Kansas City Chiefs truly believe.
Otherwise, they may be destined to fail in a similar manner over the final five games. It's far too convenient to say they played their worst defensive game of the season in a 41-38 loss to the San Diego Chargers because they played most of it without their two featured pass-rushers, the injured Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
To claim that would be to ignore reality. The Chiefs have now allowed 400-plus yards for the third straight game and Hali and Houston were in the lineup for the first two.
The Chiefs have now allowed at least 27 points in their past two games, the first one with Hali and Houston available for every play. The Chiefs have now played four straight games with either zero sacks or one, the first three with Hali and Houston on the field.
The fact is the Chiefs have steadily been building toward a collapse like this on defense for some time. They were having trouble extinguishing opponents with quarterbacks of dubious NFL credentials, so it should be no surprise they were beaten decisively by Denver's Peyton Manning last week and San Diego's Philip Rivers on Sunday, with or without their top pass-rushers.
Bob Sutton's defensive schemes have been figured out or, if you prefer, exposed. The Chiefs will need to respond, whether that's with pass-rushers Hali and Houston or their replacements, Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses.
"We've got to make it work," cornerback Brandon Flowers said. "We get paid to win games. The coaches get paid to put the players [filling in] in position to make plays. It's going to be hard to adjust to the caliber of players they are but we've got to make it happen.
"It's tough losing your Pro Bowl pass-rushers with the way those guys dominate and get pressure. We have to change up a little here and there but at the end of the day we are out there to stop [opponents] whoever comes on the field. Whoever comes in is more than capable of helping this defense win games. As a unit, we have to get better."
That's a healthy attitude, one the Chiefs will need to make the necessary improvements. Hali left the game for good early in the second quarter with an ankle injury, Houston later in the same period with a sprained elbow. Each has an MRI scheduled for Monday.
That's 20 sacks for the season the Chiefs had sitting in their locker room rather than on the field chasing Rivers. For what it's worth, the Chiefs led 7-3 when Hali departed and 14-3 when Houston left.
They were bound to have trouble covering San Diego's many crossing routes regardless of who was rushing Rivers. The Chargers had an incredible 228 yards after the catch. Rivers was 11-of-13 for 199 yards on third-down passes, astounding numbers against a defense that entered the game leading the league in third-down efficiency.
Many plays defined Kansas City's day, none more than San Diego's winning touchdown, a 26-yard pass from Rivers to Seyi Ajirotutu with 24 seconds left. The Chiefs sent five rushers after Rivers but couldn't get there in time.
The Chiefs had decent coverage on Ajirotutu and cornerback Sean Smith narrowly missed knocking down the pass.
"I thought it was a great throw on his part," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Rivers. "They say it was a game of inches. We were off by an inch right there on the coverage. We had a man over the top of him and a man underneath him and Philip hit it in the right spot."
That's what happens when the quarterback is a player the caliber of Rivers and not, say, Buffalo's Jeff Tuel.
So it's not a stretch to say that earlier in the year, Smith would have gotten in the way of that pass. Or that in the first two months of the season safety Quintin Demps would have caught the Rivers pass in his hands earlier in the fourth quarter rather than drop it. Or that the pass on San Diego's winning drive that bounced off the hands of tight end Antonio Gates to Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis and finally to linebacker Derrick Johnson would have landed in Johnson's hands rather than harmlessly on the ground.
In September or October, the Chiefs probably would have made all of those plays and handled Rivers and the Chargers with ease. In November they look a step slow and are having a difficult time keeping up with their opponents.
It's not too late for the Chiefs to regain that step. But they need to hurry. Manning and the Denver Broncos are coming to Arrowhead next Sunday.
They have a better chance of getting it back if they accept the premise that their defensive problems run much deeper than the loss of two players, no matter how important they might be.