KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There comes a point in certain seasons when it's time to accept that not all Super Bowl contenders are going to look impressive. The squads that usually catch our eyes have higher-powered offenses, big-name quarterbacks with gaudy numbers and enough nonstop hype to fuel sports talk radio for weeks. Then there are those teams that slowly creep into the national spotlight with more faith than fanfare, more grit than glamour. Teams like this year's Kansas City Chiefs.
Anybody who watched the Chiefs' 17-16 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday learned something important: This team is not built to do things easily. It grinds away on offense, limiting turnovers and hoping for enough big plays to generate points. It swarms opponents on defense and produces plenty of underappreciated moments with consistent special teams. That formula has been good enough to push the Chiefs' record to 7-0. It also will be the reason they go deep into this postseason.
This Kansas City squad -- a team currently on its way to winning 13 or 14 regular-season games -- is starting to bear a striking resemblance to Super Bowl winners that thrived with limited offenses and suffocating defenses. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens rode that wave to a championship. The 2001 New England Patriots did the same thing, as did the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. These are just the teams that walked away with Lombardi Trophies, but you get the point. The Chiefs are not swimming in uncharted waters here.
Kansas City wins more with chemistry than convincing performances. As Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after barely squeaking by a free-falling Houston team that is now 2-5, "Every win in the NFL is a great win, and we'll enjoy all of them. This was a great team win."
It was a great team win because the Chiefs needed every aspect of their team to earn it. They allowed a rookie quarterback who had never even dressed for an NFL regular-season game (Case Keenum) to complete 60 percent of his passes for 271 yards and a touchdown. They lost the turnover battle, blew a fourth-and-goal opportunity from the Texans' 1-yard line and watched quarterback Alex Smith throw a critical interception midway through the fourth quarter that gave the Texans new life. This seemed like the kind of game Houston could pull out, because the Chiefs weren't taking it. Then, just like that, everything changed.
Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers sacked Keenum to end a drive. His teammates, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, then smashed Keenum on Houston's next possession, thwarting that effort. And when Keenum tried to lead his offense to a winning field goal on the Texans' final drive, Hali sacked him again, forcing a fumble that inside linebacker Derrick Johnson recovered to seal the game.
These are the plays the Chiefs have come to expect from a defense that has surrendered a mere eight touchdowns all season. Said Smith: "Unfortunately, we gave them a short field today, but they made some stops. With a defense of that caliber, it's going to be hard to drive the field against them."
"We knew [Keenum] could throw the ball," said Hali, who finished with 2½ of Kansas City's five sacks. "In that shotgun-type look, where he looks like he's going to hand it off, sometimes that slows the rush down because [you don't know if] it could be a run or a pass. Once we know it's a pass, we can go after him."
This is the same way the Ravens played when they won it all in 2000. They went five consecutive games without an offensive touchdown that year but relied on a record-setting defense that carried them to a championship. Fittingly, Baltimore's quarterback that season was Trent Dilfer, who also happens to be a former teammate and close friend of Alex Smith. Smith learned the same things during a roller-coaster career in San Francisco that Dilfer applied during his time in Baltimore: The only numbers that truly matter for a quarterback are wins.
People also forget that Tom Brady was a game manager with a strong defense when he began building his legend in New England. The 2002 Buccaneers also relied on a stifling defense that masked the team's offensive shortcomings. The leading rusher on that Tampa Bay team, Michael Pittman, ran for 718 yards while only one receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark that season. The Bucs were led by another quarterback with underwhelming credentials, Brad Johnson, who did what was necessary to get the job done.
These Chiefs are working with a similar blueprint. They might not set records, but they've already earned the right to claim the league's best defense. Through seven games, the Chiefs rank first in the league in points per game allowed (10.8) and total sacks (30) and fifth in yards per game allowed (306.3). The defense's play also is a major factor in Kansas City's league-leading turnover ratio of plus-11 (19 takeaways, eight giveaways).
In short, the Chiefs win mainly because they rarely beat themselves.
They also have something else going for them that those championship teams enjoyed: an obvious camaraderie that was forged through unforeseeable adversity. Those Ravens teams had to battle through offensive futility. The Patriots lost their starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, in an early-season injury that opened the door for Brady's ascension. Most of the leaders on that Bucs team had endured losing seasons and the disappointment of watching their head coach, Tony Dungy, fired a year before their championship run. Those setbacks built something called character. These Chiefs clearly are revealing their own brand of mental toughness. It comes from a 2-14 season in 2012, a campaign that also included the death of former teammate Jovan Belcher, who fatally shot himself at the team facility after killing his girlfriend last year. It's the result of playing in front of half-empty stadiums and taking routine butt-whippings from better opponents. The Chiefs have been beaten down, and they don't care how they win. They only care that they are leaving games victorious.
That was the message that safety Kendrick Lewis uttered as he strolled toward the locker room after Sunday's game. "The only thing that matters here," Lewis said, "is that we still have a zero in the loss column."
It's difficult to know how long the Chiefs will be able to make that statement, but it also doesn't matter, either. This team has gone from lousy to good in warp speed. Judging from the looks of things, Kansas City's rise from good to championship-caliber might happen at a much faster rate.