In sports, it’s easy to get caught up in moments of extreme joy or despair. When a team wins a big game, they’re on their way to the Super Bowl. When a team loses a big game, the coach should be fired.
That pendulum of emotions was felt in Kansas City this year with the Chiefs’ strong 5-0 start, followed by six losses in seven games. It’s led to a Saturday prime-time divisional matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers that will have arguably the greatest franchise impact of any regular season game since Andy Reid and Alex Smith arrived in 2013.
Historically speaking, it’s the first time since the NFL restructured that Kansas City will play a divisional rival this late in the year where the winner takes over first place in the division.
A win, and that pendulum swings even more into the positive direction as Kansas City becomes the overwhelming favorite to win the AFC West for the second straight year.
Beating the Chargers and winning the west would mean playoff appearances in four of the team’s last five years. With Smith at the helm for all of them, he’d become the first quarterback in Chiefs franchise history to reach the playoffs four or more times in a five-year span.
Reid would become only the second head coach in franchise history to reach the playoffs that many times in a five-year span, joining Marty Schottenheimer.
For comparison, Smith has won more regular season games, playoff games and already reached the postseason more times in less years than former Chief quarterback Trent Green. Smith is in many ways the second best quarterback to ever suit up for Kansas City.
But, ending his tenure with an 8-8 record and no playoff appearance in his final season, would help feed the perception that Smith’s time in Kansas City was good, but ultimately unsatisfying. The outcome of Saturday’s game will have more of an impact on how Smith will be remembered in Kansas City than any other game before.
Because in many ways the result of this game, and season, marks the end of an era in Kansas City. All signs point toward Patrick Mahomes taking over at quarterback in 2018, leading to the departure of Alex Smith after this season.
Defensive stalwarts Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are all cheaper to cut than keep in 2018, and with a new general manager, the team could opt to hit the reset button after the season with a new starting quarterback and younger team.
This is likely Kansas City’s last shot with this core group of players to elevate the era’s legacy from good to great. This same narrative will play out if the Chiefs play in a playoff game, but with that far from a guarantee, this becomes the only game that matters.
If the Chiefs lose, a division title looks very unlikely with an easy Los Angeles schedule remaining. The wild card is still in play, but if the Chiefs want to make any noise in the postseason, odds of doing so are much higher going through the divisional route.
A Chiefs loss and the boo-birds will likely voice their concerns at Arrowhead, as it will cap a 2-7 collapse from NFL supremacy. A loss forces Kansas City’s hand to make sweeping changes in the offseason, both on the coaching staff and in personnel.
Fans entered this season with high hopes that were elevated even more after the first five weeks. Failing to come anywhere close to reaching that AFC championship dream would have a lasting impact on the franchise. But that’s talk to be had in January.
For now, all that matters is Saturday. No matter what a coach or player says, this game means more than all the others. This is not year two of a rebuild, this is not a year where eight wins gets a parade.
It’s year five with the same coach and quarterback combination. It represents the most important game of a season that represents an entire group’s legacy. A win kicks the can down the road for everyone, while a loss denotes the end of a good, but unsatisfying era.
For games in December, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
Kickoff from Arrowhead Stadium is set for 7:25 p.m. on KCTV5.
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