By Jason Keidel
While Thanksgiving weekend is known for equal helpings of food and football, not all of this year’s NFL games remind you of mom’s divine stuffing and endless leftovers.
Except, perhaps, a delicious game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, a game that deserves to be played before your sprawling spread of turkey and sides, but will instead kick off Sunday night.
Since the game is at Denver, the Chiefs will face the twin burdens of the thin air and their thin resume. While Andy Reid has restored the chop to the Chiefs, they still are yearning to be part of the NFL’s aristocracy.
Though Denver and Kansas City enter the evening with the same record (7-3), only Denver is considered an NFL blue blood, with seven trips to the Super Bowl over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have only Super Bowl IV, and replays of Hank Stram bellowing for Otis Taylor. The Chiefs have been agonizingly close to the top, yet always seem to summon some defect that keeps them from breaking through that championship membrane.
Perhaps no division in the sport has longer or more savage rivalries than the AFC West, where the Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs are almost interchangeable. (With all due respect to the San Diego Chargers, who certainly matter but aren’t quite royalty.)
Those of us over 40 can still summon the old NFL Films renditions, played in epic slow-motion and narrated by John Facenda, who told many children of the ’70s that the Autumn Wind was a Raider, or a Pirate, or whatever passes for the Silver & Black. Then we had the Orange Crush Broncos, who eventually gave way to John Elway, who, as a player or executive has lorded over a fistful of Super Bowls.
The Chiefs are just a tier below that level. And again, it seemed they were about to keep their slice of first place last weekend, at Arrowhead, against a Tampa Bay team that’s hardly known for muting rabid road crowds. Yet the Buccaneers surprised the Chiefs (and surely shocked their fans) by upsetting them in their building, 19-17.
Most modern NFL teams have relied on throwing the football, bending the generous passing rules in their favor. But the Chiefs are better known for rugged defense and a running game. Indeed, they have yielded just 187 points. Only the Patriots have surrendered fewer (180).
In recent years, the Chiefs have trusted Alex Smith to run the team and Jamaal Charles to run the ball. But the multidimensional back has been plagued by injury, leaving the Chiefs to run by committee, with the RB tandem of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware.
And the running game has suffered sans Charles. This year the Chiefs are just 21st in rushing, averaging 97.9 yards per game. And given Smith’s famously conservative game, along with injuries to WR Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs don’t exactly have a pyrotechnic passing attack. And that explains the 236 yards per game through the air, which ranks 22nd in the league.
But the Chiefs have proven over the years that you don’t have to be great at any one thing, but rather good at everything, to win in pro football. It’s how they won 10 straight and bolted into the playoffs in 2015, and why they’re poised to at least bag a wild card spot in 2016.
Maybe the Oakland Raiders, who have accelerated the learning curve, going 8-2 so far this year, are the current, titular leaders of the NFC West. But until someone unseats the Broncos, they will be the de facto champs.
And if the Chiefs want to win a Super Bowl, they can start by beating the Broncos, who are also the Super Bowl champs.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.