Even in an Expected Down Year, Chiefs Still Wear AFC Crown

Despite having as good of a shot as ever to gain control, the rest of the AFC is still looking up at KC.

A year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were coming off a crushing loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and were facing a minor identity crisis. That threw the team into a soft reset during the offseason, prompting the trade of Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins and subsequent dominoes to fall in the receiver room. Additionally, a plethora of young talent and change was injected into Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. Things were going to look different in Kansas City in 2022-23, for better or worse.

From a national perspective, opinions were mixed on the Chiefs before the season. Vegas odds still had them as one of the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl, but the Buffalo Bills got the bulk of the love despite finishing short of both Kansas City and Cincinnati in the playoffs. Many national media pundits picked either Cincinnati or Buffalo to come out of the AFC, and some even anticipated a non-Chiefs team to win the AFC West. On a broad scale, some sort of step back and a “down year” of sorts was expected. As a result, the window for conference supremacy was seemingly wide open.

Sunday’s Kansas City win not only slammed the window down on the outstretched hands of other conference foes, but it also served as a reminder of who the proverbial top dog is.

In a game that already had quarterback Patrick Mahomes nursing a high-ankle sprain, he also witnessed three of his top options at wide receiver get knocked out of the game due to injuries. On the defensive side, starting cornerback L’Jarius Sneed exited the game and entered the NFL’s concussion protocol. That left three rookie cornerbacks leading the way in the secondary against arguably the league’s best wide receiver duo. Willie Gay Jr., possibly the best linebacker on the team, also suffered an in-game injury that left the defense shorthanded.

In the face of all of that, Mahomes delivered by going over the 300-yard mark and tossing a pair of touchdowns. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a 2022 offseason addition from the free agent market, led the team in receiving yards. Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson, both Day 3 draft picks, had interceptions (with one of them being assisted on by rookie safety Bryan Cook). First-round rookies George Karlaftis and Trent McDuffie each made noteworthy plays. Skyy Moore had a big-time punt return to set up the game-winning drive. With players dropping like flies and adversity setting in as much as it had all season, the Chiefs persevered and came out on the other side victorious. 

Some of the concerns before the season were warranted. After all, Hill still remains perhaps the most dangerous player in all of football and replacing him with quantity instead of high-end quality was far from guaranteed to work out. Allowing Tyrann Mathieu to leave in free agency and replacing him with a younger and much less proven Justin Reid at safety was a massive risk. Letting 26-year-old Sneed be the veteran of the cornerback room at the top could’ve completely blown up in Kansas City’s face. There was absolutely a world in which the team didn’t perform up to snuff this year.

Then, of course, the rest of the conference had to be taken into account. The Bengals were the reigning champs, with Buffalo adding star pass-rusher Von Miller and already having the second-most-talented quarterback in the sport. The Baltimore Ravens were viewed as a preseason dark horse to make a deep playoff run. The Chiefs’ own division, the AFC West, spent an insane amount of money in order to compete with and overtake Kansas City. Acquisitions like Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson in Los Angeles, Davante Adams in Las Vegas and Russell Wilson in Denver were supposed to shift the dynamic of the division and, thus, the conference.

As the month of January comes to a close, however, it’s the Chiefs that still wear the AFC crown. They now have a chance to win the Super Bowl for the second time in the Mahomes era, and they’ll have a good amount of cap space and draft capital to work with now that they’ve almost entirely endured their retooling year. This¬†season, specifically, opened the door for the rest of the AFC as wide as ever before since Mahomes established his excellence back in 2018. Now, all the conference can hope to do is make a leap in 2023-24. If Kansas City accomplished this much with an inexperienced group, there’s no reason to expect much of a step back moving forward.