The NFL will dominate the sports world Thursday, and understandably so. The first game of the regular season -- Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, 8:30 p.m. on NBC -- will see football mastermind Bill Belichick and Tom Brady return for another campaign of presumed dominance. The defending champs somehow appear even better equipped to win it all than a year ago and the idea of an undefeated season has taken root.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs -- a title contender in their own right -- have garnered comparably little national attention leading up to the game. And that's a wrong we want to right.
Winning records and playoff berths have come to define the Chiefs in recent years. Yet that doesn't automatically make them a draw to all football fans. Kansas City plays an effective, albeit largely unspectacular, brand of offense and its best defensive players have dealt with injuries in recent years. Those ingredients have produced results such as the 18-16 divisional-round loss last January to the Steelers.
But, this season, the path exists for the Cheifs to become one of the league's marquee attractions and a Super Bowl team, a blueprint set five years earlier by the San Francisco 49ers. Yes, we know that sounds foreboding rather than positive, considering where the 49ers are now. Bear with us.
The Niners had the talent to rival anyone in 2012, and they were led by Jim Harbaugh, a highly respected head coach who built the team in his image. San Francisco rarely played soft, relying on an attacking defense loaded with pass-rushers to win games. Defensive end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith became one of the league's elite tandems, running inside-outside stunts that proved effectively unblockable. Behind them, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman competed for the title of best inside linebacker in the league. All four earned First-Team All-Pro honors that season.
On offense, Frank Gore thrived in San Francisco's smashmouth attack that attempted nearly 500 rushes over the course of the season. Meanwhile, the passing game featured tight end Vernon Davis nearly as much as it did a wideout, further highlighting Harbaugh's preference for hard-nosed, down-the-center football.
Likewise, the 2017 Chiefs feature a venerated head coach of their own in Andy Reid, whose imprint appears all over the team, and it annually plays some of the most disciplined football in the league. The ground game expects to focus on power back Kareem Hunt, a player not totally unlike Gore. Meanwhile, the defense features its own burgeoning inside-outside tandem in All-Pro Justin Houston and second-year man Chris Jones. Veteran stalwart Derrick Johnson patrols the middle of the field while Eric Berry provides the oomph from the defensive backfield.
Yet more than coaching archetypes and aggressive defenses, the 2012 49ers and current Chiefs share even more significant traits -- starting quarterback Alex Smith and the prospect of replacing him midseason.
Before Smith landed in Kansas City, he spent seven years with San Francisco. The team selected Smith with the top pick in the 2005 draft, making him the focal point of the organization. He struggled through several years and multiple offensive coordinator changes before finally finding his groove under Harbaugh. That run finally concluded in February 2013 when the 49ers traded Smith to the Chiefs after moving onto a new starter (you might have heard of him: his name is Colin Kaepernick).
The 49ers didn't intend to push out Smith coming out of the 2011 season. The veteran quarterback had just completed the best campaign up to that point, posting the best marks of his career in completion percentage (61.3), passing yards (3,144), and touchdown-to-interception ratio (17:5) while leading the team to a 13-3 record. Smith might not have lived up to the hype of the No. 1 overall pick, but he had established himself as a more-than-capable starter well respected in San Francisco's locker room.
Smith followed up his breakthrough season with an even better start in 2012. Through the first eight games of the year, he completed just fewer than 70 percent of his passes while tossing 12 touchdowns against just five interceptions, good for a passer rating of 102.1. San Francisco went 6-2 during those games, giving the team little reason to ponder any meaningful change.
But a concussion Smith suffered during a Nov. 11 tilt with the St. Louis Rams altered both the trajectory of both the signal-caller's career and the 49ers' season. The injury opened the door for Kaepernick to take over the starting job, a position he secured with a near perfect performance against the Chicago Bears the following week. Though Kaepernick had little NFL experience, his superior arm strength and athleticism gave the offense an edge Smith could never provide. Buoyed by Kaepernick's dynamic play, San Francisco dropped just two games the rest of the year, falling just a Michael Crabtree touchdown short of winning Super Bowl XLVII. (And yet he still can't get a job now.)
Smith has clear limitations as a quarterback. He largely avoids killer mistakes, but he struggles to put points on the board as a result. Smith averaged just one touchdown pass per game last season, ranking a pedestrian 25th in touchdown percentage among qualified passers. That followed a year in which Smith nearly went 16 games without throwing a touchdown to a wide receiver, a nearly impossible feat in the modern NFL.
All of which underscores Kansas City's biggest fear. Teams with Smith at the helm have won divisions and even playoff games. However, it remains unclear whether they can actually win a title.
Like the 49ers in 2012, the Chiefs could pivot to a talented young signal-caller of their own sometime during the season. Back in April, Kansas City traded up in the first round to select Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes, in effect starting a clock on Smith's time as the starter and anointing the rookie as the quarterback of the future. That future could come sooner rather than later if the momentum Mahomes built during the exhibition games -- 34 completions on 54 attempts for 390 yards and four touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 109.3 -- continues over into the regular season.
The Chiefs maintain that Smith will remain atop the depth chart for the duration of the year. However, with a gap apparent between the Patriots and the rest of the AFC, a move to a more dynamic quarterback could give Kansas City a chance to compete for the conference it might not otherwise have.
If Mahomes does take the reins this season and succeeds, his rise will closely resemble that of Kaepernick and make the Chiefs one of the most compelling stories in the NFL. More importantly, they might finally break through to Super Bowl.