KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — There is an argument to be made that the AFC West is the best division in the NFL.
There is little argument to be made that the Chiefs are the class of it.
After dispatching the Raiders on a frigid night at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs are tied with them for the lead at 10-3 with three games left in the regular season. But they hold the tiebreaker thanks to two head-to-head wins over Oakland, which could loom large down the stretch.
For the division title, sure. But also for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
“Every division game has got to be a playoff game. It’s going to be something more,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said after the 21-13 victory on Thursday night, “especially with a team like Oakland that’s at the top of the charts on offense and defense.”
Well, they had been at the top of the charts heading into the showdown.
The Chiefs knocked them down a peg.
It was their fifth straight win against the Raiders and their ninth consecutive victory over division foes, the third-longest streak in franchise history. Along the way are not only the two wins over Oakland this year, but also a win in Denver — the other divisional team in the thick of the postseason hunt heading into the Broncos’ game Sunday at Tennessee.
The Broncos visit Arrowhead Stadium on Christmas night.
“It’s all about us. It’s not about who we play,” said star pass rusher Justin Houston, whose return from offseason knee surgery has given the Kansas City defense a big midseason lift.
“We just need to stay focused,” he said. “This win means a lot to us, but the season’s not over. We need to put this game behind us, stay focused, and finish the rest of the season strong.”
That’s because there is still plenty on the horizon.
The Chiefs haven’t won the AFC West since 2010, when they finished 10-6 in a division that it seemed nobody wanted to win. Their many deficiencies showed when they were routed 30-7 by Baltimore in their first playoff game, which they hosted because of their division title.
Their last two playoff trips have started on the road as wild cards.
Three years ago, they went to Indianapolis and built a big early lead before their defense melted down in the second half. And last year, they went to Houston and came away with their first playoff victory in more than two decades, only to lose at New England the following week.
So to say that a first-round bye and a home playoff game in the second round are crucial would be an understatement. They are more like necessities for a team dreaming of a Super Bowl.
“It’s good right now,” Chiefs running back Spencer Ware said, “but we can’t get comfortable. We’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize and stay focused on the main goal.”
That goal became a little more challenging when the Chiefs lost Derrick Johnson, their veteran linebacker, to a ruptured Achilles tendon in his left leg. Johnson went down untouched late in the first half Sunday and, it seemed, knew right away his season was over.
Still, the Chiefs rallied around their fallen leader. Their defense repelled Oakland throughout the second half, even when their own offense was stumbling, and did enough to keep Derek Carr and Co. out of the end zone late in the game to preserve the critical victory.
The result? The Chiefs assured themselves a second straight 10-win season, something the club has only accomplished two other times in franchise history. And that nine-game win streak of division foes is currently the best in the NFL, though Houston can match it with a win over Indianapolis on Sunday.
But the Texans are only 6-6 overall. The Chiefs are 10-3 and barreling toward bigger things, their future looking the brightest it has all season after their Thursday night win over Oakland.
“We’re trying to get to our ultimate goal,” Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters said, “so we have to win, individually, each game. So we’re going to prepare for our next opponent and just keep moving on.”