When it comes to exposure in the NFL’s premier time slot, the Kansas City Chiefs are in an interesting position.
Despite the franchise’s intermittent, then consistent, success since NBC took over this game and elevated it to where it is now, the league and network have been quite averse to tabbing the Chiefs for this showcase.
It’s difficult to reconcile the number of Kansas City appearances on Sunday Night Football when taking into account its four playoff berths since 2006 — when the modern-era Sunday-night game began. The Chiefs have more playoff games (five) than Sunday-night contests (three) in this stretch.
They’re basically a regional team, with much of the nation’s casual football fans likely oblivious to their solid play the past few years. That’s somewhat staggering as they prepare for a Steelers team that’s a regular in primetime.
While each game counts the same, it’s hard to look at this date and not view it as one of the Chiefs’ biggest regular-season games of the decade.
It’s true the Chiefs have not featured the most exciting offenses since the NFL adjusted its schedule in 2006 — missing the Dick Vermeil/Al Saunders era by a year — but they’ve possessed occasional intriguing elements. Sunday’s effort against the New York Jets displayed the kind of big-play ability the defense has possessed for four seasons now.
However, the Chiefs somehow forced eight turnovers without registering a sack. For the masses to walk away from Sunday’s tilt in Pittsburgh with a good impression of a team that almost never plays in this spot, Kansas City’s pass rush is going to have to make a bigger impact. Because Ben Roethlisberger will not make the repeated mistakes Ryan Fitzpatrick did, and he again has two elite skill-position players at his disposal after Le’Veon Bell’s suspension ended.
This game will have AFC playoff implications, but as the past decade’s shown, making the playoffs hasn’t resulted in the Chiefs being a sought-after product. The list of teams given fewer of these SNF opportunities since ’06 shows the Chiefs are kind of viewed as a toxic television commodity.
Only the Raiders, Buccaneers, Rams, Browns, Bills, Dolphins and Jaguars have been offered fewer Sunday-night games than the Chiefs. The Lions have more SNF appearances than the Chiefs. So do the Texans and Redskins. The Bears have a grand total of 17 more SNF bookings in the past 10 years than the Chiefs. Chicago is a large market, but the franchise hasn’t exactly featured electric offenses in this span and has only made two playoff berths compared to the Chiefs’ four in the specified era.
From a prestige standpoint, the Chiefs simply aren’t viewed as appointment TV. They have had three games bumped due to flex purposes, while their 2013 mega-showdown with the Broncos was flexed in, but it’s been difficult for the country to see the Chiefs’ work. Even in the playoffs, three of Kansas City’s four games came in the undesired Saturday-afternoon time slot — the outlier being a forgettable 2010 wild-card loss to the Ravens.
It’s been somewhat maddening the team can’t break through nationally. This will be a big spot as a result.
In these showcase packages, the Chiefs are 0-3, having lost to a Chargers team in 2006 that went 14-2, being on the wrong end of a dull 2011 defeat against the Steelers, and losing the aforementioned battle of unbeaten’s to the eventual AFC champion Broncos two years later.
On the surface, this early-October game in Pennsylvania doesn’t mean nearly as much as a December contest against the Broncos will. But aesthetically, the Chiefs looking good here would do a lot for their brand.
The main way they’re going to need to do that is keeping the game from becoming a shootout, where Alex Smith and Co. do not match up well with Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown. Kansas City ranks 28th in the league with three sacks. Despite Tamba Hali continuing to wow Pro Football Focus with his all-around game, it hasn’t translated into a flurry of Chiefs pressure. Dee Ford and Frank Zombo are not on his level, either, so despite Roethlisberger residing as one of the more sack-prone quarterbacks in the league, the Chiefs face a challenge.
That said, they were excellent in stifling Fitzpatrick.
While the rush didn’t get home — making the Chiefs, per Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, the first team since 1986 to snare six interceptions without a sack — Marcus Peters, Eric Berry and Steven Nelson won their matchups. Nelson, and to a lesser degree, Phillip Gaines looked good against the Jets. But Kansas City’s defenders feasted on Fitzpatrick as he was concocting a 2002 Rich Gannon-level garbage-time performance and playing from behind throughout.
Facing the Steelers and their future Hall of Fame quarterback in a higher-profile spot will be a much more difficult challenge, putting more emphasis on Hali and the underrated defensive front to win their battles.
Illustrating the plight the NFL and NBC have when assessing this team, Smith is again showing he’s not fit to lead explosive attacks that can outscore teams. His predecessor, Matt Cassel, did well to keep the Chiefs off NBC as well. Despite boasting the most electric running back in the game for much of this program’s run and a talented pass rush the past few years, the Chiefs aren’t registering as a national success story.
Kansas City’s one first-half touchdown drive this year illustrates the trouble that could be ahead if the Justin Houston-less attack can’t disrupt Roethlisberger. However, if the Chiefs — and their fourth-ranked defense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA — can form a consistent pass rush and keep this a low-scoring duel, it could go a long way toward raising their profile.
Looking good here would put them in consideration to be part of a flex game down the line. Wins matter, but so does exposure, making an NBC-televised win more important than their usual Sunday-afternoon triumph.
This will be a randomly critical Week 4 game through this prism, one that could have genuine ramifications beyond the box score.