The Kansas City Chiefs have been the most impossible team in the NFL to figure out in 2017. Over the first five weeks of the season they looked like the best squad in the league. Then they spent two months doing their best impersonation of a tomato can, dropping six of seven and blowing a big lead in the AFC West.
As it turns out, the Chiefs weren't hard to decipher at all. Over the last two weeks they have resumed their winning ways in the form of emphatic victories over the Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers—the latter a 30-13 lambasting at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night.
Kansas City notched those wins just as it did during that winning streak to open the season. The Chiefs appear to have rediscovered their recipe for success. The recipe they will need to follow if the team is going to make a deep playoff run (or any playoff run, for that matter).
The Chiefs got back in the Super Bowl hunt by remembering they have one in their backfield.
His name's Kareem. And he's pretty good at the whole running back thing.
After taking the NFL by storm early in the campaign, Kareem Hunt saw his production fall off a cliff during Kansas City's midseason swoon. But last week against the Raiders, he piled up 138 total yards and a score on 28 touches, and per Dave Skretta of the Associated Press (via the News-Herald) quarterback Alex Smith credited Hunt with providing an offensive spark.
"We mixed it up. Certainly, when we got into the meat of the game, I think you saw a little more with that," Smith said. "Be able to take our shots there with Kareem and I thought he ran hard."
If that performance was a spark, Saturday's outing against the Chargers was a bonfire.
Hunt took full advantage of one of the most porous run defenses in the NFL (30th overall), rolling for 155 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries against L.A. en route to setting the Chiefs' rookie rushing record with 1,201 yards. Hunt also pitched in 51 yards and a score on seven receptions.
That's 206 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns—which sounds pretty good.
It also continued a theme that's permeated this up-and-down season in Kansas City.
As goes Hunt, so go the Chiefs.
|Kareem Hunt Win/Loss Splits 2017|
|Per Pro Football Reference|
Hunt's usage and production splits in wins as opposed to losses is striking. In eight victories this season, he's averaging just under 25 touches a contest. In six losses, he's touched the ball about 15.5 times on average.
That's a difference of almost 10 touches per game.
Saturday's victory marked the eighth time this season Hunt has touched the ball 20 or more times. In those contests, the Chiefs are 6-2. Kansas City is 2-4 in games where Hunt gets fewer than 20 touches and 0-4 in matchups where he sees the ball fewer than 15 times.
Now, it can be argued that those sorts of usage stats can be misleading. Teams run the ball more when they are ahead and abandon the run when trailing by a large margin.
But the Chiefs have lost one game by double digits—a 28-17 setback in Dallas in Week 9. In that contest, Hunt had only nine carries and 13 total touches. Kansas City's average margin of defeat this year is less than six points a game.
The Chiefs didn't stop running the ball in those games out of necessity. They did so in some cases because Hunt struggled early, such as when he averaged 2.3 yards a carry against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. In others, there was no good explanation. Hunt averaged 4.1 yards a carry in Dallas and 4.4 yards a pop when he had nine carries in a Week 13 loss to the New York Jets.
The Chiefs overthought things, got cute and paid the price.
The last couple of weeks, however, they have not been cute. They have been brutal—as in brutally effective.
Nothing sells a play fake better than when the icy fingers of dread clutch a linebacker's heart and tell him it isn't a ruse. Cheating safeties who try to hinder Hunt will be slow to react to a pass over the middle to tight end Travis Kelce. They can't help out deep with a ball thrown over the top to wideout Tyreek Hill.
Get Hunt, Hill and Kelce humming along, and combined with quarterback Alex Smith you have the Four Horsemen of an offensive apocalypse—Kansas City style. We've already seen what they are capable of.
Beating anyone—including the Patriots in New England.
Never mind that so long as the Chiefs offense is on the field, their 28th-ranked defense isn't. The latter unit played well against the Chargers, but it's the team's weaker link and then some.
After Saturday's game, Hunt told the NFL Network's Amber Theoharis that the team's success is what really counts.
"It was a big game," Hunt said. "We're just trying to win out from here on out and get back rolling."
With a win over either the Miami Dolphins or Denver Broncos over the next two weeks, the 8-6 Chiefs can do something they have never done, despite their midseason free fall—win the AFC West in consecutive seasons. They may have squandered a shot at home-field advantage or a week off, but barring an even bigger collapse, they are in the tournament.
If Kansas City wants to do anything once it gets there, the edict is clear: Get the ball to Hunt at least 20 times. The more the better. If it doesn't work at first, keep trying.
Based on how the 22-year-old has played as a rookie, at some point the dam will break.
Kansas City got one of the great steals of the 2017 NFL draft when it snagged Hunt with the 86th overall pick. But for him to do what he does, he needs the ball.
And the Chiefs need Hunt to do what he does.
No more getting cute, Andy Reid.