For nine weeks, the Chiefs were an unstoppable force, winning games in almost every way imaginable.
The defense, led by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, sacked quarterbacks at a record pace, created a league-leading 20 takeaways and returned four interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns.
The offense, directed by quarterback Alex Smith was efficient, kept interceptions to a minimum, and let Jamaal Charles, the AFC leader in yards from scrimmage, do the heavy legwork running and catching the ball.
And the special teams were spectacular, returning a game-breaking punt for a touchdown, pouncing on muffed punts that triggered one win and preserved another, while kicker Ryan Succop and punter Dustin Colquitt dictated field position by pinning the opponents deep.
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At 9-0, they were the feel-good story of the NFL, especially after coming off a 2-14 season marred by tragedy off the field and futility on the field.
Eventually, reality set in. A five-game run of playing backup quarterbacks and downtrodden teams ended. So did a relatively injury-free season when Houston suffered a subluxation of his right elbow two weeks ago against San Diego and offensive tackle Branden Albert hyperextended a knee last week against Denver.
Since that 9-0 start, the Chiefs have not won a game in more than a month.
With four games remaining, including three on the road, the Chiefs, 9-3, have reached a crossroads in their season, starting with Sunday’s game at Washington, 3-9.
With a win at Washington, the Chiefs could clinch a wild-card playoff spot depending on whether Miami or Baltimore loses, and they’d still be no worse than a game behind Denver for the AFC West lead, though the Broncos own the head-to-head tie breaker.
A fourth straight loss, however, could send this team spiraling in a negative direction of historic dimension. No team has ever started 9-0 and missed the playoffs.
“That’s the ebb and flows of the season in the National Football League,” said coach Andy Reid, still a leading candidate for NFL coach of the year for making the Chiefs relevant again. “You’re going to have highs; you’re going to have lows. It’s important that you stay consistent through both.
“You grow with every game … you get to look in their eyes and see what it’s all about. You go through these tough losses, and on the other hand, I saw it with the tough wins, but the great part is that I don’t see any flinch in these guys at all. There is a certain toughness about them.
“That’s why they’re right there in every game, the losses, they’ve stayed within striking distance, being right there. They’re willing to learn and take coaching, hard coaching at times, and in the long haul, it will pay off for us in a good way.”
During the nine-game winning streak, the Chiefs played on the edge, beating Houston 17-16 and Cleveland 23-17 in home games against third-team quarterbacks.
They were on the verge of falling behind 17-3 at Buffalo when Bills third-team quarterback Jeff Tuel missed an open receiver in the end zone, and his pass was intercepted by Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith, who returned the pass 100 yards for a momentum-altering touchdown, turning what could have been a two-touchdown deficit into a tie game.
Winning some of those games may have camouflaged some weaknesses. Losing the last three — at Denver, and to San Diego and Denver at home — have exposed shortcomings.
“Sometimes when you get your butts beat, that helps you,” said inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. “That lets you know what you need to do better. Sometimes when you win, stuff isn’t magnified … ‘Oh, you messed up here, or you got out of a gap there …’ but it’s covered up because you won.
“But now that you’ve lost … there’s a little more emphasis on what we did wrong.”
During the nine-game winning streak, the Chiefs did not allow more than 17 points in any game, were a plus-15 in turnover differential and had 36 sacks. During the three-game losing streak, they have allowed an average of 34.3 points per game, are minus-1 in turnover differential and have managed just one sack.
“I think it was a unique three weeks,” Alex Smith said. “We played Denver twice, and they’re a good football team. Early in the year we had been in some close games, and that’s going to happen in the NFL, the vast majority of games are going to come down to one possession.
“We were the team making the plays late in games … and these last three weeks we weren’t able to get it done. We’re 9-3 and have a chance to clinch a playoff spot this week. To me, how exciting that is, to go on the road and win a game and punch our ticket to the dance. … I don’t think anyone needs to do anything crazy at all, just kind of continue to do what we have been doing.”
While the Chiefs’ defense has faltered the last three weeks, the offense has picked it up. The Chiefs scored a season-best five touchdowns in a 41-38 loss to San Diego, and Smith threw for season-best 294 yards against San Diego and 293 against Denver with seven touchdown passes and two interceptions in the last three games.
“We look at film, and there are lot of things we’re proud of,” said offensive tackle Donald Stephenson. “Nobody said we were going to go 16-0. Being 9-3 is not all that bad. We fought that Denver game until the end. We’re proud of what we did. We just have to know, first quarter, second quarter, we have to fight like it’s the fourth quarter.
“Every team has that point in the season when it’s gut-check time. We’re late in the season, we’re in the fourth quarter of the season, and this team can do something special even after the three losses.”
The Chiefs insist their confidence level is every bit as high in December as it was in September.
“We’re not in a panic mode at all,” said Johnson. “But the sense of urgency is there. That’s every week, win or lose … and this week is very key for us to have a short-term memory because the last three games we lost, how we lost them …
“We pride ourselves on playing good defense. The last few weeks we haven’t. It’s clear on the film … we can do better.”
Guard Geoff Schwartz, expected to make his second straight start at right guard, said: “If we don’t make mistakes, we’ll win games. The last couple of games we made mistakes, and we lose. The team that doesn’t make mistakes, doesn’t turn the ball over, tends to win.”
Now, the schedule again turns in the Chiefs’ favor. Three of the remaining four opponents — Washington, Oakland and San Diego — have losing records. The only exception is AFC South-leading Indianapolis, which visits Arrowhead on Dec. 21, in what could be a first-round playoff preview.
“What’s important is these games are definitely setting yourself up for the road ahead,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali. “Playing three out of four away is really going to say how good of a team we are and how we can handle adversity when we get on the road.”
Assuming the Chiefs can take advantage of the upcoming favorable matchups, they can clinch a playoff spot by getting to 11 wins, no matter what anyone else does.
It would mark the Chiefs’ return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
“We’re still 9-3,” Charles said. “Don’t make it seem like we’re 3-9. Our goal is to make it to the playoffs. Once you get there, it’s anybody’s game. When we first made it to the playoffs (in 2010), we had so many young guys that didn’t know what to do, we had no real leaders on that team.
“Now, if we get there, we’ll know how to be effective … let’s get there first…”