Kansas City Chiefs' perfect record obscuring serious questions

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In the cramped locker room after their ninth victory, the Kansas City Chiefs were talking about the little things.

The ill-timed penalties. The dropped passes. The misfires from the quarterback.

Besides running a perfect record to 9-0, the Chiefs really didn't do anything to inspire great praise in a 23-13 defeat of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Their defense was shredded for 470 yards and did not record a sack -- or even a touch -- against an opponent being led by its third-string quarterback. Their offense did not score a touchdown.

But during the most unsettling weekend of the NFL season, there was something oddly comforting about the Chiefs' predictability, about a team that can afford to be worried about just little things.

At a time when everything else around the league is jarring -- two head coaches being hospitalized, an unfurling investigation leading to a late-night player suspension, coast-to-coast comebacks and collapses -- the Chiefs are being rewarded for the least dramatic skill set of all: the ability to avoid devastating mistakes. It doesn't produce the most exciting games, and it eventually might be their undoing, but there is no pretense about these Chiefs. They are happy to rely on a defense that scorestwo touchdowns and an offense that largely stays out of the way.

The Chiefs are beige in a Technicolor league. And when they headed into halftime facing a seven-point deficit Sunday, they were reminded by coaches to essentially embrace their inner nondescriptness.

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"Sometimes when the defense jumps on us, the playmakers tend to press and overthink it and try to do too much, instead of just steadily moving the ball down the field like the offense is built to do," wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said. "Once they jumped on us, me and Dexter (McCluster) were trying to do too much to make plays instead of progressing down the field. When we came in at halftime, they said, 'Guys, just calm down.' Coach just said we've got to play Chiefs ball."

Steadily moving. Progressing down the field. Those are the defining characteristics of "Chiefs ball." They most certainly do not define the current era of successful football, though, and that is the conundrum awaiting the Chiefs in the season's stretch run, after their Week 10 bye.

The Chiefs, for all of their success, remain largely a blank slate, albeit one populated by a talented roster and a new head coach, Andy Reid, who has done a masterful job executing the league's biggest turnaround. But four of their past five games have come against backup quarterbacks, so how good is the league's eighth-ranked defense? And in four of their past five games, Alex Smith did not throw a touchdown pass, so what to make of the offense?

None of that is a criticism of the undefeated Chiefs. They are doing what good teams do: winning while they figure it out. This is a trait shared by, among others this week, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, who are steadily moving toward the playoffs while overcoming their own (injury-induced) foibles.

While the Chiefs try to discern why Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson was left uncovered in the end zone Sunday ... they can take comfort in the fact that cornerback Sean Smith intercepted Jeff Tuel's ensuing pass -- Smith compared it to being a child at Christmas and finding all those boxes under the tree -- and returned it for a touchdown in a 14-point swing that Alex Smith called the most important play of the game. They can wonder how Chiefs receiver Dexter McCluster dropped a rare deep pass from Smith late in the second quarter ... while recognizing that when they absolutely had to add points late in the game, they were able to squeeze out a field goal.

"Regardless of how good or bad our offense is playing, we want to make those plays," Alex Smith said. "This is how we play. There's no pressure. We want to make our plays, we want to score like everybody else."

The problem, of course, is that they are not scoring like everybody else, or at least not like the everybody elses that Kansas City wants to beat. The Chiefs have scored 215 points, an average of 23.9 per game. That places them at 16th in the league, but that figure is a misleading. Of the Chiefs' 23 total touchdowns, the defense has accounted for six, only one fewer than K.C. has scored running the ball and just three fewer than the number of touchdown passes Smith has thrown.

The lifespan for figuring it out is about one more week. Then the Chiefs will face the most intense tests of their season: two games against the Broncos bracketing a game against the Chargers, and then a late-December bout with the Colts. With the season already past its midpoint, the Chiefs are beyond the time when their essential nature will be changed. Their offense ranks 29th and 31st, respectively, in net passing yards per game and net passing yards per play. But they are second (behind only the Colts) in lowest percentage of passes intercepted, and their defense ranks first in third-down efficiency and scoring D. Still, Kansas City has to figure out how it would rally against an opponent that is not starting an undrafted quarterback.

The Broncos, for instance, are averaging 42.9 points per game. The Chiefs have broken 30 only once. One look at the Colts' comeback win over the Texans on Sunday night highlighted what the Chiefs lack: the ability to move the ball and score quickly. If they can't count on their defense to score every game, then what can they lean on against the NFL's best teams?

When members of the Chiefs' offense were asked what they might tweak during the bye week so they can finish drives -- Kansas City is 25th in red-zone efficiency -- they were at a loss for specifics. They just have to execute, McCluster said. Beat the man-to-man coverage and then catch the ball. Winning has smoothed over those deficiencies for now.

When Smith was asked if he was frustrated by the offense's inability to finish drives, he first started to answer and then changed course.

"There's little things in every game, no matter how well you play, that you want back," he said. "The great thing is, we're finding a way to win. I'm thrilled our defense got two scores. Those are crippling -- those are tough to overcome. For us, no question, we've got to play better. But that's always easier after a victory."

Indeed it is. But after their latest one, the Chiefs might not find many more easy days.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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