Alex Smith will never inspire that kind of fear and loathing in an opponent's locker room or tailgate party, the kind that is born of an 11-1 career record (including postseason play) against a single team, the kind summed up in the dread of knowing that your team's surprising postseason hopes had to go through a relentless machine of a quarterback. But even as the gloom settled over Kansas City on Sunday night, after the Chiefs lost to the Denver Broncos for the second time in three weeks to likely cede the AFC West, there were glimmers of hope amid the wreckage.
With Sunday's 35-28 setback, the Chiefs have lost three games in a row after a 9-0 start. But in the last two losses in particular, the Chiefs' offense stayed with two of the most potent offenses in the game. Smith threw downfield, and the points rolled up -- 38 against the Chargers, 28 against the Broncos. It was a bit of a revelation for a team that, in its most recent victory one month ago, needed two defensive touchdowns and a series of field goals to topple the Buffalo Bills and a backup quarterback. There are no ugly wins in the NFL, no BCS-like style points awarded. But that victory, even though it extended the Chiefs' jaw-dropping start, raised plenty of red flags, too, about the viability of a team that simply couldn't score in bunches or in a hurry in a league where the best teams do.
In the last three games, though, the Chiefs have averaged 27.7 points, nearly four points more than they did during their first nine games. How much of a difference is that? Well, that figure is more points than the Patriots have averaged this season (26.8), or the Bengals (24.3) or Colts (23.8) or Ravens (20.8) -- four teams currently in position to join Kansas City in the playoffs. Of the current AFC playoff teams, the Chiefs' scoring average in their past three games trails the season mark of only one team, the Broncos (38.7), who lead the NFL in scoring. And K.C.'s average in the last two games (33 points per contest) closes the gap on Denver a little more, too.
Kansas City surely would take another win right now over a series of encouraging statistics, but for long-term prospects -- "long-term" being the key phrase -- there is reason for hope.
The Chiefs' reality is this: They have a roster loaded with young talent, a good defense and a very reliable quarterback. What they lack -- and it was glaring against the Broncos -- is a terrifying receiver, one with breakaway ability and the skill to catch the ball. Smith is an easy mark, what with his "game manager" tag, but this latest loss to the Broncos was not on him. It was on those receivers who let one pass after another -- many of them of the downfield variety -- skitter off their fingertips. The axiom in the NFL is that if you can touch the ball, you can catch the ball.
Smith repeatedly put his passes where his receivers could catch them Sunday. When they did, the Chiefs jumped out to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter. When they did not, the offense stalled, the Chiefs could not summon a knockout blow and the Broncos came back with 28 unanswered points. Kansas City's offseason priority is obvious: get a top receiver to pair with Dwayne Bowe.
"I don't know if it does anything to our confidence," Smith said of the drops. "Those things are going to happen. It's my job just to keep throwing them. I certainly miss my fair share, as well. That's the nature of the passing game. You're striving for perfection and you would love to hit every single one, but it's not going to happen. I think, especially in the last few weeks, we have done a great job of just continuing to attack and take shots at times. I thought we did a good job of that tonight."
Smith is right: In the last few weeks, Kansas City's offense has been more aggressive, belying its image as a conservative, ball-control operation. This coming Sunday, the Chiefs face everyone's panacea -- the 3-9 Washington Redskins and their 31st-ranked scoring defense -- providing another opportunity to hone a bolder approach.
Even if the Chiefs do not currently have the explosive playmakers to win a Super Bowl right now, Sunday's loss, oddly, showed they do have enough to at least win a playoff game. Given the recent struggles of the Colts and Bengals -- one of whom K.C. most likely will face in the wild-card round -- the Chiefs would have a chance to beat either on the road. The only AFC teams that the Chiefs look doomed against are the same ones everybody else looks doomed against: the Patriots and Broncos.
In the heady days of the 9-0 start, the Chiefs and their fans might have been lulled into thinking Kansas City was already at the level of New England and Denver. But that was always unrealistic. The Chiefs got a series of lucky breaks, facing a run of backup quarterbacks and a last-place schedule. There is no shame in that, but the proving ground was always going to be against the best teams in the league. The last three games -- particularly the two against the Broncos -- showed K.C. still lacks a few critical ingredients, not the least of which is the ability to pour on points and close out games it already leads when the defense needs help, as it has during the losing streak.
Still, to be 9-3 and solidly in possession of a playoff spot with one month to go is remarkable for a team that won just two games last year. This is not a rebuilding but a reversal -- and an indication that, with just a little tinkering, the Chiefs could be serious, consistent contenders next season.
Coach Andy Reid reminded his team Sunday night that this is not college football, that the loss had not just effectively ended the Chiefs' season or championship hopes. What he should have added is that it might have revealed how unexpectedly close they are.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.