The AFC’s elite teams are all limping toward the finish line. The Bengals are relying on a backup quarterback who’s most famous for having a girlfriend who aroused Brent Musberger, and you couldn’t describe the Broncos’ new starter as much else besides ‘Tall’ (and, I suppose, ‘Injured’ and maybe ‘Vampiric’). The Steelers and Patriots both lost to inferior competition yesterday in humiliating fashion, and the AFC South is a pile of sludge. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have quietly won nine straight games and secured a playoff spot before the division-leading Broncos.

Which is all the more impressive since their season looked truly lost by Week 6, when the team was 1-5, facing life without Jamaal Charles after he tore his ACL. Since then, they’ve only allowed 20 or more points twice, and they’ve feasted on a weaker schedule. The Chiefs’ season of extremes isn’t strictly down to scheduling, but it goes a long way to explaining why the team has been on such a tear lately. Going on the road to Green Bay, Minnesota, and Cincinnati in the span of four weeks is a lot tougher than hosting the Lions, Chargers, and Browns.

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That said, they have been a tremendously balanced team. K.C. is in the top ten in yards allowed per pass play and run play, as well as yards per offensive play. They have the second-fewest turnovers committed and the fourth-most turnovers forced, thanks in part to Marcus Peters and his eight interceptions, the most by a rookie this decade. The Chiefs aren’t as terrifying as Denver on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ve balanced a very good unit with a consistent, steady offense and they don’t have any glaring weaknesses anymore.

About those weaknesses: Before Jeremy Maclin came to Kansas City this season, the Chiefs went 21 games without a wide receiver catching a touchdown. Maclin has helped open up K.C.’s offense and looks worth the $55 million they paid for him. He just crossed 1,000 yards yesterday, the first time a Chiefs receiver has done so since 2011. For an offense predicated around not fucking up, being able to open it up with a receiver of Maclin’s caliber keeps opposing defenses from simply keying in on the Chiefs’ more conservative gameplan. Take yesterday’s touchdown, where Maclin split the safeties out of the slot and hauled in a score. He has a gravity to him that no other Chief has.

Add in Travis Kelce’s career year and Peters looking like the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and you have a team that could topple one of the struggling established powers atop the AFC. Of course, they barely beat the Browns yesterday, a team that has a legit shot at the top overall pick in the draft. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston both missed the game, and the Browns saw way too much of the ball in the second half as they mounted a near-comeback before they Brownsed it up. Both linebackers should be back for the playoffs, where they’ll try to make up for that heartbreaker against the Colts two seasons ago. Even with Houston and Hali back, the Chiefs don’t have the star power of the AFC’s traditional elite, but the playoffs are a notorious crapshoot, and nobody is hotter or scarier than Kansas City.

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