KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs remembered something that should be especially helpful in the final three weeks of the regular season. Regardless of how bad things have looked, they still have enough talent to turn around what has been an incredibly bizarre season. It all comes down to how much this team wants to lean on those assets. On Sunday afternoon, it appeared the Chiefs finally are ready to ride their stars as far as they'll take this squad.
It's perfectly sensible for some cynics to dismiss Kansas City's 26-15 win over Oakland as proof of what happens when a struggling team faces a worse opponent. The people who've actually watched the Chiefs play over the past month would probably differ with that assessment. Kansas City had lost six of its seven previous games, the last three of which have come against teams with plenty of warts. The only difference in the outcome of this contest was the Chiefs' willingness to rely more on their best playmakers.
They remembered that Kareem Hunt actually has become one of the best running backs in the NFL in just his first pro season. They devised a game plan that involved ample targets for Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and touches for Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill. It's been more than two months since the Chiefs managed to effectively involve all those players in one contest. Hell, the Chiefs even thrived in the other three facets of the game, with a defense that kept the Raiders scoreless until the fourth quarter and a rookie kicker (Harrison Butker) who connected on all four of his field goal attempts.
So this wasn't merely an opportunity for a floundering team to enjoy a much-needed victory that improved their record to 7-6. It was a chance for the Chiefs to rekindle memories of what they used to be -- when they started the season with five straight wins -- and what they might be capable of again.
"It's Kansas City football," said Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones when asked about the urgency in this team on Sunday. "That's how we play. That's how we came out playing in the first (five) games of the season. We have to get back to that. This is the last stretch of the season and the most important stretch of the season. We control our own destiny. We're back in the driver's seat."
This victory was critical for the Chiefs because it gives them a one-game advantage over the Raiders in the AFC West race. It also gives Kansas City tremendous momentum heading into its next contest -- a Saturday night showdown with a Los Angeles Chargers team that is currently tied with the Chiefs for first place in the division. If Kansas City can beat the Chargers for a second time this year, it would give the Chiefs a substantial edge in the standings. Kansas City also finishes the season with two games against teams that are going nowhere -- a home matchup with Miami and a road trip to Denver.
It's clear now that the Chiefs are approaching that final stretch with a clear purpose, especially on offense. Kelce wound up with seven receptions for 74 yards and it's worth noting that his 13 targets were one short of a season-high (he'd had five games in the last seven weeks when he'd been targeted nine or fewer times). Hill added four catches for 75 yards (including a 44-yard grab) while Albert Wilson contributed five receptions of his own for 72 yards. Just as importantly, the running game is going to be a factor again in Kansas City.
Hunt had 25 carries for 116 yards and one touchdown against Oakland. That is significant because this is the same rookie who started the season averaging 121.8 rushing yards in that five-game win streak before winding up with 96 total carries in Kansas City's last seven contests.
"We know how good we can be," said Hunt, who now has 1,046 rushing yards on the season. "We just have to keep coming out and playing as a team -- offense and defense. We can't have the offense doing bad one game and the defense doing good and then have the defense doing bad and the offense doing good."
That inconsistency Hunt referenced had been the most frustrating aspect of the Chiefs' slide. They didn't have enough offense to win two games in which their defense limited their opponent to 16 points or less (against the New York Giants and Buffalo). They also didn't have enough defense to gain victories in two contests where they scored at least 30 points (against the Raiders in Oakland and the New York Jets). It was starting to look as if the Chiefs were inventing new ways to blow games. On Sunday it was evident that they were wise to go back to what worked in the past.
There's no way the Chiefs are going to transform their defense into an elite unit at this stage. What they can do is what they did against Oakland: Play with more intensity, create more big plays and become more aggressive when their offense gives them a decent lead. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Justin Houston was invisible in that Jets loss -- a game during which he didn't even register a tackle -- and he led the Chiefs with five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss against Oakland. Jones added a sack and two of his own tackles for loss, proving that he can still play like the rising star he'd been when this season began.
It wouldn't be fair to talk about Kansas City's defensive effort without highlighting the play of its secondary. Head coach Andy Reid suspended Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters last week, leaving an already vulnerable defensive backfield without its best player. The Chiefs leaned on an assortment of players to pick up the slack -- namely Terrance Mitchell, Darrelle Revis and Steven Nelson. They responded by helping the Chiefs limit Raiders quarterback Derek Carr to 211 passing yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
"We've always had the next man up thing and that's how we've rolled since the get-go," Reid said. "It's no different than that. Marcus will be back and he'll be back in playing, doing his thing. That's where we're at. This was nothing different. There wasn't an extra challenge or any of that. The guys know that if somebody is down, the next man steps in and goes."
The Chiefs actually did receive some form of a challenge prior to Sunday's game. Injured safety Eric Berry addressed the team after pre-game warm-ups and as Jones said, "Any time he says something, you know it's legit from the heart." There weren't many details given as to what Berry said but the message obviously impacted his teammates. It's pretty hard not to listen to a Pro Bowl player who fought his way back from cancer.
Maybe Berry, who has been on injured reserve since sustaining a torn Achilles in a season-opening win over New England, felt it was time to be more vocal. Maybe his speech simply came at a time when the Chiefs were primed to change their fortunes. The bottom line here is that something clicked for Kansas City. Their biggest stars finally showed up at a time when they needed them most.
The challenge for the Chiefs is to carry that momentum into their next AFC West showdown. As quarterback Alex Smith said, "That's the name of the game -- we have to figure out how to keep it going." What Smith didn't say is that there's not a lot for the Chiefs to learn about themselves moving forward. The major key for them is not losing track of what made them so dangerous in the first place.