They left this place a fundamentally different team than they arrived. They left this place toward a fundamentally different season than the one anyone expected.
The Chiefs did what nobody had done before, and what nobody expected them to do. They beat the Patriots, the dynastic Patriots, ending talk of 16-0 before it even reached 1-0.
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For long enough that by now it feels like forever, it has been understood by the Chiefs and everyone else that the only realistic chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl is with home-field advantage.
The Patriots are 17-3 in home playoff games with Tom Brady, and 3-3 on the road. Since Brady became the Patriots’ quarterback in 2001, every AFC champion but one has either been his team, or not had to play his team at Gillette Stadium.
Well, even months before TV screens fill with playoff positioning, the Chiefs made undeniable progress toward the AFC playoffs going through Kansas City. The Chiefs play in the conference’s toughest division. That means a rougher climb than the Patriots or the Steelers, the two teams most often cited as the best in the AFC, at least at the beginning of the week.
But they just won the toughest game on the schedule, and if we’re being honest, the toughest game on any NFL team’s schedule. It remains possible the Patriots will not lose another home game, and if they do it remains irrefutable that no other team can claim to have beaten the Patriots on Ring Night, in front of Roger Goodell and one of the rowdiest crowds the NFL is capable of.
If the Chiefs are capable of this, particularly without the flawless performance we’ve been taught is required to win here, then what can’t they do? They have not lost a division game since September 2015, and play the Steelers at Arrowhead next month.
No league in American sports moves as fast as the NFL, and in the span of one night, the Chiefs’ challenge went from beating a dynasty on its night of coronation to handling success.
The Chiefs may or may not be the new favorite in the AFC. We can all have different views, and none of them are particularly important. But this team is the talk of the league at the moment, and not just because of its nationally televised conquest.
The reasons stretch beyond one win in a season that’s barely started. Eric Berry is out for the year, his somber entrance to an otherwise happy locker room the other night a reminder that success did not come without price.
His Achilles’ tendon ruptured, an especially cruel injury for a man who only last season returned after beating cancer, and for a team that has now lost three players to four different Achilles ruptures in the last four seasons.
Berry is the rare talent whose loss could be enough to swing a game or two. The Chiefs certainly would not have won in Atlanta last year without him, and probably not at Carolina.
He was somehow better after chemotherapy than before. Faster, smarter, perhaps even more consumed by his work. There is no way a man doesn’t change through fighting cancer. Some in Berry’s position may’ve returned and been less engaged in playing a sport. For Berry, he seemed struck with a renewed obsession of making every moment matter.
He was better than ever last year, earning a six-year, $78 million contract ($40 million guaranteed), and handcuffed the Patriots by defending star tight end Rob Gronkowski better than they’re accustomed to seeing.
But for all of his football talent, Berry is more respected by his teammates as a man. The quarterback is supposed to be the leader, and Alex Smith does that well, but he also calls Berry the team’s heart. More than any other player or coach, Berry has Marcus Peters’ respect, the one best equipped to keep the wildly talented — and that description is intentional — cornerback focused.
The Chiefs will ask more from Eric Murray, and Daniel Sorensen, and others. They have an extra three days now to prepare for their next game without Berry, and virtually an entire season to figure out the path for the playoffs. Berry had been on the injury report because of a heel ailment, so it’s possible the coaches are not entirely surprised.
This is a cold way of viewing it, but following the NFL often requires a cold view, so it’s worth pointing out that Berry is not the team’s most irreplaceable player.
Justin Houston’s injuries have spotlighted the importance of a pass rush, and he is also one of the team’s best run defenders. The Chiefs can still have a great defense without Berry. The same thing can’t be said about Houston.
Peters is already one of the best in the NFL at what he does, playing by definition a more important position than Berry’s. Brady threw Peters’ way just once the other night, a sound strategy with the Chiefs’ lack of cornerback depth.
Tyreek Hill is the deep threat coach Andy Reid has not had since DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, and that the Chiefs haven’t had since, well, maybe ever. He is terrific with the screens and gadget stuff Reid likes to run, and his downfield speed makes everyone else more effective with the short and intermediate stuff.
Travis Kelce is another versatile mismatch, a tight end who’s able to beat cornerbacks, and a former quarterback who took a direct snap against New England. He and Hill make each other more effective, a symbiotic partnership of two perfectly complementary parts that would be greatly diminished without without the other.
Particularly after what might be the best game of his professional life, you might add Smith to this list of players the Chiefs would be worser without than Berry. It is often said that professional football carries a 100 percent injury rate, and one of the ways Super Bowl teams separate from Super Bowl posers is by absorbing these inevitable setbacks. The Patriots once won 11 games without Tom Brady, for crying out loud, and last year won the Super Bowl without Gronkowski.
Kelce will be asked — that’s the nice way of putting it — to make sure he’s present for this team, too. His entire football life — literally, going back to at least high school — has reinforced a reputation as a terrific talent who at some point will lose his damn mind during a game.
He’s been lucky. The Chiefs have, too. At least so far. He has pantomimed lewd self-pleasure, mocked an official by throwing a towel at him, mindlessly pushed an opponent in a tight playoff game, and against the Patriots shoved a ball into a linebacker’s swimsuit region. He’s been fined or flagged or both for all of it, and at each point a teammate or circumstance has covered for him.
It does not matter than none of these moments have been unprovoked, that, in order: the Broncos were acting like pirates, the official missed a pass interference, the Steelers’ defensive back shoved him first, and the Patriots’ linebacker deliberately forearmed Kelce’s face mask while getting up.
Kelce is well past the point of no return with this stuff. More than anyone else on the Chiefs, and virtually anyone else in the league, he’s the one officials will watch and opponents will provoke.
This is not a statement about Kelce’s leadership, even though it’s an awful look that the nationally televised broadcast began with his interview claiming maturity and then predictably progressed to his teammates needing to pick him up after a taunting penalty. He’s emotional, and the NFL is a little full of itself with a lot of this stuff.
But at some point, without better self-control, Kelce’s outbursts are going to tangibly affect the Chiefs’ chances to win a game. He’s too good a player for this, and genuinely cares too much about winning to let this go unchecked.
The stakes for him and his teammates have never been higher. This is the best Chiefs roster in years, maybe decades, and they just pulled off the franchise’s best win in the same time frame. More people than ever will be watching. That can be good, or it can be bad.
But either way, this is now a fundamentally different team playing a fundamentally different season.