It’s been nearly seven months since the Kansas City Chiefs last took the field at Arrowhead Stadium, falling by the slimmest of margins in the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots.
The journey that led to that final matchup was nothing short of magical, as the Chiefs shattered numerous franchise and NFL records behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who earned league MVP honors following the campaign.
There was Mahomes’ six-touchdown performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2 that truly put the NFL on notice, the relentless comeback on Monday Night Football against the Denver Broncos in Week 7 and the unforgettable 4th-and-9 conversion between Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill that led to an eventual victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14.
It was truly an unforgettable season loaded with moments straight out of a video game – even Kansas City’s five total losses (including the postseason) came by a total of just 20 points – but despite all of the thrills that made 2018 so special, it was where the Chiefs fell so narrowly short that has seemingly fueled the last 202 days of preparation.
This team has the Super Bowl in its sights, and as Kansas City takes the field on Saturday night to kick off the preseason against the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s an opportunity for those trying to earn a roster spot to show that they can help the Chiefs reach that goal.
“Everybody will play in the game,” said Head Coach Andy Reid on Thursday. “The main thing is that we get some of the young guys some playing time. You normally cut down the game plan a little bit for this. Just take some of the simpler plays - the easier plays that you've run during camp - and let them go out and play.”
Reid explained that the starting units will play the first quarter, the second team – led by quarterback Chad Henne – will handle the second, the third team will play in the third quarter and the fourth team will see action in the final quarter.
And while the game doesn’t count in the standings, there are players every single year that – after proving they belonged during the preseason – found a way to contribute when it mattered later on. Guard Andrew Wylie, for example, was simply fighting for a roster spot during this time a year ago before going on to start 10 games and earn the Chiefs’ Mack Lee Hill First-Year Player of the Year Award in 2018.
Practice can’t fully simulate the speed of a real football game, making the preseason an invaluable part of the evaluation process as General Manager Brett Veach and the front office look to construct this season’s roster. Additionally, Saturday’s contest will allow the Chiefs’ decision-makers to see how the newest members of the roster can perform in an environment like Arrowhead Stadium.
“It’s always awesome to get against different opponents. I mean here, playing against our defense the whole time - of course, it’s a lot of fun - but whenever you get to play someone else, you get to fully go,” Mahomes said on Thursday. “It’s live the whole time, so you get to see how guys play under the lights. I’m glad we get to play at Arrowhead, so guys get to feel what it’s like to play at home and how to go out there and excel on our field.”
That’ll be the case for the 23 rookies that Kansas City has up and down the roster, but even for those that have been doing this for a while now, the preseason holds significant value.
“[We want to] protect Pat and protect the running backs - you just go do your job,” said offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz. “Every week of the preseason and as the season progresses, the speed kind of picks up. There is a little bit of acclamation there and getting that up to speed…You just want to go and block someone else well. You still have to protect Pat, as well as everyone else. You treat it very real.”
That mindset isn’t just unique to the offense, either. In fact, Kansas City’s matchup with the Bengals represents the first time new Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will deploy the Chiefs’ re-shaped defense in a live situation. The energy from that side of the ball has been infectious throughout camp, and now they’ll be tasked with carrying it over into a game.
“I'm really looking for how cohesive of a unit we can be, and with that comes effort and tackling,” Spagnuolo said. “To me, communication and working together as a unit and communicating from the back end to the front end – those things are as important as anything.”
The defense will look to demonstrate those qualities against a Bengals’ team that’s under new leadership for the first time in quite a while. Cincinnati parted ways with long-time head coach Marvin Lewis during the offseason in favor of former Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, who has been entrusted with getting the Bengals back to the postseason for the first time since 2015.
Cincinnati looked to be in a position to bridge that gap a season ago, going 4-1 through the first five contests of 2018, but a 2-9 slide through the Bengals’ final 11 games – including a loss to Kansas City at Arrowhead – doomed those hopes.
The Bengals are looking to rebound this season under Taylor and starting quarterback Andy Dalton, who suffered a thumb injury in Week 11 and missed the final month of the year.
The journey toward that goal becomes all the more real on Saturday - as does the Chiefs’ pursuit of a championship - but in reality, the preseason is about even more than just preparing for the 2019 campaign. For so many of the guys taking the field at Arrowhead under the lights this weekend, it will mark the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Some of these players won’t ever suit up on a Sunday in the fall, but for now, they’ve earned an opportunity to play in the NFL. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked as those individuals play their hearts out for a shot at extending that dream into the season.
And for those that do indeed earn that chance, the Chiefs’ march to a championship takes its first steps on Saturday night at Arrowhead.
“[We want to] be great,” said center Austin Reiter. “You know when we get in those moments, like Coach says, be great. We need to bring that AFC Championship trophy home.”
Catch the Chiefs and Bengals at 7 p.m. on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will be broadcast on KCTV5 and through a live stream on the Chiefs Mobile App and Chiefs.com.