Chiefs fought their way back into 2011

Andy Studebaker jumped on an improbable Philip Rivers fumble in the final minute Monday. AP Photo/Ed Zurga

A game that gave the Kansas City Chiefs serious life for the rest of the 2011 season was a microcosm of the early season.

“Guys on the sideline we saying ‘it ain’t over til it’s over. Keep playing and keep digging in, because you don’t know what is going to happen,'” Kansas City coach Todd Haley said Monday night. “We’ve got some fighters.”

Haley was answering a question about the late fumble by San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers that took a victory out of the Chargers hands and enabled the Chiefs to come back and win in overtime, forcing a three-way tie with the Chargers and Raiders for first place in the AFC West. In truth, Haley was speaking about the season and not just one game.

There is no doubting these Kansas City Chiefs are fighters. The Chiefs enter November after being one of the stories of the NFL in October, and they are living proof a devastating start doesn’t necessarily scuttle an entire NFL season. Their unlikely 23-20 overtime win over San Diego in Week 8 was the Chiefs' fourth straight win after starting 0-3.

It wasn’t just that the Chiefs entered October winless; they looked in as worse shape as any team in the NFL.

They were outscored 89-10 in their first two games. They were ranked No. 32 in ESPN.com’s NFL Power Rankings in Week 4. They were considered a prime contender to win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. There were reports Haley was on the verge of being fired and they lost running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki -- who are all among the organization’s top five players -- to season-ending knee injuries in a span two weeks in September.

A surprise AFC West winner in 2010 at 10-6 -- after it won a total of 10 games spanning 2008-10 -- Kansas City looked as if it was going to go back to being a bottom-feeder.

Now, though, the talk is of a potential back-to-back division title. ESPN.com’s current playoff predictor believes the Chiefs will emerge from the AFC West scrum (this is the first time since 1989 that there's a three-way tie between three teams in a division) and will win the division. The Chiefs are the first team in the NFL to win four straight games after starting 0-3 since the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers.

There is a strong chance the Chiefs will further move away from starting 0-3. Kansas City hosts Miami (0-7) on Sunday and it hosts Denver (2-5) in Week 10. Yes, it would be an upset if the Chiefs aren’t 6-3 in nine days. The Chiefs will need to stockpile wins when they can. It has one of the toughest schedules in the NFL from Weeks 11-15 beginning with a Monday night game at New England. It then hosts Pittsburgh, plays at Chicago and at the Jets and then hosts the Packers before hosting Oakland on Christmas Eve and finishing the regular season on New Year’s Day in Denver.

Don’t expect the Chiefs to fret about any part of the final nine-game stretch. Their start to this season simply taught them to take it one game at a time.

“We know everybody wrote us off at 0-3,” said linebacker Andy Studebaker, who recovered Rivers’ fateful fumble Monday night. “We just kept our course and we just were focused on not letting the season get away from us. And now look at us.”

There are all kinds of theories why the Chiefs have turned around their season. Some credit the beanbag game Haley (who has to be considered a Coach of the Year candidate) put in the locker room to create team unity. Some believe in the power of Haley’s scruffy beard that will not kiss a razor until the Chiefs lose again.

At the risk of ruining a good story, the Chiefs stopped losing and began winning because they started playing much better on both sides of the ball. The Chiefs were minus-6 in turnover differential in the first three games. They have been plus-5 since. Their yards per game differential since the losing streak ended has been 100-plus yards. In the first three games, the Chiefs’ points differential was minus-82. In the past four games, it’s been plus-40.

The Chiefs went back to trusting their running game in Week 4 after the shock of losing Charles in Week 2 wore off. Kansas City led the NFL in rushing last year and Charles had 1,467 yards. Since Week 4, the Chiefs are leading the NFL in rushing attempts per game and former practice squad player Jackie Battle has emerged as a solid lead rusher.

After Monday night’s game, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer lauded the Chiefs for sticking to “their convictions” after the key injuries and 0-3 start. Dilfer expects the Chiefs to stick around for the rest of the season because they stay true to their plan and there is belief in the coaching staff by the players.

The defense seems to get timelier every week, and with the emergence of first-round pick Jon Baldwin (he was outstanding against San Diego, catching five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown), steady quarterback Matt Cassel has a strong receiving trio in Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston and Baldwin.

Despite the losses of Charles, Berry and Moeaki, this team has the same look of an up-and-coming contender it had last year.

“We made some mistakes, everybody, coaches and players alike, but we were able to overcome it by sticking together and not giving up,” Haley said of the win over San Diego, but really talking about the season. “I think it will continue to serve us well going forward.”