Ravens Will Reveal Pioli's Progress

We're about to discover just how far the Kansas City Chiefs have come in 16 months under Scott Pioli.

Thirty-one regular season games ago, Pioli's roster was led into Baltimore by Todd Haley for the first game of the new era. Thanks to a pair of game-changing plays from Jon McGraw and Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs kept the final score (38-24) close that day, but were dominated nonetheless.

The Ravens had their way with KC's offense and defense, outgaining the Chiefs 501 -188. The Chiefs couldn't run the ball, failed to stop the run, allowed their starting quarterback to be pummeled and looked like a team that was hopelessly overmatched. They didn't have the talent to compete.

Sobering reality: In Week 17 of the 2010 season, against a team that missed the playoffs, the Chiefs couldn't run the ball, failed to stop the run, allowed their starting quarterback to be pummeled and looked like a team that was hopelessly overmatched. They didn't have the talent to compete.

What if it happens two weeks in a row? Would any logical person come to the conclusion that the Chiefs have truly made significant progress since that first meeting with the Ravens? We'd be hard pressed to feel good about a 10-6 season if the Chiefs resembled the sad-sack unit that started life struggling to win two games with 22 players off the street, wouldn't we?

The Ravens haven't changed much since last season. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Derrick Mason and Michael Oher still drive the offense. Ray lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs contiune to power the defense. Baltimore isn't particularly explosive on offense, but they don't make huge mistakes. Their offensive and defensive schemes are almost identical, implemented by the same coordinators.

Can the Chiefs stop Ray Rice, who ran for 108 yards in Week 1 of 2009?
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The Chiefs? Supposedly, Pioli has performed a complete makeover on the franchise since September 2009. Haley will field 12 new starters Sunday - Matt Cassel, Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles, Chris Chambers, Casey Wiegmann, Ryan Lilja, Barry Richardson, Shaun Smith, Derrick Johnson, Jovan Belcher, Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis.

The Chiefs have new offensive and defensive coordinators. Holdovers from that first game - Dwayne Bowe, Branden Albert - are apparently much improved football players.

For all intents and purposes, it's the same Baltimore team facing a completely different, advertised-as-markedly-improved, Chiefs team. We should expect a completely different result, particularly because the Chiefs will be playing at home.

Specifically we should expect KC's top-ranked rushing attack to test Baltimore's fifth-ranked run defense. We should expect Cassel and Bowe to play at a high level against a secondary that features zero elite cornerbacks and a busted-up Ed Reed. We should expect Romeo Crennel, Tamba Hali and Kansas City's talented secondary to throttle a Baltimore passing game that makes Cassel to Bowe look like Montana to Rice.

These are the expectations the Chiefs have set. We expect them to compete and with a few bounces of the ball going in their favor, expect them to win at home and claim their first playoff victory since January 1994.

So what will it say about Pioli if the Ravens replicate their 2009 dominance? You'd start to wonder if he really deserves much credit at all for Kansas City's 10-6 season and the "rebirth" of the franchise. In the aftermath of a Baltimore Beatdown, the AFC West Division Championship would look like a mirage created by the NFL's easiest schedule, and KC's 2011 opponents - mostly playoff contenders led by stud quarterbacks - would appear daunting.

The bottom line is that a Wild Card rerun of KC's struggles against Oakland makes 10 wins appear flimsy in comparison. If the Ravens fly into Kansas City and peck the Chiefs to death with little resistance, the idea that the 2010 Chiefs were a legitimate playoff team that's made significant progress in the last 16 months goes up in smoke.

In other words, the 2010 Chiefs would be frauds.

It's time for Pioli's roster to prove something.
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The perception that the Chiefs are just that goes beyond this column. Wednesday, former Redskins general manager Vinny Cerrato went on 95.7 The Fan in Baltimore and scoffed at the notion that the Chiefs could beat the Ravens.

"Kansas City I think is a fraud," Cerrato said. "You look at their schedule, you look at what Kansas City has played and they've played nobody. They've played two playoff teams. They lost at Indy and beat Seattle, if you count Seattle as a playoff team."

It's not just Cerrato. Good luck finding many people outside of Kansas City who believe the Chiefs are on the same level as Baltimore. Inside The NFL hosts Cris Collinsworth and Warren Sapp both picked the Ravens to knock off Kansas City Wednesday night on Showtime. Phil Simms declined to pick a favorite because he's calling the game.

And of course, the Chiefs are three-point underdogs in their own home stadium. They are perceived as pretenders, not contenders.

The only way to change that perception is for Pioli's two-year talent crop to rise to the occasion.

Jason Whitlock's assault on Todd Haley's legitimacy as a head coach is irrelevant this weekend. It's Pioli's legitimacy as a general manager that's in question. The Ravens will reveal just how much progress he's made as the architect of the Kansas City Chiefs.

So will Sunday be Scott Pioli's defining moment?

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