Kansas City's not-so-crazy Super Bowl potential

As ESPN's Adam Schefter pointed out on Twitter on Sunday night, both teams everybody was supposed to be afraid of heading into the playoffs lost to inferior opposition. The Seahawks lost in their once-impenetrable home fortress to a Rams team with nothing to play for and Case Keenum at quarterback, a move that likely will knock them from the No. 5 seed (and a matchup against Washington) to the No. 6 seed (and a trip to play the NFC North champ).

The Steelers aren't quite as lucky. Their stunning loss to the lowly Ravens turned what seemed to be a guaranteed playoff spot into a coin flip. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) gives Pittsburgh just a 46.2 percent chance of making the playoffs after being swept by Baltimore, with the Steelers needing to pair a Week 17 win with a Jets loss or two Broncos losses (Monday night and next week) to make it to the postseason.

Another team that could have been in a similar bind, though, was able to hold on in Week 16 for what could end up being a very important victory. Like the Seahawks, they entered Sunday riding a long winning streak after struggling earlier in the season. And like the Steelers, they have a truly dominant component to their game that should terrify the opposition. Yet nobody is lumping them in with the teams everybody's trying to avoid.

Why isn't anybody afraid of the Kansas City Chiefs?

Being hot in December doesn't promise anything in January, but the Chiefs most certainly are. Their win over the Browns on Sunday was their ninth in a row, bringing them to 10-5 after losing five of their first six games. Those victories have been by an average of 16 points, with just two -- a 10-3 win over the Chargers and yesterday's 17-13 victory over Johnny Manziel and company -- coming by seven points or fewer. This is not a well-timed series of coin-flip victories.

And yet who is truly "scared" of the Chiefs? One reason we highlight a team like the Steelers as one to avoid in the postseason is because it's simply easier to imagine an explosive offense putting together an incredible day than it is to envision a stifling defense swallowing some opposing attack whole. It's more tangible to think about Julio Jones leaping over an otherwise-competent cornerback for an indefensible touchdown than it is to imagine a really good defense forcing 14 punts and staying out of dangerous situations. The puncher's chance is always going to be more relatable than the cautious, defensive fighter.

The defense

The Chiefs are basically the polar opposite of the Steelers. Pittsburgh has an incredible offense and a defense that is almost entirely dependent upon takeaways. When it doesn't create turnovers, as was the case against Ryan Mallett and the Ravens on Sunday, the Pittsburgh defense looks cozy and inviting. The Chiefs, meanwhile, feature a dominant defense and an offense that is predicated upon avoiding giveaways. Force Alex Smith to commit turnovers and you're basically going to shut down the Kansas City offense. The difference in scale between the two is that Smith is better at avoiding turnovers than the Steelers are at creating them, and the Kansas City defense might be a step above the Pittsburgh offense.

If that doesn't sit well, you're underestimating just how well the Chiefs are playing on defense. Since the start of Week 5, Bob Sutton's unit has allowed a total of just 145 points, an average of 13.2 points over 11 games. Nobody is within three points of them; the second-place Bengals are allowing 16.6 points per game. The next-closest team to have suited up for 11 games over that span is Houston, which has allowed 199 points.

That just isn't common. To put that in context, just five defenses have been better from the fifth through the 15th games in their respective seasons since the turn of the century than the 2015 Chiefs:

Normally, when I see a stat like this quoted, my arbitrary endpoints alarm goes off. In short: Why measure a season five games in? It seems too easy a way to prove a point, and sure enough, the Chiefs were awful on defense in the first four games of the year. They allowed a combined 125 points over those four weeks, all against likely postseason contenders (the Texans and Broncos lead their divisions but are not guaranteed a playoff berth yet). You really can't just write those games off under typical circumstances.

In the case of the Chiefs, though, there's a strong case for arguing that the defense back then is far different from this current unit. The early-season version did not feature the same personnel playing at the same level:

  • The Chiefs were without cornerback Sean Smith, who was suspended for the first three games of the season after a DUI charge.

  • Nose tackle Dontari Poe made a stunning recovery from July back surgery to suit up for Week 1, but he was far from 100 percent and wasn't playing his usual heavy complement of snaps. After suiting up for 87 percent of the defensive plays in the first four games of the 2014 season, Poe was in for just 64 percent of plays over the same span this season.

