For all the questions hovering around the Kansas City Chiefs right now -- many of which center around their suddenly fragile defense and a two-game losing streak that has their critics saying "I told you so" -- there is still hope for this team to win the AFC West. It comes in the form of an offense that is showing real signs of improvement. It exists in the standings, where the Denver Broncos' loss in New England sets up a showdown for first place in Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday. Most importantly, it is resting on the shoulders of a quarterback who needs to play his best football of the season as the Chiefs near their stretch run.
The Chiefs didn't trade for Alex Smith this offseason solely because they wanted a smart game manager who wouldn't kill their offense with turnovers. They acquired him because they needed a quarterback who knows how to win. Sometimes that requires him to do what he's done for most of this season: throw the safe pass, make the key play when necessary and use his feet to keep the chains moving when his arm can't get the job done. These days it means Smith has to show people more of what he revealed in Sunday's 41-38 loss to San Diego -- that he can elevate his game when his team is in dire straits.
If there is an upside for the Chiefs in a loss that most players on that roster described as being more painful than their 27-17 defeat in Week 11, it's that Smith carried the offense to its most impressive performance of the season. He completed 26 of 38 passes for 294 yards. He threw three touchdowns and one interception. He also kept Kansas City in a shootout long after its once-dominant defense had lost its two best pass-rushers, outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, to injuries.
It's important to remember that effort for two reasons. The first is that Kansas City will need Smith to be at his best for the remainder of this season. A defense that had terrorized opponents as the Chiefs opened the year with nine consecutive wins is now incapable of consistent tackling, game-turning plays or even the relentless pressure that had been its calling card. The Chiefs' strategy used to involve doing everything possible to let their defense win games. Now they can only hope to protect that unit until its best playmakers heal.
The second reason is more telling. Smith came out firing one week after playing poorly in the loss to Denver. He completed only 21 of 45 passes in that contest and looked largely incapable of igniting an offense that needed a big play in the worst way. The whispers around Kansas City already had been that Smith didn't have enough gunslinger in him to take the Chiefs where they needed to go. Those whispers morphed into unmistakable shouts before the Chargers game kicked off.
The truth is that Smith does have plenty of mental toughness for the position. His record in games he's started over the last three season backs that up -- his teams have gone 30-8-1 in those contests -- and his ability to bounce back from adversity says even more. The Chiefs are at a stretch of the season when they're about to find out if they're as resilient as they really believe. That revelation will only arise if Smith is asked to do exactly what he did against San Diego.
"Certainly after any loss you have two choices," Smith said after Sunday's loss. "You look at it, and it's tough. You are critical of yourself and you get better from it -- and you get ready for the next game -- or you can sit and sulk and not move past it. I kind of feel like that is it. You know [at] 9-2, there's a lot of season left, and a lot can happen."
Even when taking into consideration that the Chargers have one of the worst defenses in the league, the Kansas City offense looked -- dare we say it -- potent for the first time all season. When Smith wasn't finding wide receivers downfield, Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles was slashing and darting for 115 yards and two touchdowns. An offensive line that had lost two starters to injuries also was doing its part. The Chargers had three sacks for the game, but Smith often had plenty of time to attack the feeble San Diego secondary.
As much as people belittle Smith's skills, he can play at that level he showed against San Diego more consistently. It's just that somewhere along his roller-coaster career, he decided the best way to help his team was by not hurting it. It's not until he's been faced with big moments that he's shown the ability to deliver the clutch play. By not doing that more frequently, it's made people forget that avoiding errors isn't the only way he's helped his teams in the past.
When Smith helped the 49ers go 13-3 in 2011, his career-defining game came in a divisional playoff win over New Orleans. Smith made two plays late in that contest to give San Francisco the lead -- one on a 28-yard touchdown run, the other on a 14-yard, game-winning scoring pass to tight end Vernon Davis. He also didn't whine when he lost his job to Colin Kaepernick midway through last season. Smith kept his mouth shut and then opened this season by helping the Chiefs start 9-0. The 49ers, on the other hand, are now largely employing the same conservative offensive approach they used with Smith now that Kaepernick is facing his own struggles.
Not that you'd ever hear Smith bring that stuff up. He clearly put San Francisco behind him the minute he landed in Kansas City, and so far, his best contributions have come through his leadership and efficiency. He brought credibility to the position simply by not being Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn. His honeymoon lasted longer than most because the Chiefs had an effective formula for amassing victories.
Those days have officially ended in Kansas City. The Chiefs are now like every other team contending for a playoff spot -- they're coping with injuries and hoping to play their best football in December. The good news for Kansas City is that it faces four more teams (Denver, Oakland, Washington and San Diego) with defenses that can be exploited. The better news for the Chiefs will be if Smith can keep reminding people that there's still more to him than what Kansas City already has seen.