By SAM MELLINGER

Tribune News Service

The locker room is quiet and without answers, and you could say the same about the Chiefs' season.

Another strong start is being tossed down the drain by another limping finish. They spent the entire offseason talking about their focus on finishing. Remember that? They made it their mantra, and turned it into a theme for 2014 after that 9-0 start in 2013 dissolved into a 2-5 finish and historic collapse in the playoffs.

This season would be different, they promised. This season, they would finish. They talked about thinking of the importance of finishing when they trained and lifted weights. Play to the whistle, all four quarters, all 16 games.

Finish, finish, finish.

Basically, that means they spent an entire year working to avoid the exact kind of fade that is now in full bloom after a 20-12 loss to the Steelers on Sunday.

Collectively, they are the man who starts a diet and exercise routine with gusto, loses 10 pounds, then switches back to brownies and sitcoms.

The Chiefs are not out of the playoff picture yet -- an astounding testament to the NFL's gravitational pull toward mediocrity -- but they now need a list of lucky and undeserved breaks to avoid having the same sad New Year's resolution about finishing.

Last year, they lost all but two of their last seven regular-season games and then blew the second-biggest playoff lead in league history. This year, they have lost all but one of their last five games and have turned themselves into playoff long shots.

"By the number of wins, there's probably something there," coach Andy Reid said when asked about the failure to finish the last two seasons. "Other than that, I don't think there is."

The Chiefs are 8-7 now, and to avoid a complete collapse from a playoff spot that once seemed comfortably theirs will need to beat the Chargers next week, and have the Browns beat the Ravens, and the Jaguars beat the Texans. A season that once had so much promise is now dependent on the Browns and Jaguars.

This is a desperate situation they have very little control of, which is exactly what this group deserves.

If the Chiefs finish at or above .500 and out of the playoffs, they will have matched or exceeded what a lot of people -- me included -- expected of them this year, and if you're in the holiday mood there is some cover in that.

But this is also turning into a big blown opportunity made up of many smaller blown opportunities, a fitting way for a team that's largely been almost good enough to be remembered.

Against the Steelers, they pushed the ball to the 12-yard line or better on four possessions and got a total of nine points out of it. In the third quarter, the Chiefs had the ball, down four, and were heading toward the end zone when Jamaal Charles lost a fumble. The Steelers then scored a touchdown, establishing an 11-point lead that felt like much more than that. Afterward, Charles blamed the loss on his fumble, which is a stand-up thing to do even if it's unfair.

The uncomfortable truth is that losing in this way fits their character. This is what the 2014 Chiefs do.

They were self-evaluative and honest in turning their offseason into a focus on finishing, but they have failed in their self-selected mission in ways both big and small.

In Denver, they had first-and-goal in the final seconds to send it to overtime or go for the win with a two-point conversion but came up 2 yards short.

In San Francisco, they had the ball down five points with 2 minutes and 12 seconds left, but Alex Smith threw an interception.

In Oakland, they had the ball down four points with 1:35 left but gave it up on downs.

And in Arizona, they had the ball down three points in the fourth quarter four different times -- and scored a total of bupkis.

Win any of those games -- finish any of those games -- and the Chiefs would still control their season. Win just one of them, and losing here, on the road to a team that's an awful matchup for them, doesn't hurt nearly as much.

The Chiefs gave this season some pop with a few unexpected and inspiring wins, most notably against the Patriots and Seahawks at home and in some ways at Buffalo.

But those moments are now canceled out, washed away by too many missed chances in both the macro and micro sense. The difference between average and the playoffs is often winning small moments, and barring some undeserved breaks next week, the Chiefs' 2014 season will be remembered for missing the most important ones.

"Reflecting on it right now, it's a handful of plays that change the game, you know?" Smith said. "You just don't know what they are."

The whole thing was a bit too hopeful, of course, the idea that a team fundamentally flawed enough to lose five of its last seven and spit up a 28-point lead in the playoffs could fix its problems by talking about finishing.

The Chiefs remain a team with too many strengths (very good coach, great running back, stout defense) to be bad, and too many weaknesses (receivers, offensive line, depth in the secondary) to be great.

They are, in many ways, the embodiment of the NFL's emphasis on parity, which is another way of saying they are too good to ignore and not good enough to expect much from.

The uncomfortable truth is that they spent an entire offseason focused on getting past this.