KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sunday night was an incredibly good time for the Kansas City Chiefs. They trounced their AFC West rival in front of a nationally televised audience on Christmas. They clinched a playoff berth before that 33-10 win over the Denver Broncos actually ever kicked off. They also unveiled something that will be critical to any success they hope to enjoy now that they've punched their ticket to the postseason: an offense that might have enough juice to get them where they hope to go.
This year's Chiefs have excelled at finding different ways to win games. What they haven't done often is what they did against a defense as elite as Denver's. The Chiefs ran the ball for 238 yards. They threw it for another 246. The big plays were there as well, as rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill produced a 70-yard touchdown run and tight end Travis Kelce scored on an 80-yard pass play.
This wasn't the same Kansas City offense that had been known for its inconsistency earlier this year. This was a unit that suddenly looked explosive and dangerous, especially because it lit up a defense known for stifling its opponents.
"You want to be playing your best football at this time of year and you want to be ascending," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "It's a credit to two things. One is the type of talent we have ... We have a lot of guys who can make plays. Then the coaches are doing a great job of putting game plans together to take advantage of all those different abilities. It's hard in this league to be daring. But on a night like tonight, with everyone watching, you have to do things outside the box."
Thinking outside the box actually hadn't been a strength of this offense. In fact, Kelce criticized the play-calling of head coach Andy Reid after Kansas City's 19-17 loss to Tennessee last week. After the Chiefs jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead in that contest, they only scored three points the rest of the game. Even more unsettling for Kansas City fans was the fact that this team entered Sunday with an offense that ranked 20th in the NFL in total yards (341.5 per game) and 28th in red-zone efficiency (the Chiefs had scored touchdowns on 44.4 percent of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line).
These were the kind of numbers that made it easy to imagine the Chiefs making a quick exit from this year's postseason. The production they generated against Denver painted a different picture. A consistent issue with Reid's game-planning is that he too often went away from his most talented players in order to spread the football around to others. That clearly wasn't the strategy going into Sunday night.
Hill had 102 yards on four carries in the first half. Kelce had 123 receiving yards and caught six of the seven passes thrown in his direction during the same time frame. The result of that emphasis was a 21-10 halftime lead that would've been more if the Broncos hadn't capitalized on an interception by safety Justin Simmons that set up a one-yard touchdown run by Justin Forsett in the first quarter. In other words, Denver never had a chance of keeping up with the Chiefs in this contest.
What the Chiefs now have is a big-play threat who can score from anywhere on the field (Hill), a dynamic tight end who can create mismatches (Kelce) and a veteran wide receiver who can move the chains with reliable hands (Jeremy Maclin). If Smith can use his mobility to pressure defenses -- and play as efficiently as he did against Denver -- Kansas City becomes a more legitimate threat to reach the Super Bowl.
"[Tyreek's] skill is unmatched on the field," said Kelce, who finished with 160 yards on 11 receptions. "And when you have a guy like that, it makes things easier for me on the inside and Jeremy on the outside. They can't double everybody. Somebody is going to have a mismatch."
It was especially crucial for the Chiefs to utilize Kelce in this contest. Hill gives this team an invaluable home-run threat, but Reid also is mindful of the importance of not overusing him. Hill lines up in the backfield, at receiver and returns punt and kicks. Kelce, on the other hand, is the kind of talent who should be impacting games every week on offense, which explains his frustration with how that Titans game turned out.
Kelce had produced four straight 100-yard games before that loss. He wound up with three receptions for 41 yards in that contest, right before he ripped his head coach. To his credit, Reid understood that his Pro Bowl tight end had a valid point. When asked why Kelce was able to be more effective against the Broncos, Reid said, "It just worked out that way. They had him singled up a lot and that gave us an opportunity to get him going, whereas he's been doubled (more) in the past."
Reid also showed a sense of humor late in this game, when it was clear that the Chiefs would finally beat the Broncos twice in a season for the first time in Reid's four years in Kansas City. That moment came in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs having moved the ball to Denver's 2-yard line. Nose tackle Dontari Poe lined up in the Wildcat formation, and faked a short run into the line of scrimmage. At the last moment, he jumped in the air, tossed the ball over the heads of Denver's defenders and watched it land in the hands of tight end Demetrius Harris for a touchdown.
It was the kind of play that surely angered the Broncos, as outside linebacker Shane Ray said, "That won't be forgotten." It also was the type of highlight that revealed how far the Chiefs had come in terms of having fun with the football. Kansas City had been winning with defense and special teams play for most of this season. It's been the offense that people weren't sure of, and Sunday night's effort went a long way toward quelling those doubts.
The Chiefs now go into their season finale at San Diego with plenty to still play for this year. The Oakland Raiders still lead the AFC West by one game, but they also are playing the Denver Broncos after losing Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr to a broken leg. If Oakland loses and the Chiefs win, Kansas City will win the division. The Chiefs also would claim the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, giving them a first-round bye and a home game in the Divisional Round.
Of course, that may be a lot to hope for in Kansas City. However, it's not outside the realm of possibility. The Chiefs just spent most of this season making people wonder if they had enough offense to make some noise in the playoffs. Now we know there are a few surprises still left in this team, just as they are hitting the most critical part of the season.