KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When the Kansas City Chiefs trimmed their roster to the 53-man limit less than a week before their opener in New England, all but 10 of the players they kept were on the roster last season.
There’s a very good reason for that.
The Chiefs won 12 games and their first AFC West championship since 2010, earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. And while injuries hamstrung them late in the year, and a hopeless performance by their offense doomed them in a postseason loss to Pittsburgh — at home, no less — coach Andy Reid still felt his team was on the precipice of going much deeper.
“I would surely tell you that we have an opportunity to do that,” Reid admitted during training camp. “Now we have to do our work. We’ve had a good offseason, but it starts now.”
What better place to start than against the Patriots on Thursday night?
The prospect of opening up against the Super Bowl champions on the road makes it doubly nice that the Chiefs are stocked with veterans on both sides of the ball. They won’t be intimidated by Tom Brady and Co. in a hostile environment, a game that could well set the tone for the entire season.
Alex Smith is back under center. The offensive line returns intact, and may be even better after acquiring 2016 first-round pick Cam Erving from Cleveland to serve as the swing tackle. And despite a season-ending knee injury to running back Spencer Ware, the Chiefs still have plenty of weapons in speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and rookie running back Kareem Hunt.
The Chiefs’ strength should be defense, though, especially if they can stay healthy.
Pass rusher Justin Houston is finally 100 percent after dealing with knee injuries the past two seasons. Veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson is back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. And while strong safety Eric Berry missed much of camp with a heel injury, he expects to be ready.
Throw in one of the league’s top cornerbacks in Marcus Peters, new defensive tackle Bennie Logan and depth across the board, and the Chiefs could have one of the NFL’s top defenses.
“We had a couple of injuries last year, but there are no excuses,” Johnson said. “We have to put the pressure on ourselves. Knowing that Andy is going to do his job with the offense and score a little bit, which is great, we just have to do our job.”
As the Chiefs prepare to open the season against the Patriots, here are a few key story lines:
No QB Controversy: First-round pick Patrick Mahomes II dazzled during the preseason, showing the kind of big arm and natural moxie that reminded Reid of Brett Favre. But the Chiefs believe Smith is capable of carrying them to a Super Bowl, so he can rest assured in his job.
Then again, it’s nice to have a young and capable backup standing on the sideline.
Show Me The Hands: The Chiefs released Jeremy Maclin to save cash in the offseason, leaving their wide receiver corps with precious little experience. Nobody has more than four years of experience, and the Chiefs could rely heavily on second-year pro Demarcus Robinson and rookie Jehu Chesson.
“Young group as a whole,” Smith said, “but I think their energy is the strength.”
Tight End Troupe: Kelce is one of the league’s best tight ends, and will be counted to take some of the pressure off those young wide receivers. But the Chiefs thought so highly of Demetrious Harris and Ross Travis that they only kept three tight ends rather than four like they have in the past.
Running Wild: Ware and Hunt were expected to share carries this season, but that changed when the veteran went down in a preseason game in Seattle. Now, Hunt is the unquestioned No. 1 running back, with Charcandrick West expected to give the third-round draft pick a breather.
The Chiefs also can use Hill and fellow wide receiver DeAnthony Thomas out of the backfield.
“We try to keep our eyes open,” Reid said, “but I do like the guys we have and I do have some flexibility there with some of the wide receivers in an emergency situation.”
Special Teams: Hill will continue to return punts, but the Chiefs want to keep him fresh by allowing others to return kickoffs. But that doesn’t mean the Chiefs are any less dangerous with Dave Toub, one of the best coordinators in the business, calling the shots.
One question mark is kicker Cairo Santos, who missed most of training camp with a groin injury. He returned to hit a field goal and miss an extra point in last week’s preseason finale.