A fan holds up this sign before the Chiefs and Broncos Sunday Night Football showdown on Nov. 17, which drew a 16.6 overnight rating.
Much has been said about the Kansas City Chiefs and the surprising start to their season. And by that, I mean there has been much skepticism, many Kansas City fans overjoyed and many critics underwhelmed at the Chiefs.
Then, that game in Denver happened. You know, that Sunday Night Football game in Week 11 that drew 600,000 more viewers than Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals, per ESPN's Darren Rovell.
Kansas City suffered its first loss of the season (against a hobbled Peyton Manning who somehow can still get the ball out of his hands in under three seconds with slabs of wood hinged to his ankles), pulling the Chiefs into a tie atop the AFC West with Denver—each at 9-1.
The difference, though, is that we know how the Denver Broncos got to 9-1: Peyton Manning leading a historic offense, the acquisition of Wes Welker and the development of both Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas, along with a defense that is just tough enough. The Chiefs, though? The Chiefs formerly of 2-14 stature just one year ago? How did they get here?
The Kansas City defense, of course, is along the same historic realm as the Broncos offense. That much is clear. However, when crystallizing specific moments or dissecting lasting themes hovering over Kansas City thus far, the shift in culture and fortune is more dispersed than national narrative would imply.
These are the top 10 most important aspects of the Kansas City Chiefs' one-year overhaul. Some of them are among the best moments of the season—some of them not so much—but each and every one has contributed to how the Kansas City Chiefs have evolved from just one of the NFL's 32 teams into one of the NFL's best.
Dexter McCluster exploded for a 89-yard punt return to headline the Chiefs' 31-7 win over the Giants at home.
The Kansas City Chiefs can score points without their defense's help. They really can. I swear. I saw it with my own two eyes.
If this were say, 2011, perhaps beating the New York Giants by any amount would be impressive by itself. Those were the days, back when Eli Manning was still a Manning by football's standards. But in order to brag about defeating the 2013 New York Giants in the early goings of the season, you had to do it with style. The Chiefs did that: 31-7.
I was at Arrowhead for this game. Surprisingly, as compared to last season's attendance, so were a lot of other people. A lot of really nervous people come halftime with the Chiefs clinging to a 10-7 lead. The same aroma wafted throughout the entire concourse: Here we go again, I knew 3-0 was too good to be true.
Then, the second half started. Then, Dexter McCluster twirled and let his dreadlocks wave in the brisk September breeze as he zoomed to an 89-yard punt return touchdown with little time remaining in the third quarter. Amidst the discombobulated celebrations by those surrounding me, I spotted a man sprinting like McCluster just did to the rail of our section.
"Aw, no! I missed it! I was in the bathroom!" His hands clamped on his head, only to heavily fall down to his sides as he sulked off—back to the bathroom, I presume. "Man…"
Usually at Arrowhead, that would be the reaction of those witnessing the action—or lack thereof—on the field, not by someone upset that he missed it. And with that, a long-standing culture and fan base alike was revived in Kansas City.
Andy Reid came to Kansas City after the Philadelphia Eagles fired their 14-year head coach on New Year's Day to trade him in for a newer, shinier head coaching model in Chip Kelly. But while Reid was in Philadelphia, before a disastrous 2012, he revived the career of a dejected Michael Vick—much like he has done for the Kansas City Chiefs.
On Thursday Night Football in Week 3, Reid returned to Lincoln Financial Field for the first time. He won 26-16 behind four forced turnovers by his nasty defense. One, though, was more important than the other three and arguably more important than any other play in the game.
With 11 minutes left in the opening quarter, Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson tipped a pass thrown by Vick, and the ball subsequently landed in safety Eric Berry's eager hands.
Berry returned the interception 38 yards for a touchdown, successfully giving Kansas City an early 10-0 lead and completely derailing the Eagles' mounting momentum. Without that, as sloppy as this game was, who's to say Andy Reid leaves Philadelphia as "Homecoming King"?
There's a more telling twist to that interception. Berry's favorite quarterback growing up was none other than Vick. His dream was to pick off Vick, a quarterback who may not be there for the picking had it not been for Reid. The same jolly man who has given Berry more than he could have ever dreamed of in a 9-1 start on a team that is a practical shoo-in for the playoffs.
