Sometimes it takes the worst to bring out the best. At least, that’s what the Chiefs are hoping to hang their hats on when it comes to playing against the Denver Broncos.
“We always try to find positives and hopefully that was a positive thing we can take away from it,” QB
Cassel is talking about the progress that occurred in the Chiefs passing game during its first meeting with Denver just more than two weeks ago. As a whole, of course, that game was anything but a positive experience. The 49-29 loss struck the team so fiercely that it forced the Chiefs coaching staff to re-evaluate the team’s approach moving forward and there’s no doubt that the trip to INVESCO Field represents the Chiefs lowest point of 2010.
That day in Denver served as the exclamation point on a leveling-out process that had begun weeks earlier.
After racing out of the gates to start the 2010 season, the Chiefs started to show signs of reaching a plateau in mid-October. Back-to-back home wins helped ease the pain of a fourth quarter collapse in Houston, but even in those Arrowhead victories the Chiefs weren’t putting together complete games.
Against Jacksonville, a quarterback who hadn’t attempted an NFL pass in five years masqueraded as a regular starter throughout the first half. It wasn’t until the third quarter that Kansas City exposed Todd Bouman and pulled away from the Jaguars. Sure, the book looked good at the end of the day. The Chiefs ran for over 200 yards and did some nice things, but it took a full 30 minutes of football to kick-start the team.
The next Sunday, Kansas City put up solid numbers once again. The league’s top-ranked rushing offense rolled out its best performance of the season and the defense allowed just 10 points. Still, it took a full five quarters to squeak past winless Buffalo in front an often frustrated Arrowhead crowd. The Chiefs didn’t play poorly; they just weren’t executing all three phases of the game at the same time.
When the Chiefs hit the road the following week, an uncharacteristic performance marred the club in an overtime loss to Oakland. Penalties were off the charts, negative plays plagued the offense and big plays beat the defense. On special teams, a Raiders kickoff return TD changed the course of the game.
A week later, everything fell apart against the Broncos. Well, almost everything.
“I think if there was one positive that we were able to take away offensively from that game was that we were able to give ourselves a little bit of confidence in the passing game and realize that we can throw the ball if we need to.” Cassel said. “It has definitely given us confidence as we have moved forward and you have seen a little bit more production from us in the passing game these past few weeks.”
Since that disappointing loss in Denver the Chiefs have played their best football of 2010. The passing game has flourished with confidence behind a dominating rushing attack and the defense has been as stingy as ever.
“This is the best complimentary football team that we’ve seen on tape this season,” Denver Coach Josh McDaniels said in his conference call on Wednesday.
Since getting creamed in Denver the Chiefs look like the Chiefs of old; or at least the Chiefs team that began the season 3-0.
After the embarrassing loss to a heat rival, head coach Todd Haley declared that the Chiefs would re-commit themselves to focusing on the basics. Fundamentals would be emphasized at practices, full-padded sessions returned to the schedule and the Chiefs would focus on finding their team identity once more.
It appears that they’ve found that identity once again just as the most important stretch of the season gets underway.
“I think that it starts with an identity and it starts with the run game up front,” Cassel said. “It has been something that has been consistent with us throughout the entire year. I think it starts with the offensive line as well, they have done a tremendous job and everything kind of piggy backs off that. In the passing game, the play action, all of that comes off having a good run game and it being able to put us into manageable situations.”
All of a sudden, a rushing team is also chasing passing records and the same defense that saw Denver take a 35-0 first half advantage is finding ways to generate turnovers as well as stops on third down and in the Red Zone.
The result has seen the Chiefs go from nearly falling to the .500 line to re-claiming sole possession of the AFC West lead with a 7-4 record. That day in Denver has served as a springboard to impressive football.
“That’s a good sign but usually it’s tied to some of those fundamental things that I’m talking about,” Haley said. “It means that we probably won at the line of scrimmage; it probably means we’re running the ball efficiently; it probably means we’re pretty efficient on first down which is keeping us out of third and million; and then converting in the Red Zone – scoring touchdowns over field goals.”
Those Mile High struggles threw the Chiefs into a pit of challenges. It tested the team’s mental makeup and put the character of a young team to the test in late November. That game looked like it might have been a turning point for the Chiefs, but the story isn’t complete just yet.
We’ll learn more when these two teams come full circle on Sunday.
“We know that this time of year the games just keep getting bigger and bigger and this is a big game for us this week against Denver, our division rival,” Cassel said. “Obviously they are a team that handled us pretty well the first time we played up there in Denver so it is an important game for us to come home to.”