For most of last Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs appeared likely to end their recent skid and put themselves squarely in front of the AFC West title race. The team led for most of its matchup with the Jets and held a 31-30 advantage in the final minutes. However, as the Chiefs have grown accustomed to, a string of errors cost them a needed victory.
With four minutes remaining in regulation, the Chiefs put together an impressive goal-line stand to force a field goal. Instead, an unnecessary roughness penalty by defensive tackle Bennie Logan yielded an automatic first down. Miraculously, Kansas City nearly forced another kick, but cornerback Steven Nelson drew a flag for defensive holding, awarding New York another set of downs. Three plays later, quarterback Josh McCown scored the go-ahead touchdown. After the Nelson flag -- one subsequently thrown into the crowd by Marcus Peters -- the Jets converted the two-point conversion to put away the once-mighty Chiefs.
The defeat dropped the Chiefs to 6-6, their first non-winning record since the start of the regular season. The loss also completed their transformation from the class of the NFL to a floundering team with no obvious strength and a multitude of weaknesses. Now tied with the division-rival Raiders and Chargers, Kansas City seems about as likely to reach the postseason as it is to finish in third place in the AFC West.
The Chiefs' downwards spiral has happened in large part because the unraveling of their offense. The unit averaged 32.8 points during the five-game winning streak that opened up the season and established Kansas City as the league's hottest team. Since then, however, the Chiefs have failed to reach 20 points in four of their seven games, dropping their season average to 25.3. The club hit its nadir in Week 11, losing to the Giants despite coming off a bye.
The consternation over the Chiefs' regression has already forced some major changes in Kansas City. To jumpstart the offense, head coach Andy Reid passed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy last week, a decision that paid off as the team surpassed 30 points for the first time in nearly two months. Nagy found ways to manufacture big plays for lead wideout Tyreek Hill, who recorded nearly 200 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Nagy will continue to call plays for the foreseeable future.
Still, Reid handing over the play sheet hasn't fixed all which ails the offense. Running back Kareem Hunt, once the obvious Offensive Rookie of the Year, has been stuck in neutral since mid-October. Over his past seven games, Hunt has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and has failed to reach the end zone. Nagy must find ways to reinvigorate his star tailback if he hopes to reclaim Kansas City's early success.
While Hunt's disappearing act has stymied the offense, it pales in comparison to Alex Smith's regression. Smith established himself as one of the league's most statistically dominant passers through the first two months of the season, but his production has dropped off considerably in the time since. November became a month of horrors, with Smith averaging less than 6.3 yards per attempt and tossing more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). The MVP talk around him has long since subsided, and Smith now seems more likely to end up on the bench than at an awards podium.
The Chiefs have repeatedly downplayed the possibility of changing quarterbacks, with both Reid and star tight end Travis Kelce refusing to lay blame for the offensive collapse at Smith's feet. At least for now, the veteran signal-caller's strong showing against the Jets has quieted the calls for his job. However, if Smith falters again during Sunday's important divisional matchup with the Raiders, the public clamoring for a change under center will reach deafening levels.
Replacing a proven quarterback during the season rarely brings about the desired impact. However, between Smith's poor play and the draft-day decision to trade into the top 10 for Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs might have backed themselves into a corner. Smith doesn't bear sole responsibility for the team's collapse, but his on-field mistakes have undeniably manifested in losses. The lack of a consistent passing game of late also ties directly to Hunt's regression. Perhaps Smith continues to rebound with Nagy at the controls. If not, Kansas City may have no choice but to explore turning to the rookie.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Chiefs' defense remains the most significant hurdle the team must overcome in 2017. The one-game suspension for Peters only complicates matters. Kansas City's secondary must now rely upon the embattled Phillip Gaines and Darrelle Revis, the recently signed 32-year-old corner far removed from his prime. If the pass rush continues to struggle (28th in adjusted sack rate entering Week 14), overcoming the holes in pass defense becomes an insurmountable task.
The final stretch of the regular-season schedule does the Chiefs few favors. Over the next four weeks, they meet the Raiders, Chargers and Dolphins before closing the year on the road against the Broncos. Kansas City may need to win all three of its remaining AFC West matchups to reach the playoffs.
The Chiefs still control their destiny and remain potent under the right circumstances. But with time running out and few cards left to play, they look increasingly unlikely to regain their composure and storm into the playoffs.