INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The moment that saved the Kansas City Chiefs‘ season happened at the most unlikely of times. The stunned Chiefs sat at their lockers in Nashville, Tennessee, during halftime of their Week 7 game against the Tennessee Titans down 27-0.
The Chiefs — with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and safety Tyrann Mathieu leading the way, the team that had played in the two most recent Super Bowl games, winning one — were staring at certain defeat and an un-Chiefs-like 3-4 record.
And they didn’t roar back to win that day. In fact, things barely got better in the second half. They wound up losing 27-3.
But they did come to an epiphany that helped them find their considerable swagger.
“We realized nobody was coming to save us,” Mathieu said. “We had to figure it out ourselves.”
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Chiefs seem to have figured it out. Their defense, a pushover for opposing offenses through the first half of the Titans game, responded with a better effort than the Chiefs dared to hope. The Chiefs are allowing 11 points per game in the six games since.
The offense had two games of 40-plus points in two games against the Las Vegas Raiders. Otherwise it hasn’t resembled the powerhouse group it was the past three seasons with Mahomes at quarterback, but it has been plenty good enough for them to win six straight games, the last four by double digits.
Their string of seasons with a winning streak of at least five games, one that dates back to Andy Reid’s arrival as head coach in 2013, was extended to nine, this in a season where all looked lost.
“I’m proud of the guys for doing that,” Reid said. “Listen, it’s not one guy. It’s a combination of people, the coaches, the players. I mean, it’s everybody. It’s pulling together and not giving up on each other.”
More importantly, the 9-4 Chiefs can effectively — though not mathematically — win their sixth straight AFC West championship by beating the 8-5 Chargers in Los Angeles on Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox). A win would put the Chiefs two games ahead of their closest competitors with three regular-season games to play.
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“They’ve had to work for this and I think when you really have to work for something and bear down I think you enjoy it a little more,” Reid said. “You’re not resting on what happened before but you’ve earned this right here with the knots in the stomach and the ups and downs.”
The Chiefs, Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce in particular, talked after a Week 10 win over the Raiders about the team having its “swagger back.” But this is a decidedly different kind of swagger for the Chiefs.
Their games are no longer first-team-to-40-points-wins, up-and-down-the-field affairs that come down to the last possession. Mahomes had some great moments this season, like a 400-yard, five-touchdown game against the Raiders last month. But he’s also had — according to his QBR — eight of the 10 worst games of his pro career. He and his offensive teammates had to learn to live with a new offensive reality. The Chiefs can be successful but that success won’t necessarily look like it did in their recent past.
So their games are more methodical and far less of a show. That formula is working for the Chiefs just the same.
“We’re trying to be our own version of the Kansas City Chiefs,” Mahomes said.
“Every team is different. Every season is different. We faced a lot of adversity early in the year, which people hadn’t seen. People kind of threw us down and kind of acted like we were done. But you’re seeing now that we have the guys to get it done.”
The recent play of the defense is similar to that of the Chiefs’ defense down the stretch of their Super Bowl winning season in 2019. The Chiefs led the NFL in scoring defense that year over the final six regular-season games.
“We’re getting some confidence,” Mathieu said. “I think we’re playing with some real good energy. We’re still in it. We’re still about head-down, putting in the work and then letting the results take care of themselves. We’re still in the chasing improvement mindset. I don’t think any of us feel like we’ve done enough to win a championship yet. There’s a lot more work to be done.”
Mathieu’s earlier point during the loss to Tennessee about realizing nobody would come to save the Chiefs didn’t turn out to be completely true. A week later, at the trade deadline in early November, the Chiefs sent a draft pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for veteran defensive end Melvin Ingram.
Ingram has been a spark for a pass rush that had its best three games of the season in the past three, according to ESPN’s pass rush win rate. He has just one sack but is playing with an energy the Chiefs lacked for much of the early season.
“He’s playing angry,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “He’s got everybody else being angry, too. He’s had a couple of plays … where he just knocks people around. I think that’s contagious and that helps us.”
The addition of Ingram gives the Chiefs the ability to rush the opposing quarterback with four players who at one time or another in their careers had at least 10 sacks in a season. Nothing has improved for the Chiefs over their winning streak like their pass rush.
Collectively, the Chiefs are again the AFC betting favorites to reach the Super Bowl at +260. They were far from the favorites at +650 on Nov. 2.
“We kind of went back these last few weeks and [said], ‘Let’s just take it day by day. Let’s not worry about the Super Bowl right now. Let’s figure out how we can make ourselves better as a team each and every day,'” Mahomes said.
“With the defense playing the way they’re playing, if the offense can get rolling like we’ve been known to do, we’ll be a tough team to beat. I’m just excited to continue to build this momentum and try to keep it rolling.”