A week after a disturbing and inexcusable loss – following a bye week – to an otherwise lifeless New York Giants team, the very least the Chiefs might have been expected to do against Buffalo on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium was demonstrate what an aberration that was.
This was the time to make a stand and seize some redemption and a reset for the stretch.
Instead, they doubled down on the sheer futility to make it clear:
The loss to the Giants was no blip but stands for the truth of a season that’s suddenly gone terribly wrong.
With Sunday’s feeble 16-10 loss to the Bills, any lingering sense of promise suggested by a 5-0 start that included wins at New England and over Philadelphia has evaporated.
It was fool’s gold inside a mirage within a hallucination.
Speaking of things you can’t believe you’re witnessing, consider these telling follies from an actual NFL team in its 11th game of the season:
▪ Tyreek Hill and Albert Wilson with a slapstick routine, miscommunicating and running to the same spot for a screen pass that neither could catch, a fine microcosm of the day.
▪ The Chiefs at one point having 12 men on the field on defense – with no one even trying to leave the field realizing he was redundant.
▪ Marcus Peters misjudging (or something) a Tyrod Taylor pass to whiff on a sure Pick-Six.
▪ Travis Kelce in the Wildcat, running an apparent read-option.
▪ And Alex Smith for the second straight week being so off-kilter in so many ways as to leave you wondering if something’s wrong with his arm or has gotten in his head after a pretty marvelous first half of the season.
We could go on and on and on, but you get the idea.
A once-riveting team to watch, one with intriguing potential, has abruptly disintegrated into an uninspired, undisciplined spectacle, a team that coach Andy Reid inexplicably has failed to prepare properly the last two games.
So much so that it couldn’t even compel half the fans in the stadium to stick around with a chance to win late on a gorgeous day.
“This ball has been rolling downhill, and the more losses you get, the harder the ball is to stop rolling in the wrong direction,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “This is one of those games where you need to get it.”
Now, any notion the Chiefs were on some inside track to their first Super Bowl in nearly 50 years has gravitated back to earth with three losses in four games before these two debacles.
But because of the brilliant start, it also was easy to rationalize that stretch as part of the natural ebb and flow of the season. Especially with a remarkably cushy final seven games remaining that the Chiefs rationally figured to have a chance to sweep and enter the playoffs with some momentum.
Then came this nonsense against the Giants and Bills, encapsulated in scoring one touchdown in two games against teams that respectively had given up 82 and 101 points in their previous two outings.
All of a sudden, it’s entirely reasonable to wonder whether the Chiefs (6-5) even can hold on to the AFC West as San Diego (5-6) lurks just a game behind despite starting 0-4.
At least no one can say they’re being set up for more playoff heartbreak anymore.
Expect something worth seeing in the postseason at your own peril.
Which isn’t the same as saying no chance – not with the same fundamental pieces in place that started the season so convincingly.
(It’s true that the Chiefs greatly miss the injured Eric Berry, but he was hurt in the opener and that didn’t keep them from winning the next four games.)
Trouble is, it’s also hard to discern exactly what’s gone wrong, particularly with an offense that seems to have spontaneously combusted even as a suspect defense has stabilized (25 points allowed the last two weeks).
While the Chiefs have had their share of injuries since Berry’s, including one to blossoming receiver Chris Conley, they haven’t quite been besieged with them, either.
Moreover, at least as far as is publicly known, there have been no disruptive incidents or events that might have changed the personality or chemistry among the players who were so in sync earlier in the season.
That’s really the most exasperating part of this sudden spiral – the imperceptible impetus for it.
“I think it has something to do with our energy on the sideline,” Hill said.
Hey, chicken and egg as it may be, that seems as good an answer as any.
Whether it’s cause or effect, though, some of what’s changed is evident:
As he’s become an obvious key and a defensive priority, running back Kareem Hunt has gone from rookie sensation to pedestrian, at least in terms of numbers.
He had 17 yards on 11 carries against the Bills (6-5) on Sunday and now has just 173 yards in his last four games – just a yard more than he had against San Diego.
Asked what seems different from then to now, Hunt said, “Wouldn’t be able to tell you that, honestly.”
How much of that is line play and how much is defensive scheming is a matter of opinion, but it also leads to one objective and obvious truth: Smith has been a liability the last two weeks after being a revelation in the first five and somewhere in between in the four other games.
On Sunday, he misfired several times with chances to rally, including throwing an interception that basically ended the game, and his feel for the pocket at times seemed wonky.
So he’s back to being a scapegoat, and the calls for rookie Patrick Mahomes are sure to surge this week.
At least from this perch, though, Smith is at least another dud start or two from a change being a logical point of discussion for Reid and his coaching staff – who have plenty of other things they’d best be shoring up.
Unless Smith is hurt.
Because Smith at his best, as he was much of the season, easily gives the Chiefs a better chance to win right now than an alternative who was a senior in high school just over three years ago and has yet to play a regular-season snap in a demanding offense.
Because as long ago as it seems, something special seemed to be percolating in this very same offense.
Finding the way to tap back into something that was tangibly there is a more promising scenario (such as it is) than any other route the Chiefs can pursue to revive some of the anticipation they created early this season.
Lost as they look now, though, rekindling that would be even more of a surprise than this bizarre plunge.
Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist at The Kansas City Star:@vgregorian