Football, much like life, is funny.
It was a stupid pass, but boy, was it an important interception—an awesome interception. It was the type of interception a defender can get unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties over after returning it to the house, while opposing offensive players trail behind him in misery and shame.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel threw a present to Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith, who readily accepted it and unwrapped it 100 yards later in the end zone. Just like that, it was a 10-10 ballgame. A play that could have easily been a touchdown pass from Tuel to Stevie Johnson in the back of the end zone ended up as the most crucial 14-point swing in this game and in Kansas City's season to this point.
Buffalo was the trap game right before Kansas City's Week 10 bye week. Bills starting quarterback EJ Manuel was still sidelined, and it was easy to make the cliche assumption that the Chiefs' mindset was already in Mile High for what was said to be the biggest NFL matchup in years. Instead, Smith coaxed Tuel into his trap and proved—yet again—how opportunistic the Chiefs are defensively.
Stevie Johnson was open because Smith let him go. Smith wanted Tuel to throw the underneath slant, so he could intercept it. Tuel did. So did Smith.
This was one of many examples of Kansas City navigating its own narrative. And in a game where the Chiefs offense did not score a single touchdown, that counted for a whole lot.
Opposing quarterbacks have been picking on the rookie defensive back all season, and it was Peyton Manning and DeMaryius Thomas to exploit Marcus Cooper.
The Chiefs signed rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper from the San Francisco 49ers on the day he was released from San Francisco. And with Brandon Flowers' nagging knee injuries, it has proven to be the best pickup of the offseason for Kansas City—most of the time.
While Cooper has two interceptions this season and numerous impact plays that don't show on the stat sheet, he has shown vulnerability.
Bleacher Report's very own NFL lead writer Matt Bowen joined my radio show to break down the Broncos' 27-17 win over the Chiefs. A critical miscue early on was Demaryius Thomas' 77-yard reception against Cooper. Bowen evaluated that and Cooper as a player.
I think Marcus Cooper is going to be a great football player. I really do. He's got everything you want. If you're a [defensive backs] coach, that's the type of guy you want outside on the edge. He's tall. He can use his hands at the line of scrimmage. He's got good plant-and-drive when he's playing off-man coverage, but in that situation [against Demaryius Thomas], he did what I call opening the gate.
He opened his hips immediately at the snap, and that just gives the receiver a free release to outside the line of scrimmage. He looked back into the football. I'll tell you guys right now, if you're playing a game with your family on Thanksgiving, and your uncle or your father or whoever it may be is throwing a pass, don't look back at the football because the minute you look back at the football, that causes that separation is caused right there. And you can't make up that separation against a guy like Demaryius Thomas.
So, to put it simply: Cooper has athleticism and potential to last him for years to come but still has fundamentals to clean up before he can match up successfully against a receiver like Thomas.
Before the Chiefs played Peyton Manning, the unanimous nitpick against them was that they "haven't played anybody," namely, quarterbacks worth mentioning. Kansas City's opposing quarterbacks this season are Blaine Gabbert (yuck), Tony Romo (good), Mike Vick (a walking injury), Eli Manning (or his ghost), Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, Jeff Tuel and Peyton Manning.
That argument is fair in the cases of Tuel and Fitzpatrick, but when the quarterback in the game is better than the quarterback he's filling in for, it's a fallacy.
Hint: Keenum is better than Houston Texans opening-day starter Matt Schaub. Schaub was out due to injury—both to body and reputation—in Week 7 when Houston traveled to Kansas City. In came rookie quarterback and homegrown Houston boy Keenum for his first NFL start.
And he was...good. Great, even, when you consider the defense he was up against: 15-of-25 for 271 yards and one touchdown, averaging 10.8 yards per attempt. However, it was that defense that prevented Keenum from mounting a game-winning drive with just under two minutes remaining in the game, down 17-16.
