Warning from the Editor: This one is going to hurt. But there is a silver lining at the end. Please steady the pitchforks and torches.
Much consternation has been generated since the 29-28 upset the Chiefs suffered at the hands of the Chargers on Thursday Night Football at Arrowhead. I’ve seen rumblings of the Chiefs playing for their season that night, and comparisons to losing a playoff game. But I disagree, and by all measures the Chiefs do as well. If the game were viewed as a must win for the season, I have a hard time imagining a scenario where Eric Berry does not play the entire 2nd half barring a major setback to his health, which Andy Reid reported was not the case. In his press conference on Monday, Andy Reid spoke about the health of several key players, indicating their progress was positive. I suspect in a game that was viewed as do-or-die, other players held out Thursday night might have been available to play. While his outlook on LG Cam Erving and WR Sammy Watkins was not as clear, Andy Reid did speak as though Spencer Ware could have played, but he was ultimately inactive as a precaution. While nothing I have said thus far is going to change the past, it certainly could have a positive impact moving forward.
Chiefs fans have a long morbid history when it comes to injuries and the playoffs during the Andy Reid era. In 2013 the Chiefs were well on their way to dismantling the Andrew Luck-led Colts before injuries saw the premature exit of Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers, Justin Houston, Donnie Avery and backup RB Knile Davis. In 2015 the Chiefs traveled to Houston for the Wildcard round of the playoffs with Jamaal Charles already on the Injured Reserve list and Justin Houston playing with a strained ACL. The Chiefs won their first playoff game in 22 years, but at the cost of Houston, Jeremy Maclin and Spencer Ware and lost the following week in Foxborough. 2016 saw the Chiefs host the Steelers for the Divisional round with Jamaal Charles, Allen Bailey, Jaye Howard, Derrick Johnson and Josh Mauga on Injured Reserve. For those at home counting, that’s 2/3’s of the Defensive Line, both starting Inside Linebackers,and the Chiefs all-star Running Back. To add insult to injury, the mishandling of Justin Houston’s knee injury meant he was still playing like a shell of his former self after missing the 1st half of the season on IR. The Chiefs played a tight game, not allowing a single touchdown to the Steelers, but ultimately were once again ushered from postseason glory. For the 2017 Wildcard game against the Titans, the Chiefs were already missing Eric Berry, Dee Ford, Chris Conley, Mitch Morse, Spencer Ware and DeAnthony Thomas on Injured Reserve but after building a 1st half lead neither the offense nor defense could keep up the pace in the 2nd half after losing Travis Kelce and Chris Jones.
So, why did we just walk down that miserable memory lane? Because the potential is there for the results to be vastly different this year. The team we see entering the playoffs very well could be a much different, and much improved, squad compared to the one that lost in familiar heartbreaking fashion on Thursday night. The Chiefs may see up to five full time starters return to the lineup who didn’t play the entire game against the Chargers, to include Eric Berry who only played the 1st half.
Eric Berry having a few games to knock off the rust and get up to game speed entering the playoffs is going to pay huge dividends for the Chiefs. As I wrote earlier this week in A Defense for the Defense, having Eric Berry on the field makes a difference. He might not have had any impact plays, but his leadership and ability to diagnose offensive formations and adjust the defensive alignments before the snap have been sorely missed on the field this year. He is the general in Bob Sutton’s system, the player his teammates look to when the going gets rough and the team needs one play to get off the field. As the Quarterback of the defense, he is the Peyton Manning to Ron Parker’s Kirk Cousins; he has an inherently cerebral understanding of the game you do not see in many players. When other players might simply adjust to a different coverage based on the offensive alignment, Eric Berry is drawing plays up in the sand with a stick, and they work.
It’s quite possible Eric Berry could have returned sooner in the year, and possibly helped the Chiefs win a game or two that they ended up losing. In my opinion, the Chiefs absolutely beat the Chargers Thursday night had Berry played in the 2nd half. It may just be possible that Andy Reid has been looking at his last four trips to the post-season and decided it was time to do things different this year. We all know what happened when Houston was rushed back to help the team mid-season. It didn’t end well, and I think Andy remembers.
There is also reason to be optimistic about the offense returning to the juggernaut we saw early in the season as the Chiefs head in to the playoffs. The offense should be returning starters Cam Erving at guard, Sammy Watkins at wide receiver, and Spencer Ware at running back. With a stroke of good luck, it’s possible that the Chiefs other starting guard, Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff could also return for the post season.
While Ware is not the same caliber player as the one he replaced, nothing is bringing Kareem Hunt back for this team. While lacking the explosive play threat, Ware brings a grinding running style and sure hands that should be utilized in the 4th quarter moving forward to help the Chiefs put away games. Sammy Watkins at this point has more than earned his “injury prone” label but if he can stay healthy through the playoffs, the passing game has the potential to be even better than what we saw earlier in the year. With deep speed outside with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce always the big play threat over the middle, I feel sorry for the poor soul who is left covering 6’5 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. As Arrowheadguys own Dan Harms stated earlier this season when we signed him, Benjamin is a good catcher of the football, and with his height could suddenly find himself the beneficiary of defenses on their heels trying to cover Hill, Watkins and Kelce running in space.
Last but certainly not least, the thought of having the Chiefs opening day starting offensive line together again for the post season simply warms the heart. All too often we’ve seen Mahomes under duress the last few weeks and running backs getting stuffed for a loss. Bringing back the two big nasty guards would be a welcomed sight for the entirety of the offense, allowing Andy to establish the run and giving Mahomes time to hit Tyreek Hill deep down the field. The big play was a staple of this Chiefs offense early in the season, but those chunk plays have been few and far between as we saw lineman after lineman go down with injury.
Could this be the most un-Chiefs postseason we’ve witnessed during the Reid era in Kansas City? Might the biggest struggles of the season be in the rear-view mirror? It is my belief that the Chiefs are slowly getting healthy at the right time for once, building back towards full power just in time for the bright lights of the post season, where legends are born. We have seen record after record be broken this season as Patrick Mahomes seemingly casts off all the curses of Chiefs quarterbacks past, and perhaps as we see a dwindling injury report as we edge closer to elimination games, for once we have a legitimate threat to make a run deep into the post season.