This is a season of great expectations for the Kansas City Chiefs. The roster is deep and talented, with no glaring weaknesses and many areas of strength.
They have an accomplished, respected coach in Andy Reid. And be it penalties, turnovers or dropped passes, they just don’t make many mistakes.
With quarterback Peyton Manning retired and even Brock Osweiler gone, Denver’s five-year reign as AFC West Division champion could be in jeopardy. This could be the year Chiefs change the pecking order in the division — and more.
After winning their first playoff game in 22 years last season, Kansas City has its eye on the prize, namely a spot in the Super Bowl in Houston.
How good can this team be?
“We can really do it,” center Mitch Morse said. “We have the guys to do it. We have the competitors to do it. We have the leaders to do it. We just have to work hard, set the bar high and compete every day. Gotta come in and don’t get ‘destination disease.’”
That can mean thinking prematurely about the playoffs. Or simply looking past the details that can separate the very good teams from the average.
“You say, ‘Man, I’m good at this. I’ve got the technique down. I’ve got this play down. I don’t need to mess with it any more,’ ” said Morse, a University of Missouri product. “There’s always stuff you can focus on to get better at. It’s finding a way to be a professional every day, come out and work on your craft.”
The Chiefs worked their craft almost to perfection over the final two-thirds of the 2015 season. After a shocking 1-5 start, they won their final 10 games of the regular season and defeated Houston 30-0 in the wild-card card round before being bounced from the playoffs by New England the following week.
Momentum doesn’t necessarily carry over from one year to the next in the NFL, but this is the fourth season for Reid and general manager John Dorsey.
They have their players and their system in place, and a clear vision about how to go about their business.
“We know what type of team we have,” said wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, a Mizzou and Kirkwood High product. “But the thing about the National Football League is games aren’t played on paper. So you’ve still got to go out there and perform. You still gotta go out there and compete.”
The competition begins for real at noon Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium against longtime division rival San Diego.
The Chiefs navigated through the preseason without four of their marquee players. Running back Jamaal Charles, as well as outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were recovering from knee operations. Meanwhile, safety Eric Berry stayed away from training camp and the preseason until the end of August, unsuccessfully hoping to shed his franchise-tag status for a long-term deal.
Berry, who beat cancer to earn a Pro Bowl berth and comeback player of the year honors in 2015, should be good to go against the Chargers. The picture is murkier for Hali and Charles.
“I would tell you that, in that order, Eric Berry would be ready to go, Tamba second and Jamaal might need some more time to get himself back,” Reid told Kansas City reporters Friday.
On Monday, Reid went a little deeper in his prognosis for Charles, the four-time Pro Bowler.
“It would be a stretch for him to play on Sunday,” Reid said.
As for Houston, the four-time Pro Bowler and 2014 NFL sack champion was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list Aug. 30, meaning he will be sidelined until at least midseason.
With Houston out and Hali being brought along slowly at age 32, the Kansas City pass rush could be missing some of its sizzle. That puts 2014 first-round draft pick Dee Ford in a key spot as he opens a season as a starter for the first time at his outside linebacker post.
With the departure of Sean Smith to Oakland in free agency, the Chiefs are young at cornerback. But one of those youngsters, Marcus Peters, was the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2015. His eight interceptions tied for the league lead, and he also was credited with 26 breakups.
Third-year man Phillip Gaines is expected to start in Smith’s old spot against San Diego, with a lot of younger players waiting in the wings as well.
Even with those question marks, this should once again be among the league’s top defenses based on past performance. The Chiefs were tough across the board a year ago under veteran coordinator Bob Sutton, finishing third in scoring defense, seventh in total defense, fourth in sacks and second in third-down conversions allowed.
Wait, there’s more.
The Chiefs tied for the league lead by scoring six defensive touchdowns and were second in takeaway-giveaway differential, at plus-14.
On offense, even if Charles isn’t a factor early in the season, the Chiefs have enough talent in the backfield to get by with Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis.
They went 11-1 without Charles last season, with Ware and West combining for 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Maclin at wide receiver and Pro Bowler Travis Kelce at tight end are the main men in the passing game.
The Chiefs are hoping for continued development by youngsters Albert Wilson and Chris Conley as wide receiver complements. But look for the Chiefs to use lots of two- and even three-tight end sets with tall targets Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis — who both are 6-feet-7 — backing up Kelce.
Quarterback Alex Smith, coming off a year in which he established a career high for rushing yards (498), is back for his fourth year as KC’s starter.
He’s smart, athletic and tries to play it safe by minimizing mistakes.