Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs on cusp of title

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —By shortly after sundown, if all goes well for the Chiefs today, they'll be champions of the AFC West. If they beat the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium and the Bengals beat the Chargers in Cincinnati, the Chiefs will have their first division title since 2003.

With the Chiefs in first place most of the season, this development wouldn't catch anyone by surprise. But considering that the hope was for the Chiefs to merely be competitive again after three putrid seasons, being 9-5 and in first place in the AFC West the day after Christmas is a nice little holiday bonus for Chiefs fans.

"They're on the verge of winning the division and clinching a playoff berth,'' said former Chiefs defensive back Jayice Pearson. "There couldn't have been too many people who thought that back in the preseason. I don't think anybody saw this coming. They're definitely ahead of schedule.''

It's all so easy to see now. The Chiefs are getting Pro Bowl quality play from quarterback Matt Cassel. They lead the league in rushing. They've played at times good if not dominant defense. They're not turning the ball over to opponents.

And in the locker room, where opinion perhaps counts the most, the Chiefs don't necessarily feel they've arrived before their time.

"I've been in the league a long time,'' running back Thomas Jones said. "I've been on teams that were supposed to win and didn't and I've been on teams that weren't supposed to win and did. So anything's possible in this crazy league.

"If you think you can't win, you're in the wrong business. We get paid to win football games. To say you'll win next year or the year after that . . . there's no such thing as rebuilding in the NFL. Every year is do or die.''

Despite winning just 10 games over the previous three seasons, the Chiefs embraced that philosophy. They started in on this season moments after the last one ended by hiring two new coordinators, Charlie Weis for the offense and Romeo Crennel for the defense.

Both are veteran coaches. Having Weis on his staff allowed Todd Haley to concentrate on coaching the team without having to also run the offense.

Crennel brought some semblance of order to a defense that had been in chaos for years.

"They needed a defensive coordinator who can settle the players' emotions and keep them calm when things are going the wrong way,'' former Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards said. "He's been that calming influence on those guys.''

The Chiefs haven't been dominant on defense this season but even average has been enough this season. They are in the middle of the league in yards allowed, but 11th in points.

"Romeo had done a heck of a job with that group,'' Pearson said. "Looking at those guys last year, they couldn't stop anybody running the ball at all. They've had their moments this year but all in all they've been much better and I think you have to give Romeo a lot of credit for that.''

The first player acquisition last winter was on the surface puzzling. They signed as a free agent Jones, who was coming off five straight 1,000-plus-yard seasons.

This happened right after Jamaal Charles finished a spectacular half-season in which he rushed for almost 1,000 yards in eight games. Jones hasn't been spectacular for the Chiefs and his streak of 1,000-yard seasons looks to be coming to an end.

But his presence freed Charles, averaging a phenomenal 6.4 yards per carry, to be spectacular. Between them, the Chiefs lead the NFL in rushing by 11 yards per game over their closest pursuer.

"I was like everybody else,'' Pearson said. "I was wondering, 'What are they doing?' Charles was coming off a 1,000-yard season and everybody thought it was time to let him be the guy. It really worked out well for them to have that platoon system.''

Having the league's premier rushing game allowed the Chiefs to take pressure off Cassel. With two runners, the Chiefs can run the ball 40 times if they choose, and they've opted to do that four times this season. The Chiefs have handed off to a running back far more often than any other NFL team.

A strong running game is a quarterback's best friend and Cassel responded by throwing 24 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

"Whether he's just more comfortable, whether it's the running game taking pressure off him, whatever the case may be, he's a much better quarterback now than he was last year,'' Pearson said. "It's not like he's been lighting it up or putting up great numbers through the air but he's been very effective and efficient in not turning the ball over.''

The Chiefs had been one of the league's slowest teams but attacked that deficiency in the draft. They selected safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis, who helped the Chiefs reduce the number of big running plays as well as in pass coverage.

They also drafted a speedy receiver in Dexter McCluster and a pass catching tight end in Tony Moeaki. Both have helped to varying degrees "They drafted skill players,'' Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. "They did a real good job of drafting players that have come in and helped out. They're utilizing their weapons very well.''

When camp began, it was obvious the worst was over for the Chiefs. But there was much uncertainty how good they would be.

"I just knew we had a bunch of guys that were hungry and played extremely hard,'' wide receiver Chris Chambers said. "Once training camp started, you could kind of feel something. You were seeing guys like Tony Moeaki and Dexter McCluster and you started getting about excited about what we could be.

"It was good for us to get off to a fast start. It was very important for this team. Winning the San Diego game kind of set the tempo. That momentum kind of carried us through the season. Since then we've watched our team grow.''

Beating the Chargers 21-14 at Arrowhead in the season-opener was a huge feat for a team that had struggled to find its way. San Diego was the four-time defending AFC West champion and the long-time bully of the division but the Chiefs held them off from scoring what would have been the tying touchdown in the final moments.

That game ignited a 3-0 start. The Chiefs, most improbably, were the last NFL team to lose a game. They've been in first place all season, taking advantage of a weak division.

The Chargers righted themselves after their typical slow start to win six of their last seven games. But that slow start provided an opening for the Chiefs.

"San Diego struggles early,'' Edwards said. "They always struggle early. But they're going to struggle early even more now. They don't have Vincent Jackson. They got rid of (LaDainian Tomlinson). They don't have (Marcus McNeill). That's a problem. (Antonio) Cromartie is gone. That's a problem. Those are a bunch of good players and they're not in the lineup.

"They still have (Philip Rivers) and he's playing lights out but the chemistry of that football team changed. It was going to take them some time to get it back.''

The Chargers did roar back but their comeback hasn't been enough to catch the Chiefs. Though it certainly has that feel, it's not the stuff of fantasy.

"There are no surprises right now in week 16 in the NFL,'' Chambers said. "You are what you are. We have a good team. We have to seize the moment because we have the opportunity to go where all teams want to go.''