Chiefs Peaking Entering the Playoffs Could Be Trouble for AFC

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 23, 2019

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 22:  Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates a victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 22, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

They might not be the favorite in AFC, and they probably won't even get a first-round bye in the playoffs. But the Kansas City Chiefs have become healthy and hot at the perfect time. 

Now winners of five in a row following a dominant 26-3 road victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, Kansas City could be positioned to do some damage in January regardless of who—and where—it has to play. 

And that's not just because of superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has put together back-to-back superb December performances to officially shake off any lingering post-injury rust. The reigning MVP missed two-and-a-half games and was bothered in several others by ankle and knee injuries earlier this year, but in the last two weeks, he's completed 74.6 percent of his passes and has a passer rating of 114.7. 

Almost as importantly, a defense that until recently had been a tremendous weakness for the entire Mahomes era has finally begun to excel under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. 

The Chiefs have now gone nine quarters since they last surrendered a touchdown. They've given up just six total points in consecutive victories, and they've allowed just 9.6 points per contest during a five-game winning streak that stretches back to Week 11.

That's a remarkable turnaround for a team that had previously ranked in the bottom 10 for points and yards allowed. And although they haven't faced any highly ranked offenses during that run, there are clues that this could be somewhat sustainable. They generated an unsustainable seven takeaways in the first two games of that run, but they've since become even stouter despite generating just two takeaways the last three weeks. 

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"We didn't start the season how we wanted to," safety Tyrann Mathieu told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game in Chicago. "But I feel like right now, the time is right for us to start playing good ball, and we've been doing that."

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 22: Strong safety Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts to a defensive stop against the Chicago Bears in the third quarter of the game at Soldier Field on December 22, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy R
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It appeared as though Spagnuolo took somewhat of a trial-and-error approach early this season, and now he and his personnel have found a groove with a wide variety of looks that have worked. 

The Bears offense didn't turn it over Sunday, but it still couldn't figure out Kansas City's defense. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed just 18 of 34 passes while Chicago gained only 18 first downs, reached the red zone once and averaged a mere 4.0 yards per play. 

It was just...easy. 

"We're building. We're going in the right direction," Mahomes told Tafoya, adding that the rejuvenated defense has made life "a whole lot easier."

"Those guys are getting the ball back quickly. They're getting stops. So we know if we just go down there and be who we are, then we're going to end up winning with a defense like that." 

That unit has been sack-happy ever since Mahomes took over in 2018, but it didn't start doing the other things right until recently. Mathieu, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason and has become a key defensive leader, is playing his best football, and he and surging rookie Juan Thornhill have become one of the best safety duos in the NFL

Spagnuolo has found new and increasingly fruitful ways to utilize the Honey Badger's versatility as the season has progressed. We've seen him all over the field. We've seen slot specialist Kendall Fuller at safety. And it appears top corners Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland have benefited from increased support. 

"Spags is a heck of a coach," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said during his press conference on NFL Network following Sunday's win. "You know his production from past jobs and I've had a long-term relationship here with the guy, so I've known him for quite a few years and understand the scheme that he has. It's a pretty solid scheme. It's just a matter of the players buying into it and then him being able to add to it every week. That's a compliment to both Spags...and the players for trusting in it. They didn't start off great, but he was able to keep adding a bit here and there."

Critically, the Chiefs have simply become healthier.

Not only did Mahomes, star wide receiver Tyreek Hill, steady left tackle Eric Fisher and veteran guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif each miss multiple weeks due to injury prior to the home stretch, but top edge-rusher Frank Clark dealt with multiple injuries in the first half of the season and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Chris Jones was absent when the D was slammed in two October home losses. They also felt Fuller's absence when he missed five midseason games due to a thumb injury. 

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 22:  Mitchell Trubisky #10 of the Chicago Bears avoids a tackle by Bashaud Breeland #21 of the Kansas City Chiefs during a game at Soldier Field on December 22, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

They've got all those key figures now, plus veteran pass-rusher Terrell Suggs, who generated pressure on a couple of occasions and made a nice stop in run defense in limited snaps against the Bears after joining the organization this week. 

And while the offense has been great but not unstoppable with either 23 or 26 points in each of its last three games, Mahomes is clearly heating up now that he's healthy and surrounded by a supporting cast that includes a healthy Hill, Fisher and Duvernay-Tardif. 

The extremely talented Bears defense hadn't surrendered more than 24 points in two months before the Chiefs put up 26 in Chicago on Sunday, and Kansas City hasn't faced a poorly rated D since it laid a 40-burger on the Oakland Raiders in Week 13. 

It's safe to say nobody's worried about an offense that entered Week 16 ranked second in the AFC in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders

Unless the New England Patriots lose to the 4-11 Miami Dolphins in Week 17, Kansas City will still have to settle for either the third or fourth seed in the playoff picture. But one of the wins during this streak came in New England, and the Pats look more vulnerable than they have in over a decade. 

The Chiefs also beat the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens earlier this season. And while Baltimore had yet to hit its stride at that point, the same can be said of Kansas City. 

So don't assume a Patriots-Ravens AFC Championship matchup is a fait accompli, and don't exclude the Chiefs from your Super Bowl conversations this holiday season. Kansas City is peaking just when championship teams often do, and this suddenly balanced Chiefs team now has a little more experience than the one that fell short despite owning the No. 1 seed last January. 

Do not overlook these Chiefs. 

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.