Chiefs linebacker tandem-of-terror Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali combined for a strip-sack (Hali) and scoop (Johnson), allowing Alex Smith to kneel out the remainder of the clock. In a game where Hali recorded 2.5 sacks and Johnson accounted for five tackles, it was fitting that those two were accountable for sealing up the win that almost got away.
Even with mummified ankles, Peyton Manning avoided getting sacked by the Kansas City defense.
The Chiefs defense had their worst performance of the season, which is saying something. That said, Peyton Manning was still held to his second-lowest yardage of the season, lowest completion percentage of the year, first time all year with only one touchdown and lowest QB rating of the year, which is saying more.
Sure, Manning wasn't sacked once, and that absolutely played a part in why the Broncos were able to be the first team to score more than 17 points on the Chiefs this season. But, it's Peyton freaking Manning. Of course he did that.
The fact of the matter is that Kansas City was not going to go 16-0 this season. And if the Chiefs are going to lose a game, Denver is the one place where it's OK. Name a team that can easily go into Denver and beat Manning and the Broncos. I'll wait.
The fact of the matter is that these two teams play again at Arrowhead in Week 13. That's the game that will have the playoff implications, but this was the game that told the Chiefs that they can hang with Manning.
Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan forces a fumble that would change the course of the game.
Many small mistakes accumulated into an insurmountable mountain. The most notable one being Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman's fumble near the Denver 20-yard line in the first quarter.
Peyton Manning and rookie running back Montee Ball had a miscue on a handoff that would result in a fumble recovery by the Chiefs.
On the ensuing play, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith hit Sherman in the flat. After a five-yard gain, Sherman fought for extra yardage. Running back Jamaal Charles failed to block Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan, who then caused Sherman to fumble.
Manning would then march the Broncos 84 yards in under three minutes, eventually passing for a nine-yard touchdown to tight end Julius Thomas. 10-0 Broncos.
There are no more words for simple mistakes other than that a football team—no matter how good or bad—can not give away free points in the NFL, much less against Peyton Manning.
The Broncos might very well have the best receivers in the NFL. What, with Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker. The only way to combat that is to engage in combat with them.
The Chiefs match up uniquely with Denver because of their ability to play man coverage. Clearly, Welker and Company still got the best of the Chiefs in the end. But what this does mean is that all of us who watched this game can expect an even more heated game on Dec. 1. Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers was a human microcosm of the Kansas City defense's attitude.
With man coverage like Flowers played on Welker, who needs enemies?
Terrelle Pryor can run. In fact, some may say that's all he can do at the NFL level. He can run for 93 yards untouched against Pittsburgh for the longest rushing touchdown ever by an NFL quarterback. Against Kansas City on Oct. 13, he would be running for his life.
The Chiefs sacked Pryor a total of 10 times. Enough sacks for Oprah to be in the Chiefs locker room after the game, celebrating with the defense and screaming, "You get a sack! You get a sack! And you get a sack!"
OK, I made that last part up. But you would have thought I was telling the truth given the nature of the game. The point is: the monster collective effort was reminiscent of how Arrowhead used to be when the late great Derrick Thomas was bringing the loudest crowd in America to life.
Which brings me to No. 1.
Chocolate is supposed to be consumed with peanut butter. Music is supposed to be playing when I write. Arrowhead is supposed to be loud.
Arrowhead was loud on Oct. 13. It was the loudest stadium in the world once again, reaching 137.5 decibels reclaiming the world record from Seattle. There are two significant parts to this.
First, you have to understand the scene just this time last year. Banners streamed the sky overhead begging for then-general manager Scott Pioli to "get canned." Just one year removed from wearing paper bags to cover their faces during games, Chiefs fans were back to what they're known for nationally: obnoxiously creating the most raucous atmosphere in the league.
And parlayed off that is, of course, the historical ramifications—and I'm not talking about the Guinness World Record. Seattle will probably break that record again on Sunday Night Football in Week 13 when the Seahawks host New Orleans.
I'm talking about what was proved on this day: Football is back to what it should be in in Kansas City. Not just for a 24-7 win over Oakland in Week 6. Not just for the remainder of this season. No, what the Chiefs are building gives Kansas City hope—legitimate hope—that there will be way more than 10 defining moments from the Chiefs in the coming years.