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.