KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As their three AFC West rivals loaded up during the offseason in an effort to narrow the gap with the six-time defending division champions, the Kansas City Chiefs took notice. The Chiefs traded one of their best players away in the offseason, but weren’t exactly looking at this as a rebuilding season.
“I think that’s a good thing,’’ coach Andy Reid said shortly before the season began, speaking of the additions made by the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders. “Let’s go play. That’s what you want. You want that challenge. I love that part.
“You can take it as a badge of honor or you can crawl under the desk and be afraid. We’re not chopped liver out there. We’ve got some pretty good players.’’
Reid, as it turned out, had reason for optimism. Now, at 9-3 and as the only AFC West team over. 500, the Chiefs are on the verge of clinching another division championship. They can get that done on Sunday if they beat the 3-9 Broncos in Denver -- the Chiefs have won 13 straight games against the Broncos, the second-longest active streak in the NFL behind the New England Patriots’ 14 straight wins over the New York Jets -- and the 6-6 Chargers lose to the 8-4 Miami Dolphins in Los Angeles.
“I thought all the AFC West teams bettered themselves,’’ Reid said this week. “I'm proud of how the guys have kind of battled through that to get to this point.”
A seventh consecutive division title for the Chiefs would tie the 1973-79 Rams for the second-longest streak in NFL history, behind only the 2009-2019 Patriots, who won 11 straight. The Chiefs’ current run of six straight division titles is also the longest active streak across the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.
The Green Bay Packers have the second-longest active NFL division championship streak at three, but have already been eliminated from NFC North contention this season.
The Chiefs’ streak of division titles has largely been built on their success in games against AFC West rivals.They are 34-5 in division games since 2016.
They are 3-0 against division opponents this season, but it hasn’t come easily. They won the three games by a total of seven points.
“Whenever you build a culture that we’ve built, you expect to go out there and your first goal is to win the AFC West,’’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
“It's a division that's always tough, always has great teams in it. We know whenever we go in every week they're going to give us our best shot. And if you look at all the games that we play, we've won a lot of them, but they always come down to the very end. So we know it's a hard thing to do and we're going to take pride in trying to do that and win every time we play against these opponents.’’
When Reid joined the Chiefs in 2013, the Broncos were quarterbacked by Peyton Manning and in the midst of their own five-year streak as AFC West champions. Reid’s Chiefs lost their first five games to the Broncos before finally breaking through in 2015.
The Broncos recovered from that loss to win the last of their division titles and then the Super Bowl, but the Chiefs’ 2015 win over Denver signaled the beginning of the shift in AFC West fortunes.
The Chiefs’ streak of AFC West championships began in 2016 and Kansas City hasn’t lost to Denver since. Reid, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles before arriving in Kansas City, recalled the significance of that breakthrough win in 2015.
“They got after us,’’ Reid said. “They got after us pretty good. I remember when I was in Philly we kind of went through that with the Giants and then we went through it with the Cowboys. Finally you beat the ones that have been pounding on you. It’s like you and your brother get into a fight and all of a sudden you whoop him. It feels pretty good.’’
The six straight AFC West championships have been won in all manners. The Chiefs shared the title in the standings but survived the tiebreakers in 2016 and 2018. They won the division by as many as six games in 2020, finishing 14-2 and well ahead of the second-place Raiders at 8-8.
The Chiefs won the division by three games last season, finally prompting all three of their rivals to make major moves. The Raiders and Broncos hired new coaches. Denver traded for a new quarterback in Russell Wilson. Las Vegas traded for a big-play wide receiver in Davante Adams. The Chargers traded for a pass-rusher in Khalil Mack and signed a big-money cornerback in J.C. Jackson.
Some of the moves worked and others haven’t. Either way, they haven’t improved any of the three teams to get above .500. If the season ended today, the Chiefs would be the only West team in the seven-team AFC playoff field.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, traded their long-time top wide receiver, Tyreek Hill, to the Miami Dolphins, but haven’t suffered. They added draft picks in the trade that turned into a starting cornerback, Trent McDuffie, and a spare wide receiver, Skyy Moore. With the money they saved from not giving a new contract to Hill, they were able to sign free agents like safety Justin Reid, wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
While it may have looked after the Hill trade like the Chiefs were getting ready to surrender their AFC West title, neither Reid nor general manager Brett Veach looked at it that way.
“When you have Pat Mahomes, I think we’re wired to go after it every year,’’ Veach said. “Even though you may make moves and you may trade really good players, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a counterpunch in that we’ll try to be aggressive in another way. I think you just have to be smart with what you do.
“Just because you trade away a great player doesn’t mean we’re in a rebuilding mode by any means. It just means we’re going to find a new set of resources and try to be aggressive.”