KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — There are two ways to look at the Kansas City Chiefs right now.
The first is that the Chiefs got off to a miserable start, one of the worst in NFL history, but have gotten progressively better the past three weeks. They nearly rallied to beat the Chargers and then won back-to-back games against Minnesota and Indianapolis. Matt Cassel is starting to play like a Pro Bowl quarterback again and the defense has shown flashes of brilliance.
On the flip side, Kansas City has beaten two teams with one win between them. The Chiefs remain awful in the first half, the defense still gives up far too many yards and Cassel’s receivers have bailed him out on more occasions than are worth counting.
Guess which way the Chiefs prefer to view things?
“I think our mindset is really good,” said coach Todd Haley, who has gone from the hot seat to just plain hot in the past three weeks. Everything he’s doing now seems to be working.
A slow start against the Colts? Haley and the rest of the coaching staff preached to the team to stay the course, and the result was the biggest comeback in franchise history.
Hanging onto a late lead against Minnesota? The Chiefs deftly coaxed the last few minutes off the clock to earn their first win of the season.
Locker room angst? Well, there was plenty of that after the Chiefs were outscored 89-10 in their first two games of the season. So a couple weeks ago, Haley called a family acquaintance and had him build a customized “cornhole” game set — the popular tailgate diversion where two wood planks with a hole in each are set about 30 feet apart and you toss a bean bag through them.
The game is set up right in the middle of the Chiefs locker room, and the result has been a more relaxed atmosphere than at any other point this season.
“I think we have a very defined set of goals,” Haley said Monday, “and I think you’re going to see that they’re not going to give up on those goals very easily.”
This is the defending AFC West champion, after all.
Linebacker Derrick Johnson acknowledged the mood has changed dramatically the last couple weeks. Winning has a tendency to do that. Guys are no longer walking through the halls with their heads hanging.
“Winning heals all,” Johnson said. “You don’t hurt as much, the atmosphere is good when you’re winning. We’ve only won two games, we haven’t arrived yet, but we’re stacking them up.”
The modest win streak has come after losing tight end Tony Moeaki, linebacker Brandon Siler, All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles and Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry to season-ending injuries.
The Chiefs have been forced to adjust to their losses on the fly, swapping out packages designed for the speedy Charles or the pass-catching Moeaki to better fit personnel. That means a different set of running plays for Jackie Battle, a bigger running back, and for Leonard Pope, who is more adept at blocking on the line of scrimmage than catching passes downfield.
While most teams that have won a couple straight games would prefer to head straight into another game week, taking advantage of any momentum they’ve gained, Haley said having a some extra time off will finally allow the coaching staff to evaluate the team.
It’s also allowed the team to get a fresh perspective on the rest of the season.
“We never looked at our record at 0-3 and said, ‘Let’s cash it in,’” linebacker Andy Studebaker said. “You’ve seen that the last couple weeks. We’re starting to play better. The reality is we have a game in two weeks against a good division opponent in Oakland.
“Rest is good,” he said, “but we’ve got work to do.”