  • And of course, likely Comeback Player of the Year winner Eric Berry was still making his way back from offseason chemotherapy treatments. He also started off on a lower snap count and surely had to get back into game shape. And it's also worth considering that star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was recovering from an Achilles injury he suffered in Week 1 a year ago.

Those four are all contributing at a high level -- so much so, in fact, that the Chiefs have been able to get by on defense without their best player. Justin Houston has missed the past four games with a hyperextended knee, and on Sunday, he was joined on the sideline by fellow pass-rusher Tamba Hali. The Chiefs swapped in Packers pipeline product Frank Zombo and 2014 first-rounder Dee Ford and made do. Hali should be back for Week 17, and the team expects Houston to return for the playoffs. That's the last thing Chiefs opponents need right now.

Now, you can make a case that those first four games should mean something. The players mentioned were all in the lineup for Week 4, and the Bengals still dropped 36 points on the Chiefs in Cincinnati. Houston's knee injury might continue to keep him out. And the Chiefs haven't really played a great offense during this dominant stretch of play; the only exception would be the Steelers, who lead the league in offensive DVOA, but the Chiefs held them to 13 points in a game Landry Jones started and finished. Even with that friendly schedule and the ugly four-game start to the season, though, the Chiefs are fifth in the league in defensive FPI and were fourth in defensive DVOA heading into the Browns game. This is a really good defense.

The quarterback

The classic complaint surrounding the Chiefs is that Smith isn't good enough to lead an offense to the Super Bowl. That argument, too, seems flimsy. Why are we sure that he's not good enough to take the Chiefs to Santa Clara? You don't have to go too far back in time to find quarterbacks who were worse than Smith who managed to win Super Bowls, especially when combined with great defenses.

There was a stretch at the turn of the century when quarterbacks like Smith won year after year, including Trent Dilfer with the Ravens, Brad Johnson with the Bucs and the still-in-beta version of Tom Brady with the Patriots, back when Brady was throwing checkdowns to Troy Brown and Jermaine Wiggins. (We like to pretend this version of Brady didn't exist, but superficial and advanced numbers tell a different story.) Smith would fit right in with that bunch, especially if he's bringing the league's best defense to the dance.

Another point that flies in the face of this argument is that we've already seen Smith in the postseason, and he hasn't really been a hindrance. In his first playoff game, he won a 36-32 shootout over Drew Brees and the Saints, running the exact sort of high-octane offense teams would typically be afraid to play in the postseason. Smith threw for three touchdowns and memorably ran in a fourth while leading the 49ers back for two lead-taking drives in the final four minutes.

And then, in his playoff debut with the Chiefs in the 2013 season, Smith put up 44 points on the road against the Colts despite losing Jamaal Charles on the opening series. By the end of the game, injuries had cost the Chiefs starting wideout Donnie Avery and Charles' backup, Knile Davis, leaving Smith with Cyrus Gray and A.J. Jenkins as every-down weapons. Smith threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns, losing 45-44 as his defense capitulated in the second half.

The one playoff start in which Smith struggled was the 2011 NFC Championship Game, when his 49ers went 1-for-13 on third down in a 20-17 loss to the Giants. Even in that game, though, Smith posted a competent QBR of 46.5 and threw for two touchdowns. He lost to a Giants team that had just shut down Aaron Rodgers and later stymied Brady in the Super Bowl, and it came in a game in which backup punt returner Kyle Williams muffed two punts inside his own 30-yard line to hand the Giants 10 points on short fields.

The other reality is that Smith might be playing the best football of his entire career right now. He has posted a 65.7 QBR this season, which will be his best full-season rate as a pro. The right comparison to think about with Smith is somebody like right fielder Jason Heyward. Like Heyward, who lacks the sort of power you might associate with a superstar outfielder, Smith is well known for his conservative tendencies. His average pass travels a league-low 6.2 yards in the air, although that's far closer to the pack than last year, when his average throw went 5.6 yards in the air and nobody else was below 6.9.

Instead, the bulk of their value comes from the more subtle parts of their game. Heyward generates incredible value in run prevention; Smith notably suppresses turnovers. After a shocking five-giveaway game against the Broncos in Week 2, including two picks from Smith, the Chiefs have avoided takeaways in seven of their ensuing 13 games. They've given away just five possessions in their nine-game winning streak.

