OAKLAND, Calif. -- Their season will ultimately be defined by what happens in the next few weeks and whether the Kansas City Chiefs can win a playoff game for the first time in 20 years.
But it was validated Sunday in the oddest of places, in a building the Chiefs have always considered a monument to everything evil. It was here, in the basement of the Oakland Coliseum, that the Chiefs celebrated their return to the postseason.
With two games left in the regular season, the Chiefs clinched nothing worse than a wild-card playoff spot by beating the Oakland Raiders 56-31. At 11-3, they pulled into a tie with the Denver Broncos for first place in the AFC West and would win the division championship by picking up a game in the standings on the Broncos over the next two weeks.
That’s a concern for next week and beyond. For one afternoon, the Chiefs were content with their stunning achievement. They had come from a very bad place -- they were a league-worst 2-14 last year and endured the murder-suicide involving teammate Jovan Belcher -- and still managed to thrive. The unexpected thing is that it hardly took any time at all.
"You can’t really explain it in words," said linebacker Derrick Johnson, the longest tenured Chiefs player. He is playing for his fifth head coach in Andy Reid and, until this season, was mainly known around the league for being a great player stuck with some bad teams.
"We’re a humble group," Johnson said. "Last year was a year we wouldn’t wish upon any team, on or off the field. But it’s just gratifying how we’ve grown in the short time, with the new [coaches] coming in."
The big move, of course, was the hiring of Reid as Kansas City’s coach. It looks now like a no-brainer, but the move carried some risk. Reid looked burned out after 14 sometimes difficult seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and endured last year’s death of his son Garrett.
Reid was so energized by his move to Kansas City that he looks like a first-year head coach.
Other major steps followed, all accompanied by danger. The Chiefs hired longtime Green Bay Packers scouting college director John Dorsey, giving him the job as general manager for the first time. They traded for quarterback Alex Smith, who was benched last season with the San Francisco 49ers.
"I don’t know if it validates everything I’ve done, but I’m so pleased to see it come together like it has," said Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, who hired Reid and Dorsey and approved the trade for Smith. "It hasn’t all been easy. We went through a three-game stretch where we didn’t win a game. It was tough. The guys knew Andy had been there and he had done it. They maintained their confidence and continued to let him lead and as a result we’re sitting here today in the playoffs."
As if the Chiefs needed a reminder of how far they’ve come in one season, there’s also this: They played their annual game in Oakland on this very weekend in the middle of December 2012.
They were shut out, losing when Oakland scored just five field goals. On Sunday, the Chiefs played like they encountered little resistance. Their 56 points is the most they’ve ever scored against the Raiders no matter where the game was played.
"It’s pretty tough to put into perspective," guard Jeff Allen said. "It’s actually amazing. It’s unbelievable. We all believed that we could do it but for it actually to happen is indescribable."
From the outside, that can be difficult to believe. Even at 2-14, the Chiefs were talented. They sent six of their players to last season’s Pro Bowl.
So they didn’t feel this would be a rebuilding season.
"Early this year we saw Andy taking over the team in [offseason practices] and later in training camp," Hunt said. "It was clear to me the process was moving faster than I had anticipated. I had no idea where it would finish."
To the Chiefs, that’s the great thing. They still don’t know when or where it will finish. They just know it won’t end with the final regular season game in two weeks against the Chargers in San Diego.
This journey will continue into January and perhaps beyond. If the Chiefs are being honest, they will tell you that part is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.