KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There's nothing like a brutal loss to bring out the best in the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's not that fiascos such as 49-29 (loss to Broncos) and 31-0 (loss to Chargers) make them wild-eyed thirsty for revenge. Getting their heads handed to them seems to draw the Chiefs together and help everyone refocus and fortify their resolve.
The must-win in St. Louis is only the latest example.
The week before, the San Diego Chargers had taken advantage of quarterback Matt Cassel's absence to thoroughly outplay the Chiefs in a shutout that cut Kansas City's lead in the AFC West to one game. But the Chiefs responded on Sunday with one of their best defensive efforts of the year in a 27-13 victory over the Rams.
This is the same Chiefs team that went on a three-game winning streak after falling behind a franchise-record 35-0 in the first half and losing 49-29 in Denver on Nov. 14.
"When you have a loss like that, you think, 'How the heck are we ever going to win again?'" said coach Todd Haley. "It's human nature and it's the nature of the league. It's hard to win each week and when you have a game like we had a couple of weeks ago, it's even harder to respond."
But so far, the Chiefs (9-5) have responded handsomely. While keeping a close eye on his players throughout the week, Haley had an intuitive sense that they would, and he gave them Monday off as a reward.
The coach was keeping an even closer eye on Cassel, who was a game-time decision just 11 days after an emergency appendectomy. In a clutch performance, Cassel endured three sacks and took a couple of hard shots right where his appendix used to be. But he rallied his team by throwing for 173 yards and a touchdown and even had a 13-yard scramble for a first down.
"He's playing fearlessly and that's just such a sign of toughness and mental toughness," Haley said.
Such toughness the Chiefs have been trying to develop for two years, and it's a major reason they're able to rebound from tough losses.
"You rely on fundamentals," Haley said. "That's what we talked about all week and we were able to come back to that during the game. Fall back on your fundamentals, what you've worked so hard on in the offseason and training camp. So when you get in the big games and things are not exactly going the way you want them to go, you have something to fall back on as opposed to panicking or guessing. You're not trying to do more than your job."
Bouncing back from the Denver loss actually helped everybody get past the shutout in San Diego, Haley figures.
"It gives you a good illustration of, 'Hey, we did this.' This time of the season, now we need to do this.' But you're watching body language. You're watching if guys are coming in to do extra work even though it may be their day off. Are they working after practice? Our guys' sense of urgency last week was terrific. You heard them calling out special player meetings. Terrance Copper telling everybody, 'Special teams meeting 2:15.' You hear some things that tell you they're on it. They're doing things you want to see them do to give them a chance to respond."
So far, every time the Chiefs have been humiliated, the signs have been good.
"There was a good sideline confidence in my opinion," said Haley.
Sensing this confidence, Haley decided to gamble on fourth-and-1 in a key sequence in the second quarter. Jackie Battle went over right guard for 7 yards and five plays later Cassel tossed a short touchdown pass to Leonard Pope for a go-ahead touchdown.
"That was a big decision to make," Haley said. "It worked out, and I think it gave us a boost. But you don't make that decision if you feel differently, or if you're more worried on the sideline. I thought the guys throughout this year are continuing to improve, to understand what type of team we're going to be. One aspect of our team that's showing up is mental toughness, which in the face of adversity is being able to stick together — not make it about one person or two people, make it about, 'Hey, we've got to get our act together and get going.'"
Now all the Chiefs need is another three-game win streak and they're AFC West champions and there's nothing San Diego can do about it. Adding to their confidence, both games are in their own Arrowhead Stadium, where they're unbeaten in six games. This week it's Tennessee, followed on Jan. 2 by a visit from the Oakland Raiders.