In addition, Smith -- also like Heyward -- makes big contributions as a runner, a factor that remains bizarrely underrated. ESPN Stats & Information noted after Sunday's win over the Browns that Smith has scrambled for more yards during Kansas City's winning streak than any other quarterback in football. His 271 yards on scrambles are 40 more than any other passer in the league over that span, and his 17 first downs on scrambles are tops by four.

Smith might not be one of the best players at his position in the way that Heyward is at his, but he's certainly good enough to push the Chiefs toward victories.

The slate

There's also something else worth mentioning: No matter what you think of Smith, the AFC playoff picture isn't exactly full of superstar quarterbacks. Yes, there's Brady. Otherwise, if the Steelers do miss the playoffs, Smith's almost definitely the second-best quarterback in the AFC bracket. He's clearly ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer. Most wouldn't hesitate to put Smith ahead of Brock Osweiler at this point, and while now isn't exactly the right time to make a joke about a rejuvenated Peyton Manning, the Manning who struggled through 2015 isn't on Smith's level.

That leaves the Bengals, who will roll out either AJ McCarron or Andy Dalton, the latter of whom has been far worse in the postseason than Smith and won't be 100 percent if he makes it back from his broken thumb.

And with that in mind, the Chiefs might end up with a very friendly slate of opposing quarterbacks en route to the postseason. After beating the Browns, they're actually now slight favorites to claim the AFC West. The FPI gives them a 57.5 percent chance of winning their division, which they can accomplish by winning next week at home against the Raiders while hoping the Broncos slip up against the Bengals or Chargers.

That would leave Kansas City as the No. 3 seed and likely pit the Chiefs against Fitzpatrick and the Jets at Arrowhead in the opening round. They would likely get Brady at Foxborough in the divisional round, but stranger upsets have happened. Mark Sanchez has a playoff road win over Brady in New England. Joe Flacco has two. And the Patriots are banged up.

Alternately, if the Broncos win out, the Chiefs could end up facing Hoyer (or Brandon Weeden) in the wild-card round. Then, if the Jets upset the Bengals, the Chiefs could avoid the Patriots and face Osweiler and the Broncos in the second round before getting to Brady (or Fitzpatrick) in the AFC Championship Game. This isn't a Group of Quarterback Death.

The coach

The other stumbling block is the less-than-pristine playoff reputation of Andy Reid, and that might be the biggest issue for the Chiefs to overcome. Reid is still 10-10 in the postseason, so it's not as if he's Marty Schottenheimer (5-13) or Marvin Lewis (0-6) in terms of postseason struggles. You can argue that most of those wins came early, during Reid's time in Philadelphia, but I see little reason to believe that he somehow became a worse coach over that time frame. He also took a badly flawed Eagles team within one possession of the Super Bowl in 2008, winning two road games along the way.

That's the only reason I'd hold back on making the obvious comparison between these Chiefs and a team from the recent past. This 2015 Chiefs team reminds me a lot of the 2011 49ers, a team that relied on excellent special teams, a physically imposing defense and Smith keeping the ball away from the opposition.

The difference between those two teams is that one had Reid and one had Jim Harbaugh. That's admittedly a big gap. Again, though, if you're looking to find an example of a coach with similar late-game misadventures who managed to win the big one, you don't have to look too far back. Tom Coughlin's been an absolute mess with his fourth-quarter decision-making for years now, and he has won two Super Bowls. Tony Dungy was hyper-conservative despite spending his time in Indianapolis with the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and he won a Super Bowl. Jim Caldwell, his replacement, called one of the worst timeouts in NFL history and still made it to a Super Bowl.

The Football Power Index is fonder of the Chiefs than most. It gives Kansas City an 11.3 percent chance of making the Super Bowl, the fifth-highest rate in the league entering Monday night's game. Those are better odds than the Broncos (8.1 percent) or Seahawks (7.9 percent) are getting. Although the Chiefs are not exactly the prohibitive favorites to make the trip to Santa Clara (the Cardinals are at 51.3 percent), they have a better chance of making noise in the postseason than you might think. Be afraid. Be at least a little bit afraid.