Order hasn’t been restored. But at least it’s off the milk carton, close enough to almost touch.
A neatly-timed option pitch for a first down?
A tight end clear up the seam?
Slot receivers spinning to daylight?
Turnovers being turned into touchdowns?
Sunday made it feel as if the previous three weeks had never happened, and the 2013 version of the Kansas City Chiefs — the fun, opportunistic Chiefs — were back. If only for an afternoon.
Either that or the Pittsburgh Steelers, who host division rival Cincinnati next week, got caught looking ahead, caught hoping a third-team quarterback would be enough to push ‘em over the line.
But whatever. After five straight losses, only a fool complains about what treats get tossed into the goodie bag. At 2-5, candy is candy. And candy beats the crap out of the alternative.
If anything, Chiefs 23, Steelers 13 reminded us of what the pundits had expected from Andy Reid’s team in July and August, when they were America’s preseason darlings, the AFC West sleeper pick. On offense, young guns carried the flag — tight end Travis Kelce snared five receptions for 73 yards, almost all of them huge; wideout Albert Wilson, a forgotten man for almost two months, chipped in 71 more through the air; rookie receiver Chris Conley added 63 more and a touchdown. On defense, old hands raised hell — linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry each collected picks, while 31-year-old outside linebacker Tamba Hali’s sack-and-strip with 2:11 left in the contest essentially sealed the Steelers’ fate.
The hole is still far too deep to declare the Chiefs fixed after seven underachieving weeks. But for the first time in more than a month, since the Thursday nightmare against Denver, they didn’t look physically or mentally broken.
It was baby steps. But even baby steps forward is progress after five straight weeks of pain, five straight shots to the kidney.
A revamped offensive line with Eric Fisher back at left tackle, Jeff Allen at right tackle and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back at right guard, was notable for the good moments (two sacks allowed) outweighing the disastrous. Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson seemed to craft an offensive plan that keyed to the strengths of the resources on hand — Kelce, Wilson, backup tailback Charcandrick West (22 carries, 110 rushing yards) and De’Anthony Thomas (13 rushing yards, 12 receiving yards) — rather than asking them to try and replicate the pieces that weren’t there (Jamaal Charles in the backfield, Jeremy Maclin on the perimeter).
Defensively, it was even more of a throwback to two years ago: defensive coordinator Bob Sutton against a backup — in this case, Landry Jones. Sutton’s crew won more than their share of matchups, too, while inspiration — and a pilot light — came midway through the third quarter from a beloved, familiar source: Berry.
No. 29’s interception — snagged off a tipped ball intended for the Steelers’ Antonio Brown at the Chiefs’ 32-yard-line while the hosts clung to a 9-3 lead — was the first since his return from lymphoma treatments earlier this year, pure Hollywood catharsis. But even more significantly, it lit a match on the sideline and underneath the offense, which drove nine plays and 53 yards over the next 5:22, punctuated by West’s one-yard scoring plunge into the end zone that pushes the hosts’ cushion to 15-3.
When Martavis Bryant’s juggling 19-yard touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone was confirmed with1:40 left in the third period, the déjà vu started creeping in, memories of the last home heartbreak: The Chiefs had let a 17-6 second-half lead over Chicago get away just two weeks earlier. In fact, the Andy Gang came into the weekend giving up an average of nine points per game in the fourth quarter to their opponents, fifth-most in the NFL.
But this time, the old warhorses wouldn’t wilt. When the Steelers drove to the Chiefs’ 10 with 10:59 to go in the fourth quarter, Hali’s sack on 3rd-and-7 forced a short field goal and preserved the lead at 16-13. After a Chiefs score lifted the margin to 23-13, the Steelers threatened again, a pass-interference call on 4th-and-6 pushing the ball to the Kansas City 39 with 2:17 left. But on first down, Hali was at it again, corralling Jones and punching the ball free, where it was smothered by teammate Jaye Howard at the home 48.
For an afternoon, No. 91 looked young and frisky, and a defense that was touted as the division’s best bared teeth when it had to. At the least, it was a nice, long, lasting look for the Arrowhead faithful — the Chiefs don’t have another true home date until November 29 against Buffalo, having moved Sunday’s visit from Detroit (1-6) to London. At the worst, the Local 11 leave the country salvaging a little pride. With a win across the pond, a lost season might suddenly start to look salvageable, too.