Kansas City, Mo. Sometimes the first-place Kansas City Chiefs almost seem in denial.
Coach Todd Haley’s one-game-at-a-time message is so deeply ingrained, players hardly know who their next opponent is, let alone where they stand in the division race.
“To be honest, I really never know who we’re playing the following week,” said tight end Leonard Pope, who caught the only touchdown pass in Sunday’s 10-6 squeaker over Denver. “Todd makes us (think) just one game at a time, one practice at a time. That’s where our focus is.”
The playoffs is where this team seems headed. Their victory over Denver coupled with Oakland’s upset of San Diego on Sunday gave the Chiefs (8-4) a two-game lead over the four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers with four to play.
The Chiefs’ game on Sunday at San Diego, while still big, hardly looms as huge as it would if the Chargers had beaten Oakland and remained just one game behind. Now, the best San Diego can do on Sunday is trim their deficit to one game.
“Obviously, that helps us, but by no means does it take next week’s game off for us,” said Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker. “It doesn’t mean that next week’s game is any less important. In fact, it becomes more important for us.”
One thing everybody does have full appreciation for is the significance of the Chiefs’ 21-14 victory over San Diego in the season opener.
That Monday night win, played in a driving rainstorm, seemed to set the tone for what may be shaping up as the first division-winning season in Kansas City since 2003. They followed that with two more wins. Now, since getting smacked by 20 points at Denver on Nov. 14, they’ve reeled off another three-game streak that’s put them in a commanding position.
“It was a big night, Monday night football, good for us to start the year off with a division win at home,” said Studebaker. “But we realize this week’s game (at San Diego) is going to be different from the first game. Their team has changed. Our team has changed.”
The Chiefs have gotten better. They won even though they drew almost twice as many penalty yards as the Broncos, scored only one touchdown and gave up 161 yards rushing to Knowshon Moreno They won even though Denver cornerback Champ Bailey completely shut down wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, who’d caught at least one TD pass in a team-record seven straight games.
It was a distinct difference in what happened last year during a 4-12 campaign.
“We were able to make things go our way,” Haley said. “In close games, specifically last year, we weren’t able to make things go our way. That always helps guys have belief and trust and confidence.”
At the same time, Haley refused to say if offensive lineman Barry Richardson would be disciplined for shoving, in a very rough manner, special teams coach Steve Hoffman.
Richardson drew a false start penalty on third down at the San Diego 8-yard line and was pulled from the game. Furious, he started back toward the huddle after one play. But Hoffman ran onto the field and told him to come back.
The 300-pound Richardson then hit the assistant coach with the flat of his hand squarely in the chest, pushing him backward. Haley immediately followed Richardson to the bench and sat with him several minutes, pausing in his management of a close game.
“That’s going to fall under the family business area,” said Haley. “Like I said yesterday, I was unaware of the complete situation. But I will say we’ve got a lot of guys who really, really care. And it means a lot to them. They’re being pushed hard every day, developing and getting better, and Barry’s been a model citizen. It’s family business and we’ll do the right thing there.”