DENVER -- The Kansas City Chiefs are not always easy on the eyes, and it's hard sometimes for even the keenest of observers to spot the collective grit that has propelled them to unforeseen heights over the past 13-plus months. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that in the aftermath of Sunday night's epic overtime victory over the Denver Broncos, quarterback Alex Smith tried to capture the moment by describing not what he saw, but what he heard.
"Man, we were awful in the first half -- really, the first three quarters," Smith told me as we stood near the front of the visitors' locker room at Sports Authority Field, where 76,819 fans had just watched the Chiefs pull out a 30-27 triumph over the Broncos on Cairo Santos' 34-yard field goal, which ricocheted off the left upright and just inside the right one with two seconds remaining in overtime. "It was rough out there; these guys are really [expletive] good, and we struggled, and it was loud as hell.
"But we stayed with our plan, and we kept our poise, and we never let it get too big for us. And I know this: At the end, it got really, really quiet."
That's precisely the way the Chiefs like it, which is convenient, given that they've generated less noise than any Super Bowl contender in recent memory. Winners of 19 of its past 23 games, Kansas City (8-3) is the scourge of numbers geeks, fantasy football players and virtually every hype machine known to man -- and nobody in red and gold seems to be complaining.
Last year, after starting 1-5 and losing star running back Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury, the Chiefs were perceived to be playing out the string. Instead, they strung together 11 consecutive victories, including a road playoff shutout of the Texans, and put up a strong fight against the Patriots in an AFC Divisional Round defeat.
This season opened with K.C. trailing the San Diego Chargers by 21 points in the third quarter -- only to pull off the largest comeback in franchise history and win in overtime. The Chiefs have kept it rolling despite another knee procedure for Charles, who has gained just 40 yards in 2016, and the prolonged absence of star pass rusher Justin Houston, who had surgery last February to repair a torn ACL and didn't return until last Sunday's defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And on Sunday, they took a 9-3 halftime lead despite gaining just 49 yards, fell behind by eight points with three minutes to go, and rallied to topple the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos (7-4) by scoring on their last three possessions. It was the type of victory that can define a season, and it kept Kansas City a game behind the Oakland Raiders (9-2) -- a team it defeated, 26-10, in mid-October. The Chiefs will host rematches with both AFC West rivals in December, and if they keep winning, they could also challenge the Patriots (9-2) for the No. 1 seed in the conference.
If that sounds nutty, it's probably because no one seems to have any idea how the Chiefs are pulling this off.
Said All-Pro safety Eric Berry, who missed part of the 2014 season while battling lymphoma: "Sometimes it's not for everybody to understand. A lot of people won't understand. But as long as we in here understand what we've been through and where we need to go, that's all we really need."
On Sunday, the Chiefs needed (among other things) stellar special teams play, a tour de force performance by Houston and a stunning show of versatility by rookie receiver Tyreek Hill, who became the first player since Hall of Famer Gale Sayers in 1965 to score receiving, rushing and return touchdowns in the same game.
The Chiefs opened the scoring with 6:16 left in the second quarter when Houston (10 tackles, three sacks, one pass defensed) took down Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian in the end zone, forcing a fumble that Broncos left tackle Russell Okung would recover for a safety. Said Schwartz: "Justin's a f------ animal out there. It makes a huge difference."
On the ensuing free kick, Hill, a fifth-round draft choice out of West Alabama, raced to his right and sped to an 86-yard touchdown, high-fiving teammate De'Anthony Thomas a few yards before crossing the goal line (and evoking images of Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim in the Greatest Show On Turf heyday).
After the Chiefs fell behind in the third quarter, Hill put them ahead once more, taking a shotgun snap (after Smith motioned to the left slot) on third-and-1 from the 3, slipping past onrushing linebacker Von Miller (who had three sacks to increase his NFL-leading total to 12.5) en route to the end zone for a 16-10 lead.
