EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Kansas City Chiefs don’t know what’s wrong. The old saying goes that if they did, they’d fix it. But a 12-9 overtime loss to the New York Giants is a new and special kind of roadside ditch for a Chiefs season that has gone from the Autobahn to the repair shop in the blink of an eye.
“Out of rhythm, definitely,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said Sunday afternoon, after his team came out inexplicably flat off its bye against one of the worst teams in the league and lost for the fourth time in five games. “I think that’s the thing that jumps out, just out of rhythm the last couple of weeks. Even when you’re stalling -- there’s a lot of times when you’re going along and you’re not scoring, but you’re still getting in a rhythm and we aren’t. Got to find a way.”
The best thing Smith and the Chiefs have going for them is that, as badly as things have gone for them since their 5-0 start, the rest of the division is scuffling as well. Sure, the Los Angeles Chargers got a huge break Sunday with a visit from the Nathan Peterman experience and hung a 54-burger on the Buffalo Bills. And the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos lost, which means the Chiefs are still up by two games in the AFC West with six games to play.
Last year’s AFC West had three teams with winning records, and the expectation coming into this season was that it would once again be one of the strongest -- if not the strongest -- divisions in the league.
It is not.
"Everybody is looking at wins-losses and things, but this is the NFL. You have to bring it every week," Smith said. "The biggest thing for us is being frustrated. You have to find a way to stay together and build off this. Until those opportunities aren't in front of us anymore, all those goals we keep talking about, until they take those away, they're still there for us."
True, and the 6-4 Chiefs are the AFC West team best positioned to feel that way. But as ugly as things looked for the 4-6 Raiders against the New England Patriots in Mexico City on Sunday, they can say the same thing. After all, they beat the Chiefs head-to-head in Week 7, and if they can do it again in Week 14, that leaves them only one other game to make up. Oakland's next two games are at home against the reeling Broncos and those pesky Giants, who are 2-1 against the AFC West and 0-7 against everyone else this season.
And the Chargers, who started 0-4 before beating those Giants, have won four of their past six and hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Raiders (though not the Chiefs). Los Angeles still has Cleveland, Washington and the Jets on the schedule. And while, yes, we know they're the only team Cleveland beat last season, you have to look at the Chargers' remaining schedule as one that presents opportunity.
Denver has lost six in a row, sits at 3-7 and doesn't look like a team that's going to get back in this thing, especially with four of its next five games on the road. But the Broncos did beat the Raiders and Chargers once each already, so you never know.
The problem is, while opportunity exists for everyone, no one seems especially eager to take advantage of it. The Broncos are averaging 14.6 points per game over their past eight games and don't appear to have any answers at quarterback. The Chargers still have the division's best quarterback, but they seem to carry around this bizarre ability to find ways to lose games. Four of their six losses this season have been by three points or fewer. If they can't find a way to win the close ones, then heartbreak will overcome hope.
The Raiders were supposed to be an offensive juggernaut. And when they outlasted the Chiefs that night one month ago in Oakland, you figured it could be a springboard into a big second half. But they laid an egg the following week in Buffalo, barely beat Miami the week after that and came out of their bye Sunday with a total dud against the Patriots. And while there's obviously no shame in getting whipped by the Patriots, the Raiders and the rest of the teams in the AFC West began this season believing they could knock off the champs and reach the Super Bowl. Sunday showed, almost across the board, that the teams in this division are a long way from that.
"We know we're better than this," Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt said, and you can see his point. It wasn't long ago that the Chiefs were 5-0 and the consensus best team in the NFL. Alone among the AFC West teams, they have experienced a sustained run of top-level success this season. Their belief that they can reach those heights again is backed up by at least some evidence.
"I think it's just sustaining drives," Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said. "That's something we were doing and aren't anymore. When you're at the 35-yard line, you've got to finish that drive, finish with six."
Certainly, the Chiefs' offense is not what it was in September and early October, when Hunt and Tyreek Hill were delivering explosive plays at a breakneck pace. Kansas City averaged 32.8 points per game in its season-opening five-game win streak. It's averaging 19.6 per game in its five games since. The Chiefs on Sunday managed only three field goals and no touchdowns against a Giants team that had allowed a total of 82 points to the Rams and the previously winless 49ers in its past two games.
"Teams are running Cover 2," tight end Travis Kelce said. "Until we can beat Cover 2, both in the run game and in the pass game, we're going to struggle."
If it's that simple -- if teams really have figured out the Chiefs' offense and can beat it with a Cover 2 shell and some tough Damon Harrison-style run defense up the middle -- then the rest of this AFC West season is up for grabs. And whichever team wins it isn't going to be in the best shape to try to run down the Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers on the way to the Super Bowl.
If Kansas City can get things going the way it had in the first five weeks, it's a different story. But Sunday's Chiefs didn't look like the Chiefs we or they thought they were. And if another team in the division wants to wake up and take this thing from them, that team might just be in for a very happy holiday season.