Chiefs' fifth straight win preserves lead in wild AFC West race

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — To understand how weird the AFC west has become this year, all you have to know is this: The Kansas City Chiefs have embraced winning ugly. Yep – the same team that has built its name off serious firepower and weekly fireworks is suddenly grinding its way to wins in December. You can’t blame them for that approach, either. Style points earned at this time of year aren’t going to do anything to help the bottom line.

The Chiefs won the last five AFC west titles by fielding a top-flight offense. After a 22-9 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Kansas City is in position to take a sixth consecutive division title because it has become more balanced then ever. This is a team that found a way to resuscitate a defense that was once on pace to set records for futility. It’s also a squad that hasn’t let the surprising struggles of star quarterback Patrick Mahomes become so deflating that they’ve lost track of their ultimate goals.

The Chiefs were once 3-4 and mired in last place in the AFC west. They’re now riding a five-game win streak as they prepare for a portion of the season that just might decide if they wear the divisional crown once again. After Sunday’s win over Denver, the Chiefs will face the Raiders at home next week before traveling to play the Chargers in Los Angeles on Sunday night football. Kansas City is very much in position to end this race before it ever becomes really interesting.

Of course, there is one important point to make here. This is still the 2021 NFL season, which means it’s damn near impossible to make grand proclamations about anyone or anything. As impressive as the Chiefs have been over the past month – when only the New England Patriots have enjoyed a longer winning streak – they are still only one game ahead of their closest competition in the AFC west. The Chargers are well within striking distance of Kansas City (especially after beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in September) and there’s still five weeks of football left to figure all this out.

The Chiefs deserve plenty of credit for turning around their season. That doesn’t mean their rivals in the AFC west don’t have a reason to think they can’t heat up as we move deeper into December. Here’s where they all stand after this weekend’s game … and where they will likely end up when postseason bids are finally decided:

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1. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4, first place)

The Good: The Chiefs have ripped off five straight wins in a fashion nobody would’ve predicted at the start of this year. Their defense has gone from being a liability to being a strength, as that unit has allowed only 52 points over the last five games. The major change has come in the pass rush, where Chris Jones has returned to being a dominant force at defensive tackle (after an ill-fated attempt at playing defensive end to start the year) and defensive ends Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram have been disruptive on the edge. The defense also has benefitted from an infusion of youth and athleticism, with safety Juan Thornhill and linebackers Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton becoming true difference-makers in bigger roles. This defense was on pace to be historically bad through the first seven weeks of the season. Its turnaround has been nothing short of amazing.

The Bad: We’re still waiting for the Chiefs offense to show up. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes came into this contest tied for third in the NFL with 11 interceptions and he added another one against the Broncos. Overall, he completed 15 of 29 passes for 184 yards and no touchdowns. To put this into perspective, Mahomes has thrown for more than 300 yards only once in the last six games. The Chiefs also have been especially disappointing on offense at home, where they’ve only scored more than 22 points once (in the season opener against Cleveland). There is still enough time for Mahomes and his teammates to straighten out these issues. The problem is that it’s hard to imagine this team moving deep into the postseason without a little more juice on that side of the football.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5, second place)

The Good: Quarterback Justin Herbert looks like an MVP candidate on his best days. Just ask the Cincinnati Bengals. Herbert threw for 317 yards and three touchdowns (with one interception) in that 41-22 win and it’s obvious that the Chargers will only go as far as his right arm will take them. They’ve given him better protection and he doesn’t lack for weapons in the passing game, including wide receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. The Chargers don’t have much in terms of a rushing attack so everything depends on Herbert playing like a star.

The Bad: This team looks scary as hell when it’s on its game. It’s too bad that only happens every other week of this season. The Chargers are the ultimate example of a Jekyll-and-Hyde team and their win over Cincinnati was a perfect example of that dynamic. The Chargers jumped out to a 24-0 lead before surrendering 22 straight points and then finishing with 17 consecutive points of their own. In other words, it’s what you would expect from a team that was once 4-1 and now sits at 7-5. The Chargers also have a huge problem on defense, as they came into Sunday ranked 29th in points allowed and 30th in rushing yards allowed. They have too much talent to be that bad on those areas.

3. Las Vegas Raiders (6-6, tied for third place)

The Good: This team has more heart than people give it credit for. The Raiders lost their head coach (Jon Gruden resigned) and their best deep threat on offense (wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was released) and they’ve never used those setbacks as reasons to crater. Don’t get it twisted – they’ve produced plenty of doubt at key junctures. However, this team produced a huge win at Dallas on Thanksgiving before taking a 17-15 loss to Washington on Sunday. It’s important to note that the Raiders played that game against the Football Team without their best player available, tight end Darrell Waller. Once Waller returns – and wide receiver DeSean Jackson continues to grow as Ruggs’s replacement in this offense – the more the Raiders have to like their odds of staying in the race for playoff bids.

The Bad: That loss to Washington was a killer. Not only did the Raiders lose on a field goal in the final minute but they took an L just one week before traveling to play the Chiefs in Kansas City. Nothing is going to come easy for Las Vegas between now and the end of the year. Every team they face will be vying for a postseason spot, as they’ll follow the Chiefs game with a schedule that includes the Browns, Broncos, Colts and Chargers. Like the Chargers, the Raiders have been up and down this year. And just like Los Angeles, they can’t afford to be inconsistent any longer.

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4. Denver Broncos (6-6, tied for third place)

The Good: The Broncos have been playing stingy defense, even after trading star outside linebacker Von Miller before the trade deadline. Only one team has scored more than 22 points against them in the last five weeks and that defense has helped Denver produce huge wins over Dallas and the Chargers. That unit was once again impressive against the Chiefs on Sunday, as it threw Mahomes off rhythm and only allowed 267 total yards. The Broncos have a lot of the things you want in a modern defense, including a strong pass rush and talented defenders in the secondary.

The Bad: If only the Broncos offense could be as impressive as the Broncos defense. There aren’t many offenses in the league that are less enjoyable to watch than Denver’s. They pound the football relentlessly and their passing game isn’t known for its explosiveness. It’s basically the type of lifeless offense many predicted when the Broncos traded for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the offseason and then watched him beat out incumbent Drew Lock for the job. It’s hard to see this team being a true threat until they have the capability to score more points.

Final Analysis: This division likely will be decided when the Chiefs travel to play the Chargers on Dec. 16. The Chargers own a crucial tie-breaker thanks to their earlier win over Kansas City and Thursday night games often seem better-suited for the home team. The question is whether the Chargers can deliver the same type of cavalier performance that earned them that first victory and if they can avoid slipping up before then. The Chiefs have the look of a team that is incredibly locked in. They’ve battled through adversity, reinvented themselves and embraced the idea of winning with complementary football. In October, Kansas City felt like a squad that was heading nowhere. Today, the Chiefs are the safest bet going in a division that should be theirs when the dust finally settles.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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