A pair of Siemian touchdown throws -- the second, a 76-yarder to Bennie Fowler with three minutes left in regulation -- put the Chiefs in a 24-16 hole, the top of which seemed to be a mile high. Then again, Smith has made a career out of fighting back from setbacks; though his numbers (26 of 44, 220 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) were typically pedestrian, the 12th-year veteran directed three devastatingly composed scoring drives over the next 18 minutes.
"Yo, we're like MJ and the Bulls -- we don't panic, man," Hill said. "Those guys (the Broncos) were definitely surprised. Very surprised. We just started making plays and getting open. We really started attacking them."
There were some dicey moments, including a fourth-and-10 play from the Denver 14 on which Smith connected with Hill near the left sideline, and the rookie slipped out of bounds after an 11-yard-gain with just 19 seconds remaining in regulation. On the next snap Smith zipped a quick, low pass to Hill, who caught it as he was falling backward into the end zone. The official ruled that Hill had been touched down short of the goal line by cornerback Bradley Roby, and the clock wound all the way down to its last tick before a booth-initiated replay review commenced.
All the while, Chiefs coach Andy Reid stayed remarkably calm, as Zen-like as Phil Jackson back in the day.
"Hey," Reid said afterward, as he walked to the team bus, "this isn't my first rodeo."
The replay official ruled that Hill had scored a touchdown, and on the pivotal two-point conversion, Smith fired a pinpoint pass to tight end Demetrius Harris to send the game into overtime.
The Broncos won the toss and took a 27-24 lead on Brandon McManus' 44-yard field goal, but Smith stayed hot, marching the Chiefs into range for Santos' game-extending 37-yarder. With the sudden-death rule now in effect, Denver reached the K.C. 44 with 1:08 remaining where, on fourth-and-10, coach Gary Kubiak went for the win and sent McManus out to attempt a 62-yarder. The move backfired: The kick missed badly, and the Chiefs got the ball at the Broncos' 48.
On second-and-10 from the Denver 32, Smith recognized a Chiefs blitz before accepting a shotgun snap and grinned.
"When I saw they were in zero (coverage), knowing what play we had called, I felt pretty good about it," Smith said. "I knew I just had to get the ball out, and we'd be good."
He did, connecting with tight end Travis Kelce (eight catches, 101 yards) over the middle for a 16-yard gain -- and setting up a Santos field-goal attempt that was as bizarre and uncharted as the Chiefs' rise to prominence in each of the past two seasons.
"The bank was open on Sunday night," Kelce said afterwards, referring to Santos' off-the-upright special. "This was a game that showed we're a team that has grown. Last year, I don't know if our offense dog-walks the ball up the field like that in those situations. This year, we're a different monster. I know what we're capable of doing, and we haven't put it all together yet."
Hill agreed, saying, "We still haven't found our stride. But it's coming. People really don't understand. But soon, everybody's gonna find out how good we are."
In the meantime, the Chiefs are fully content to be the team that keeps winning in the face of skepticism, and one whose exploits are largely ignored outside of Kansas and western Missouri.
"I think we thrive on the lack of attention," Smith said. "It kinda puts a chip on your shoulder, and that's just fine with us. We play like it. We don't do it for the glory.
"Look at a guy like Eric Berry -- really, he's the perfect example of what we are, and we feed off him. Literally, when you have a culture of unselfish players who come together and confront challenges head on, it can take you a long way."
At the end of a long, long night, after everyone else had departed from an upbeat but hardly overjoyed locker room, it was left to Reid, now in his 18th year as an NFL head coach, to try to sum up his team's imperceptible mettle.
He took a stab at it ("Our guys have a great attitude ... when someone goes down, the next guy steps up") as he walked to the bus, whose engine was already running, but he couldn't come up with a revelation that satisfied his questioner.
"Whatever you guys are doing," I told him, "I don't think people have caught on yet."
Reid smiled. "I'm not sure I've caught on, either," he said. Seconds later, he and his Chiefs disappeared into the cool Colorado night, still riding a wave that exactly no one saw coming 13 months ago.