The Kansas City Chiefs will host the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff game. Some experts feel this year’s Chiefs have the best shot at reaching the Super Bowl since they won it in 1970. The other side of it is the heartbreak Chiefs fans have become accustomed to in the post-season.
This is perhaps the Chiefs’ best team since 1997 when they signed what was thought to be the final piece—quarterback Elvis Grbac. At his introductory news conference, Grbac said, “I understand what I’m getting involved in. The number one goal for this team and this organization and especially the community, I think, is to win the Super Bowl.”
Like this season, there was a lot of discussion about the quarterback, precipitated by an injury. When Grbac sat out six games with a fractured clavicle, Rich Gannon came to the rescue as a back-up winning five of six games. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had a choice: Go with Gannon as the hot hand or give the starting job back to Grbac.
Schottenheimer was steadfast with Grbac as his pick as he said toward the end of the ’97 regular season, “If you say he’s 100 percent medically, if he is 100 percent, and the risk of re-injury is less then ten or five percent, that’s where we go.”
With the home field advantage for the AFC playoffs, it didn’t work out well for the Chiefs. The Denver Broncos beat them, 14-10, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
This season, despite some questions, the role of the quarterback has been more stable. Alex Smith sat out a home game against Jacksonville for precautionary reasons because of a head injury suffered the week before at Indianapolis. Nick Foles started, picked up the win, but coach Andy Reid is one Smith’s biggest fans.
Like Schottenheimer in ’97, Reid stands firmly behind his starter. In fact, Reid says he goes deep into the playbook with Smith, “We’ve opened this thing up further than maybe we’ve ever opened it up. He does a tremendous job.”
But even Smith says this season, with a 12-4 record, has had its share of ups and downs, “There’s weeks when I’m extremely happy and there’s weeks that I’m pretty disgusted.”
So it brings up a question: Is Smith not only playing for what could happen this season, but for his long-term future as the Chiefs quarterback?
Adam Teicher, who writes for ESPN.com, doesn’t see it that way. “Certainly they could turn to Nick Foles, but I think if they planned to go in that direction they probably would have done that. So what’s your alternative? Who are going to go to?” asks Teicher. “I don’t see the Chiefs just saying, ‘We’re going to get rid of Alex Smith and we’ll worry about the replacement later.’ That’s not how the Chiefs are going to operate.”
So if we examine how far Smith could take the Chiefs this season, he’ll need help from his offensive playmakers like tight end Travis Kelce or wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. They’re veterans who were around last year when the Chiefs came up short in the playoffs.
Smith says the veterans have learned from that experience, “Carrying all that stuff with us, playing in those stages, playing in playoff games and having been in that environment. I think all that is only beneficial to have that with you.”
It may also come down to how well the Chiefs defense plays. Guys like Eric Berry, who will be a free agent in the off-season if the Chiefs don’t re-sign him, could make a difference like he did in the Chiefs road game at Atlanta when his interception on the Falcons’ two-point conversion attempt turned the game into the Chiefs favor.
Berry’s interception was the game-winner only one week after a dramatic overtime win at Denver on the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend. Teicher says that was an important litmus test from the regular season.
“The one thing I keep coming back to is the Chiefs had that one three-game playoff-like string where they beat the Broncos who were playing well at the time, beat the Falcons and beat the Raiders in consecutive weeks. Two on the road. That’s a playoff-like run,” says Teicher.
It gives Chiefs fans like Dave Farr of Osawatomie some hope. “We’re going a long way this year. I’m really excited,” he said from the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot before a late-season home game.
What does Adam Teicher, the expert, think? “Well, my years with the Chiefs hardens me and leads me to say we’re in for some disappointment,” he says.
You will be in for the same disappointment felt after the ’97 season if the result against the Chiefs’ next opponent repeats itself. The Chiefs will play the Pittsburgh Steelers who crushed them, 43-14, in early October. But that game was in Pittsburgh and it switches to Arrowhead this time around.
Plus, the Chiefs are coming off a bye. In Andy Reid’s coaching career, his teams have lost only twice in 21 games coming off a bye week.
Greg Echlin is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.