The Kansas City Chiefs have played the second-toughest schedule in the NFL through the first seven weeks of the season, at least when you compare the winning percentages of opponents.
Take a closer look and there's a sound argument to be made that it's the toughest.
In a league where routine rules the day, the Chiefs will be playing their fourth prime-time game in a five-week span Monday night against Denver. It's also the fifth of a league-leading six that Alex Smith and Co. will play this season, which means precious few of those comfy Sunday kickoffs.
"I think guys were ready for it," Smith said with a shrug. "It was something we obviously knew ahead of time, so in camp I think the coaches did a good job of saying, `Hey, we are going to have crazy schedules. We are going to have things all over the place. Night games, non-Sunday games.' I just think from the start, just having it in your brain, we don't care where it is."
The opponents have been tough enough.
The Chiefs (5-2) opened the season by beating the Patriots on the road, spoiling a night in which New England raised its latest Super Bowl banner. They've also faced the Eagles at home, played the Texans and Steelers, and had tough divisional matchups against the Chargers and Raiders.
Now a visit from the Broncos (3-3), who are chasing the Chiefs in a suddenly tight AFC West.
"We don't care. We're flexible," said Smith, dismissing any notion that the bizarre schedule has contributed to back-to-back losses. "We adjust. We're not going to use that as an excuse. I think just from the get-go, from the time camp started, we've had the right mindset about the season."
It wasn't so long ago that the Chiefs kicked off just about every game Sunday afternoon. But their success under coach Andy Reid, combined with emerging stars such as Tyreek Hill, has made them popular league-wide, resulting in coveted television slots for networks desperate for viewership.
Their game against the Patriots was a Thursday night. Their game against the Redskins was on Monday night. Their trip to Houston was another Thursday night. Their game against the Broncos is Monday night.
In other words, creating week-to-week consistency in practice has been a challenge.
The last few weeks have been a prime example. They lost to the Steelers at home on Sunday afternoon and then had to visit Oakland four days later. But while that may have been a disadvantage against their hated rival, it quickly became an advantage with 10 days to prepare for the Broncos.
"It's good," Reid said this week, shortly after a morning walkthrough. "You're later in the year so you can use it to your advantage to rest and get guys back and healthy."
Indeed, the Chiefs treated it like an extra bye. And it could pay off with the return of starting offensive linemen Mitch Morse and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and cornerback Steven Nelson from injuries.
"It gave us more time to get our bodies back," running back Kareem Hunt said, "and it definitely gave us more time to look over the Broncos and get prepared and ready to fight."
The NFL limits the number of times teams can appear in prime time each season, and the only team to reach the six-game limit was the Chiefs. They still have a Saturday night game against the Chargers.
Meanwhile, the Broncos will be playing the second of five prime-time games; they've already faced the Chargers on Monday night. Several other teams, including New England, also have five appearances.
"Everybody is watching. It's the only game on all day," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "It's the last game of the week. It's definitely a great game going against a divisional rival. This is what the National Football League is all about. This is what it's about right here."
While the topsy-turvy schedule may be a challenge for coaches and players, especially those with weekly routines ingrained in them for years, it can have benefits for a franchise. The bump in visibility is helpful, and fans tend to prefer the excitement and anticipation of a game under the lights.
That anticipation is felt by the players, too.
"The whole country is watching," Broncos offensive lineman Garrett Bolles said. "That's something that you watch as you grow up. We're ready for it. We're ready for the challenge. Kansas City is a great team. They have a lot of talent with a great coach, so we're excited to see what happens."
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