All it took to get the Kansas City Chiefs back on the winning track was a game against the struggling Washington Redskins.
A win this week against another last-place team will put the Chiefs in the playoffs one year after posting the worst record in the NFL.
Kansas City (10-3) can clinch a playoff berth by beating the Oakland Raiders (4-9) on Sunday or with a loss by either Miami or Baltimore. The Chiefs still are in the division race in the AFC West, but will need help over the final three weeks if they want to pass Denver for first place.
“We've put ourselves in a great situation,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “As far as the division goes, some things outside of our control. But we control our destiny to get in the playoffs and that's still a great place to be.” </p>
It's a remarkable achievement for a team that went 2-14 a year ago in a season marred by the murder-suicide involving Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot to death the mother of his infant child before turning the gun on himself.
But with Smith and new coach Andy Reid supplementing a talented roster that had six Pro Bowl players last year despite the dismal record, the Chiefs are in position to become the fourth team to make the playoffs a year after losing at least 14 games.
“Every year we go into the season, we're trying to get to the playoffs, trying to win the big one, and to have a chance to clinch it before the season is over is going to be great, just because of what we went through last year,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said.
After starting the season 9-0, the Chiefs lost three straight games before rebounding with a 45-10 win over the Redskins last week.
“A loss in the National Football League, it's a week real time but it seems like about a year when you're going through it,” Reid said. “We had three of those in a row and it just seemed like forever.”
Here are five things to watch when the Chiefs visit the Raiders:
QB CHANGES: The first time these two teams played, the Chiefs took advantage of a banged-up line to sack Terrelle Pryor nine times in a 24-7 victory. Oakland has since switched to Matt McGloin at quarterback and dumped the read-option run game and utilized more quick passes to take pressure off the line.
“He's a guy that makes quicker decisions,” Johnson said. “He's a guy that doesn't really turn the ball over much. He's a guy that's smart with his decision making.”
HAMMERING HALI: Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali broke out of a sack slump in a big way last week, bringing Robert Griffin III down twice for his first sacks since Oct. 20. After averaging five sacks a game the first seven weeks, the Chiefs were held to just two in five games before Hali helped break that slump last week.
DEFENSIVE DEFICIENCIES: The Raiders are also much different defensively than in the first meeting, and the changes have not been for the better. Oakland started the season playing stout on defense and held the Chiefs to 216 yards in the game. But the Raiders have struggled in recent weeks, especially on third down. They have allowed 31.2 points per game the past six weeks — second worst in the league — and have allowed opponents to convert a league-high 54.5 percent of third downs in the past three games.
“We need to be able to get off the field on third down,” coach Dennis Allen said. “When we do, we've played pretty good defense. When we haven't, we've struggled.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Chiefs got a kickoff return touchdown from Quintin Demps and a punt return for a score from Dexter McCluster last week. It marked just the second time in franchise history they returned a kick and punt for a score in the same game. Kansas City has a league-best four return touchdowns on kicks and punts this season. The Raiders have allowed three TDs on punts this season, one a return and two on blocks.
ROTATING RUNNING BACKS: Injuries have forced the Raiders to juggle their running backs this season, but it hasn't hurt the run game. Fullback Marcel Reece played tailback last week and rushed for a career-high 123 yards. He was the fourth Raider to top 100 yards rushing in a game, joining Pryor, Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings. The last team to do that was Kansas City in 1978 with five 1,000-yard rushers in a single season.