KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs thought they knew a thing or two about handling adversity after losing three straight games a few weeks back. After Sunday's 23-7 defeat to Indianapolis Sunday, they learned an even more humbling lesson about life as a contender in the NFL. It doesn't really matter how a team starts in this league. The only real measure of a squad's championship pedigree is how much it can endure on the quest for a potential title.
The Chiefs' loss to the Colts is yet one more example of this undeniable fact.
Kansas City had everything going in its favor: major momentum from recent blowout wins over Washington and Oakland; a dome team -- an opponent that had been shockingly inconsistent on the road -- playing in frigid weather; an outside shot at the AFC West title and a wild-card playoff spot already in the bag. When it was over, the Chiefs had every reason to question where their season is heading. They hadn't produced one lousy performance in a season that started with a nine-game win streak, not until the Colts slapped them around in their own backyard.
Kansas City scored on its first possession and then imploded the rest of the game. They couldn't throw or run with any continuity on offense. They couldn't tackle consistently or frustrate Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on defense. They also reminded people that they've beaten only two playoff-caliber teams -- Dallas and Philadelphia -- all season.
"What are we going to do when we face other powerhouses?" asked defensive back Dunta Robinson. "We are a much better team than we showed today, but we need to determine what type of team we are going to be."
If there is any solace for the 11-4 Chiefs, they are not the only AFC playoff team that will have to ask itself such questions in the coming weeks. This postseason will be filled with contenders battling their own unique challenges, with none being immune to the types of frustrating afternoons Kansas City just endured. It's a reality of life in the NFL these days. It's not about what you've done. It's about what you've been through during the first four months of the season.
Remember, the Baltimore Ravens won last year's Super Bowl after being plagued by a three-game losing streak and serious injuries to defensive standouts such as Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb. The New York Giants claimed the championship in 2011 despite a season that saw them lose five of six games at one point. Let's also not forget the 2010 Green Bay Packers. They claimed that season's Lombardi trophy despite placing 15 players on injured reserve. No team in recent memory has done so much after suffering so frequently.
This year's current list of AFC playoff teams should be able to relate to such hardships. The New England Patriots have won another AFC East title while hindered by major health woes (tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo have all sustained season-ending injuries). The AFC North champ Cincinnati Bengals lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a torn ACL, and that same injury ended the year for Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Let's also not forget Denver. They've already lost two starting offensive linemen for the season (left tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen) and now will be without Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller due to a torn ACL.
Each of those teams has shown the ability to overcome severe setbacks to date. What remains more of a mystery is how those squads will play defense once the postseason begins. The Bengals are the only team among current AFC playoff participants to have a stellar unit on that side of the football, as they rank among the league's top 10 in scoring and total yards allowed. The other squads have been surviving on the strength of their star quarterbacks, namely Denver's Peyton Manning, New England's Tom Brady and Indianapolis' Luck.
As much as people like to celebrate the NFL as a quarterback-driven league, defense still will be very much a deciding factor in who reaches the Super Bowl. In fact, the Ravens and Giants thrived in their championship runs because their defenses tightened at exactly the same time as their quarterbacks heated up. Kansas City would love to see a similar situation happen with a defense that was once the best in the league during its nine-game win streak. After Sunday's loss, the Chiefs now rank 23rd in total yards allowed (365.3), with some notable quarterbacks (Luck, Manning and San Diego's Philip Rivers) having torched them along the way.
The return of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Justin Houston should help Kansas City's struggling pass rush, as he has been sidelined since Nov. 24 with a dislocated right elbow. But the Chiefs also need more than one player to rectify what happened Sunday. A secondary once known for its ball hawking has turned disastrous and opponents have averaged 455 total yards in Kansas City's four defeats since its bye Nov. 10.
"You want to have some good rhythm going into the playoffs," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "You want to get this taste out of your mouth."
At one point, it seemed plausible that Chiefs coach Andy Reid might rest some starters in the season finale against San Diego, especially if Denver had sealed the division title. That is a laughable notion after what happened this past weekend. It took about three hours for the Chiefs to go from being a possible playoff sleeper to a team that looked vastly overrated in the early part of the season. They will need every bit of action they can give their starters to ensure another clunker doesn't await them this postseason.
The good news for Kansas City is that nobody saw the Ravens coming at this time last year, or the Giants and Packers before them. Those eventual champions surprised everybody because few could believe that their weaknesses could be forged into strengths so quickly. What they also revealed -- as the Chiefs must prove -- is that everybody has problems by this time of the year. The only thing that ultimately separates contenders from pretenders is how you adapt to them.