Considering the circumstances and the opponent that helped provide the Kansas City Chiefs their best offensive day of the season, there’s reason to be skeptical — especially when recalling their pre-bye week no-show in Pittsburgh.
Andy Reid’s post-bye Bill Walsh imitation continued in Oakland, improving him to 16-2 in his career after having the extra regular-season week to prepare. This downright spooky pattern presents a 19-2 record when counting the Eagles’ playoff byes and subsequent divisional-round victories from 2002-04. The Raiders’ well-paid and currently NFL-worst defense helped extend this streak.
So, given the Chiefs’ struggles offensively in almost every quarter of the season leading up to Week 6, assessing where the methodical unit is at poses a task.
However, a glance at their midseason schedule reveals it might not matter whether their showing against the Raiders was fool’s gold.
What’s ahead could do for the offense what the spate of overmatched quarterbacks did for the Chiefs’ defense last season. And Kansas City’s preseason aspirations could suddenly be back in play by the time the first Denver tilt takes place in late November.
Thanks to a schedule that features four defenses in the bottom half of the NFL — including the Nos. 30 and 31 stoppage crews in the Colts and Saints — there’s a fairly good chance the Chiefs are going to be leading the AFC West by the time they travel to face the defending Super Bowl champions Nov. 27.
The Saints, Colts, Jaguars, Panthers and Buccaneers represent the odd breakdown of the Chiefs’ middle sector of the schedule. Only the Jags boast a defense ranked in the top half of the league (they’re eighth, likely to the shock of many who do not scroll to the Tom McCarthy- or Andrew Catalon-announced CBS games on NFL Sunday Ticket). For a game-planner as good as Reid and for a team that’s getting healthier — Justin Houston’s return will complete the slow-build rehab processes that has helped define the 2016 Chiefs — this block of southern teams points Kansas City’s arrow up after doubts swirled in the early part of the season.
They will have more time to figure out how to integrate Jamaal Charles back into an offense that’s seeing Spencer Ware stake his claim as the running back of the future, and odds are Reid will determine ways to involve top-five tight end Travis Kelce in the offense more.
This is the kind of tonic a 2015 stretch-run ledger of Landry Jones, the worst possible version of Peyton Manning, Johnny Manziel, a not-quite-ready Derek Carr and injury-riddled Chargers and Ravens offenses did to help the Chiefs mount that historic 10-game win streak. That showed Reid’s mastery, because regardless of the kind of teams put in front of the Chiefs last year, the masterful offensive tactician found a way to push an Alex Smith-quarterbacked team to a double-digit win streak.
That was an achievement in itself, despite Kansas City’s lack of flash. A possible follow-up streak won’t have much flash, either.
Smith has not enjoyed a good season, but he was brilliant against the Raiders — even mixing in some beautiful over-the-top throws to Albert Wilson and Jeremy Maclin with his usual dose of screens and short connections. His Chiefs-record 86 percent completion rate in the rain showed how good he can be when not asked to win shootouts. The luxury of a healthy offensive front consistently creating space, with Eric Fisher looking on Sunday like a player who deserved that questionable contract extension, aided Smith’s precise afternoon considerably.
Smith having more time to play behind this improving offensive line and updated receiver committee will only help as the Chiefs prepare to end the Broncos’ five-year reign atop the West.
Before the season, the visit to Charlotte loomed as possibly the Chiefs’ toughest game. But the Panthers are a mess right now, making that a winnable contest for a Chiefs team that hasn’t notched too many quality road wins under Reid. The Chiefs getting Drew Brees at Arrowhead Stadium will make a big difference as well, as will seeing the Jaguars in Missouri.
They could well be favored to win all of these games — or at least sub-three-point underdogs on the road — and do so while the Broncos navigate more issues at quarterback and the Raiders figure out how their defensive investments can produce a unit as good as even last year’s substandard corps.
Kansas City’s offensive viability probably resides somewhere in between the shaky first four games and its rugged masterpiece in Oakland, and it’s risky to project a potential division-championship course for a team that looked as bad as the Chiefs have in some of their earlier outings.
But the Chiefs looked like the most reliable team in the division again on Sunday. They were supposed to occupy this status — hence the numerous division-title predictions — and doing so without Houston looks all the more impressive.
If last season is an indicator, and it should be with so many of those players back, the Chiefs are a good bet to be among the AFC’s best teams by the time they travel to Denver.
If they can’t navigate this stretch well, then there should be some cause for concern. It’s just hard to see Kansas City faltering consistently against these defenses with Reid calling the shots.