If the NFL organized its season -- or, more specifically, its postseason -- the way the Premier League organizes its season, the Kansas City Chiefs would be considered a perpetual powerhouse. Which is to say: If you got rid of the playoffs altogether and just rewarded teams for their regular season successes, the Chiefs would sort of be like Arsenal: Never the best, but always right there and always taken seriously. In this scenario, it is worth noting, the NFL would be a lot less popular than it is.
But the NFL does have a postseason, and it has been so, so cruel to the Chiefs.
In a typically smart piece for Five Thirty Eight, Neil Paine looked at the sorry playoff history of the Chiefs, and it turns out that it's even worse than you thought. A few lowlights from Paine's article:
- They've made it to the divisional round seven times in the last 25 years, but advanced past that only once. (Where they lost.) (With Joe Montana.)
- Their expected playoff record in that time, compared to their record and their opponents', should have been 8-8. They've been 4-12.
- They've done all this with seven different coaches and 11 different quarterbacks. This is attributable to no individual human, though maybe it has something to do with the uniforms.
This has clouded the fact that the Chiefs are one of the NFL's more formidable, sustainable, signature franchises. The Chiefs have won a Super Bowl, and they played in the first one. (Also, check out what their logo looked like back then. Yikes.)
The Chiefs were one of the jewel teams in the AFL merger. They have featured Hall of Famers like Len Dawson and Derrick Thomas and Hank Stram. They have a devoted and vast fan base, and it includes some people you might not necessarily expect.
They are even responsible for the best NFL commercial of all time.
The Chiefs are a bit of an NFL treasure, a small-market team with passionate fans in one of the five oldest stadiums in the game; they haven't threatened to move to Los Angeles for a massive mall stadium complex. This is also a franchise that has faced tragedy, as recently as 2012, when linebacker Jevon Belcher, shortly after killing his girlfriend, committed suicide at Chiefs headquarters as then-coach Romeo Crennel pleaded with him to put down the gun. The franchise was rocked by the incident, as any would be. (It was also sued by Belcher's family a year later, it should be noted .) They hired Andy Reid after that season, and, as Reid tends to do, he got the franchise back on track, but even when they were struggling, they continued to be among the most beloved teams by their local fans: They're in the top five of local TV ratings, pretty much every year. The Chiefs might fall in the playoffs way too early, all the time, but their fans are the platonic ideal of fanhood: They keep coming back, believing someday their faith will be rewarded.
On Sunday (at 8:20 p.m. ET now that the oirginal time has been moved due to weather), it might finally be. Last year, the Chiefs at last won their first playoff game since the 1993 season, an ugly but still glorious wipeout victory over a decimated Texans team. And that set the stage for this year. The Chiefs spent much of the season chasing down the Raiders, but when Derek Carr went down, they pounced, winning in Week 17 to secure the AFC West title and this first-round bye. Their opponent, of course, is Pittsburgh, the hated Steelers, the team that has as much postseason glory as the Chiefs have little. The Steelers come in with a historically exciting batch of skill position players, with Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and of course Ben Roethlisberger, who has won more postseason games himself than the Chiefs have ever.
But this Chiefs team does feel a little different. As morally conflicted as Chiefs fans might be cheering for Tyreek Hill, it's undeniable that his addition to the Chiefs offense and the big-play capability he brings has changed the entire team's look. His ability to go deep -- or even just be a decoy that opens up the middle of the field -- has given Travis Kelce more room to run free, and Spencer Ware's return should give them more of a running game to respect. And Alex Smith, one of the winningest quarterbacks in the NFL over the last half decade, though no one seems to have noticed, is playing as well as he has his entire career. He's efficient, he avoids mistakes and now he has a threat downfield. Add that to a defense that has peaked late, particularly the pass defense, and the Chiefs look a little different than those Chiefs teams of the past. They look both explosive and scary on defense, at the same time.
It's a Chiefs team that has been building to this specific moment. Not only have they lost all these playoffs games, by the way, but they've lost four in a row at home. This is the game, this one Sunday, that gives them the best chance. They've got an ice storm coming in -- local residents are actually worried the power is going to go out -- and the sort of offense that can benefit from a ball-control battle against the elements. (The Steelers are the opposite.) They have a coach who has even improved his clock management skills since some of those dark days with the Eagles … and even those years featured more playoff success than the Chiefs have ever had.
This is what all this has been building toward. A frozen afternoon at Arrowhead. A terrifying defense. A smart offense with better ability to strike quickly than they've had in a decade. A fan base that is desperate for a playoff win and the full-throated fury to will them to do so. This is the time for the Chiefs to break through. If they win, it will be the culmination of years of pain, a release, at last the Chiefs releasing themselves from their playoff burdens. And if they lose, man, I dunno: Maybe it really is just the uniforms.