"Regression team" has become one of the more popular, made-up superlatives during the annual, endless string of preseason prognostications. And entering the 2014 campaign, the Kansas City Chiefs were the sexy pick for this dishonor.
It made sense, too. Three starting offensive linemen gone. A big-money corner cut. Legitimate heavyweights within the division to contend with. Questionable weapons for a game-manager quarterback.
That was the way it looked, at least, until things played out nothing like that.
Visiting the Oakland Raiders for "Thursday Night Football," the Chiefs are among the NFL's hottest teams, fresh off a TKO of the defending Super Bowl champions, brimming with confidence that the five-game winning streak they're riding is just the beginning. If they can take care of business against the winless Raiders, they'll host the Denver Broncos a few days after Thanksgiving with a shot to take control of the AFC West.
And as the Chiefs move to take another step forward in a season full of them, Reid's message from last week resonates, something incorporating both where they've been and where they're headed.
"Coach said, 'You either get better at this point of the season, or you go the other way,' " veteran outside linebacker Tamba Hali said. "You get better. Or you get worse. And that's tough. When the cold comes, some guys are not willing to go ahead and keep doing what they've been doing. And then certain guys love the game, and come to play."
That sounds hokey -- the kind of thing everyone says -- but it's been a crucial mindset as Year 2 for Reid and GM John Dorsey has worn on.
Indeed, Kansas City had to find a way to replace Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz on the offensive line, Tyson Jackson on the defensive line, Brandon Flowers in the secondary, and then linebacker Derrick Johnson and D-lineman Mike DeVito after those two suffered season-ending Achilles injuries in Week 1. All of that has forced the Chiefs to find a mix of in-house developmental guys and bargain-basement vets to plug the holes.
But just as important has been an ethos cemented as the program has matured.
"What's changed from last year to this year?" Hali said. "Last year, we won, and had Mondays off. Our guys have been diligent this year. We win, and Monday, we're here. We're here Tuesday. Guys are here catching up on film on the next team. Tuesday's a day off. We used to get Monday off. We're in the mindset that we gotta be here and start the progression for the next game."
That investment has paid off not just in those individual games, but in the development of position groups -- especially those at the line of scrimmage -- that were supposed to struggle.
The Chiefs gashed the rough-and-tumble Seahawks for 190 yards on the ground last Sunday, with Alex Smith's 108 through the air proving enough for a 24-20 win. And while the defense has had its own ups and downs against the run, the extra time spent at the office has added up to better play when it matters most.
"Fourth quarters," tight end Travis Kelce said, when asked where the additional labor hours pay off. "That extra work, that extra focus that you need, those extra reps, it keeps your fundamentals down pat. You don't get away from the footwork, the basic techniques. Coming in, studying your opponent early, making sure you understand them through the week, it ties in everywhere in the game. It shows up mostly in the fourth quarter, when guys are getting tired and guys are out there and the mental part lapses."
Sure enough, in the five games since its bye, Kansas City has outscored opponents 45-6 in the fourth quarter and all units have been at their best with the chips in the middle of the table.
Jamaal Charles' 39-yard game-changer of a touchdown in Buffalo came on a seminal fourth-and-1 at the outset of the fourth quarter, and the defense forced a game-deciding turnover-on-downs near the end of the frame on a Bills possession that began at K.C.'s 25. Seven days later, the defense stopped a fourth-and-goal from the 2 and a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter against Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle offense, and Charles' 47-yard run keyed the go-ahead drive.
"It's a long season. Some people, they lose focus," NFL sack leader Justin Houston said. "It's hard to continue to grind through this long season. (Reid) just asked the leaders, keep doing what we're doing, continue to show the younger guys what you gotta do to be good. So we just keep working on it, keep preparing how we've been preparing week in and week out, and just let the young guys follow."
They have, and in all facets of what Reid is trying to establish -- right down to the changes in nutrition that have included the elimination of "Junk Food Fridays" at the facility.
And so now, the opposite of what many assumed would happen is taking root. Rather than regressing, the Chiefs are ascending, and there isn't much more to it than what's right there on the surface.
"It's just that the guys are focused and working hard," Reid told me. "We had new guys come in and out, and they've done a nice job, and stepped their game up from their first week."
It seems everyone has.
Last year, many of the same players watched a 9-0 start devolve into a 2-6 finish. Because of that, maybe it was fair to expect less in 2014.