Ten days after the Chiefs somehow shrugged off missing three defensive starters as they rallied for an exhilarating overtime win against the Chargers in Los Angeles, well, theoretically they were going to be challenged all the more with EIGHT men out on the reserve/COVID-19 list against Pittsburgh on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
If this wasn’t necessarily looming as a comeuppance for the scalding-hot team that had won seven in a row after a vexing 3-4 start, it figured to be at least a grind or a speed-bump, or something resembling an actual competition against an old nemesis.
Instead, their absolute dominance of the Steelers in a 36-10 victory was a spectacle to behold, inadvertently epitomized in coach Andy Reid’s assessment of the kicking and punting duties handled by late fill-ins Elliott Fry and Johnny Townsend.
“They came out,” Reid said, “and did a great job of making it look easy. Not such an easy thing.”
The same could be said for the team overall during this clinic that reinforced their grip on the top seed in the AFC, further suggests they are girded for a run at a third straight Super Bowl berth and clinched their absurd sixth straight AFC West title (a record in itself).
But that’s no ho-hum secondary achievement for the Chiefs, whose ruling of the division also has been the springboard for their postseason feats of strength the last few seasons.
It might be just their first goal but it’s also one from which they’ve launched.
“There’s a lot of sweat that goes into this, a lot of effort pushing through things that you don’t normally have to push through … both mentally and physically,” Reid said.
Particularly on Sunday, days after the Chiefs had as many as 13 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list and it was hard to know how much that might grow. Under the circumstances, the Chiefs could have reconciled and survived a loss and still been a potent playoff team, to be sure.
But doing what they did said something more about what’s here, especially about the resilience and adaptability of Reid and his staff and these players.
“This is the type of week where it’s so great to have an experienced coach like Andy Reid, somebody who is so steady, somebody who has seen virtually everything that the NFL can throw at them … although I know that this week was something different,” Chiefs owner and chairman Clark Hunt said afterward. “His preparation is so thorough, his staff’s preparation was so thorough, that they were able to get the guys who were able to play ready. And I thought they came out right from Moment One and played one of their best games of the season.”
Even accounting for the reality that these Steelers (7-7-1) are a shell of the franchise that had bullied the Chiefs (11-4) in much of the recent past, it was somewhat stunning that the Chiefs were operating with every gear engaged and piston pumping … even as they employed backups for the key likes of tight end Travis Kelce, kicker Harrison Butker and linebacker Nick Bolton.
From a seamless Patrick Mahomes flexing his improvisational best to the defense that has become a revelation since its early funk to the resourceful play-calling of Reid in the absence of Kelce to the sheer depth required to brush aside such a deep roster deficit, this win reflected both the sheer quality of this team and the dauntless essence that has emerged so vividly over the last two months.
This took longer to coalesce than anyone would have liked, most of all the Chiefs themselves.
And there were plenty of times when it was legitimate to wonder if it ever really was going to happen.
Especially when it came to the confounding early struggles of a defense that still had the core of back-to-back top 10 units (in points allowed), the perplexing eruption of turnovers long since reconciled and the occasionally garbled passing game from a spree of dropped passes and Mahomes himself being off-kilter at times.
Or as Hunt put it: “I think we were all scratching our heads to some degree at the beginning of the season. We’d seen some really positive things from the offense, they’d move the ball up and down the field. but we’d fail to convert a lot of those opportunities in large part because we were giving the ball away. (And) for some reason, the defense was having a hard time getting on the same page. We were making mistakes (that) we had not seen over the last couple years.”
But that was then, and this is now.
Simply put, a defense that gave up 203 points in the first seven games has given up 103 in eight games since. Much has changed defensively, of course, but the symbolic symmetry of the Steelers’ discarding Melvin Ingram (for a sixth-round draft pick) and having him become a key to the reframing and resetting of the Chiefs’ defense bears special mention on this day.
Meanwhile, other than a few plays he’d like back from Los Angeles, Mahomes has been his vintage self for weeks now. Over the last three games, he’s completed 74 of 101 for 908 yards and eight touchdowns with one interception.
Minus Kelce on Sunday, he completed 23 of 30 for 258 yards, including his sidearm touchdown pass to Byron Pringle and his ad-libbed 50-yard pass to Derrick Gore a deft step before Mahomes went across the line of scrimmage.
“This was one of his great games,” Reid said with typical understatement but also obvious conviction.
None of these things is happening in a vacuum or by chance, either.
You can trace the defensive improvement directly to several players returning from injuries, others getting back where they belonged (Chris Jones to defensive tackle), still others blossoming and the seemingly inevitable pattern of Steve Spagnuolo’s groups improving through the season.
Offensively, it’s telling that Mahomes thrived on a day when Kelce couldn’t play and Hill surely was limited (two catches for 19 yards) after not practicing all week. So, presto, Mahomes hit Pringle six times for 75 yards and two touchdowns and connected with nine targets overall.
Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that Mahomes and the overhauled offensive line have benefitted from playing together for nearly a full season now.
“You get a feel for how they’re blocking guys; you get a feel for where the pocket is, where to step up …” Mahomes said, adding that the line also has “gotten a feel for me now.”
And here’s the feel we have for the Chiefs now: After that jarring start and then weeks of just salvaging or manufacturing victories, they’re playing their best football of the season even when shorthanded.
On a day they could easily have faltered, they got stronger and better and turned their own troubles into more for everybody else that has to play them.