Nobody saw this coming. I thought the Chiefs would be better. I never expected them to start 8-0.
If I’d written my preseason AFC West predictions as I normally do, I would have predicted 8-8 with a ceiling of 9-10 wins, and a second place finish in the West. The offense and Alex Smith have been pretty much what I expected. But the defense has been awesome, and the NFC East has been abysmal.
How Did They Get Here?
New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has been masterful. His scheme fits incredibly well with the talent of his players. I’ve always preferred an attacking, relentless defense (like the Gunther Cunningham days) than a read and react or cover two approach. There is some high risk high reward with an attacking defense. This year it’s been all high reward. The Chiefs are number one in the league giving up an average of only 12.25 points per game.
There has been a lot of talk about the Chiefs’ schedule. You can only play the teams in front of you, and you should never apologize for that. But fans also need to realize that the Chiefs have had an amazing string of good luck through the first half of the season.
1. Their first half opponents have a cumulative record of 20-41, and none of them have a winning record as of today. Only the Cowboys look likely to make the playoffs. By default, somebody has to win the NFC East. Their second half opponents have a cumulative record of 35-24. (This is counting all division foes twice.)
2. In the first half, the Chiefs played teams with injuries, turmoil and inexperience at quarterback (Raiders, Jaguars, Titans, Texans, Browns), or teams with quarterbacks having down years (Giants, Eagles). Only the Cowboys feature an above average quarterback playing pretty well. In the second half they’ll see Peyton Manning twice, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Philip Rivers twice (having a much better year than I would have predicted). The defense will be tested in the second half, and will be giving up more than 12 points per game. It will be interesting to see how they hold up against much better competition.
3. The football gods have been good to the Chiefs so far this year. Multiple scores from the defense and special teams. Few key injuries. And potential turnovers that have bounced back to the Chiefs. That’s tough to expect for a full season.
Reasons for Concern
1. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Alex Smith has been very mediocre. He has 9 TDs and 4 INTs, and has thrown for 1795 yards. Very pedestrian numbers. He’s shown some nice escapability out of the pocket, and has a nice touch on shorter passes. He often hits his receivers in stride, which is a nice contrast compared to Matt Cassel. But much like Matt, he’s inaccurate when he throws to the sidelines or down the field. He’s missed some open receivers where big opportunities were available. While I think it’s possible, even likely, that the offense can continue to improve, I’m not sure how much Smith can improve. This is what he is. I still don’t see him as a long-term solution for the Chiefs.
2. Jamaal Charles is having an excellent year. They’ve done a great job of integrating him into the passing game. But they’re overworking him, and his yards per rush are down. He’s yet to break a big run, which is probably the most surprising. Maybe he’ll have a couple in the second half. The Chiefs badly need to get Knile Davis integrated into the offense for a second threat out of the backfield, and to keep Charles fresh over the second half.
3. The offensive line has been inconsistent at best, and at times they’ve been dreadful. This may be one of the reasons Charles has yet to break a big run. And might be why the Chiefs seldom look downfield in their passing game. Smith rarely has much time to setup and scour the field for his receivers.
4. We need the D-Bowe Show to emerge. If the Chiefs have any shot to make a run in the playoffs, they need their best receiver to average more than 3.25 receptions and 38 yards per game. Hard to tell if this is a scheme issue, a chemistry issue, or what. Cassel often forced the ball to Bowe, but Dwayne made the receptions. He’s gotten few opportunities this year. The good news is that he’s kept his head in the game, seems genuinely enthused about the team, and has made some great blocks downfield for Charles. The Chiefs are paying him way too much to be a decoy and downfield blocker.
Second Half Predictions
Not sure what Vegas thinks, but I’d put the over/under at 4.5 wins. It’s likely the Chiefs will go 5-3 or 4-4 over the final eight games. The Chiefs will probably lose at Denver, and I think it’s likely they stumble at either Oakland or Washington. That’s two losses. They have tough home games against Indianapolis, Denver and San Diego. There’s one more loss in there somewhere — hopefully not against the Broncos. And then they wrap up the season on the road at San Diego. If the Chargers are still in the running for a wildcard birth, that will be a tough game. While this team is different, this season reminds me a lot of the 2003 season when the Chiefs started 9-0 before the wheels started shaking. The Chiefs won’t collapse. They may even play better football over the second half of the season. I want to predict 13-3, but I’m going to predict 12-4. And I’m not going to be terribly surprised if they finish 11-5.