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Kansas City Chiefs' defense blossoming into legitimate strength in win over Cowboys

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This wasn't about an opponent missing some star players. This was about a hungry defensive line applying relentless pressure, an aggressive secondary suffocating potential targets and a defensive coordinator finding his fastball again. We've spent much of the season wondering if the Kansas City Chiefs defense could stop being a liability for this team. A 19-9 win over the Dallas Cowboys just showed us why this unit suddenly is blossoming into a legitimate strength.

If this NFL season has taught us anything, it's that you can't predict what's going to happen from one week to the next. The Chiefs' defense is now one more piece of startling evidence in that trend. This is the same bunch that couldn't stop anybody through the first seven weeks of the season. Today, that unit is vastly improved, as it just stifled the most prolific offense in the league.

The Cowboys came into this contest averaging 31.6 points and 433.9 yards a game. They left fully aware that they found the wrong time to run into a Chiefs team that has won four straight games.

"Since the second half of the Tennessee game, those guys (on defense) have been playing better," said Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, referring to Kansas City's 27-3 loss to the Titans in Week 7, when Tennessee went scoreless in the second half. "It got lost because the offense wasn't playing very well. We were winning games because of our defense and people were so used to our offense going out and putting up these numbers. But every weekend I was right here at the podium saying don't lose track of how good our defense is playing. To go up against an offense like that, (one) that has put up so many yards and scores, and shut it down, that's impressive."

The Chiefs really have been building toward this type of performance over the past month. It's just that they hadn't provided this level of proof of their improvement. They beat a New York Giants team that was missing most of its best skill players, a Green Bay Packers team that was without star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a Las Vegas Raiders team that had released its best deep threat, Henry Ruggs III, after a car he crashed resulted in the death of a woman in that city. In other words, there was always a legitimate reason to wonder about how real this defense had been.

This was the game that validated all the positives for the Chiefs, even though Dallas was missing left tackle Tryon Smith (ankle) and wide receiver Amari Cooper (COVID-19) and also lost wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to a concussion at halftime. It wasn't solely about the points allowed, as Kansas City now has surrendered just 47 points over its last four contests. It was about the confidence, the pride, the sheer belief that the Chiefs now have on that side of the football. Go back a month and these defenders were blowing coverages, whiffing on tackles and failing to make any opposing quarterback fear what could happen when he dropped back to pass.

It's not hard to determine what has led to such a drastic change in productivity. For one, the Chiefs have put better personnel on the field. They've leaned more on younger, athletic players in recent weeks, as safety Juan Thornhill and linebackers Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton have become steady difference-makers. They've also benefitted from injured players becoming healthier, with defensive end Frank Clark and cornerback Charvarius Ward falling into that category.

More than anything, the Chiefs have received better performances from their best players. Defensive end Chris Jones was the primary example of that on Sunday. He finished with a season-high 3.5 sacks to go along with two tackles for loss, a pass deflection, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. This was the one-man wrecking crew the Chiefs had hoped to see when they talked about moving Jones, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, to end earlier this season.

Jones is now playing more as defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had envisioned -- switching Jones from inside to outside based on matchup opportunities. The Chiefs' decision to add defensive end Melvin Ingram at the trade deadline and the resurgence of Clark, who had disappointed last season, have given the Chiefs the foundational pass rush they needed to make Spagnuolo's unit thrive. That defensive front was literally nonexistent when Kansas City easily had one the worst defenses in the league through the first seven weeks of this year.

"It's never how you start, it's how you finish," Jones said. "This is a marathon. It's not a sprint. You're going to go through some adversity and we've been going through that adversity. We've had a lot of guys hurt. We were rebuilding the chemistry back on this defense and getting guys healthy. Being able to play together, I think this was the first time, within four weeks, that we had all of our guys healthy and able to mesh and play together. That is a huge part of our defense."

Jones added that he knows there will still be skepticism about this unit. He said the players heard many of the slights that have been uttered in recent weeks -- mainly that the Chiefs have benefitted from facing undermanned offenses -- and they're more than ready to use that as fuel down the stretch. The fact is, the Chiefs were so good on Sunday that it likely wouldn't have mattered if Dallas was healthier. The Cowboys amassed only 276 total yards, surrendered five sacks and committed three turnovers.

The more important focus for Kansas City is finding a way to sustain its current momentum. This team was 3-4 and in last place in the AFC West after the first seven weeks of the season. They're currently alone in first place at 7-4, with the Los Angeles Chargers a half-game behind. As the Chiefs head into their bye week, they're fully aware that they might not be immune to all the craziness that has pervaded the league lately.

The same teams that beat them earlier -- the Ravens, Chargers, Bills and Titans -- all have faced humbling losses to lesser opponents. The Chiefs want to avoid a similar fate as they push through their schedule.

"Winning in this league is so hard," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. "It's not an easy thing to do. That's why you're seeing what you're seeing. There's great competition and you have to work for it every week. We're going to enjoy this. But we're also going to know we have to step back on the pedal here."

Reid will be able to rest easier knowing that his team is playing its best football as the race for postseason spots heats up. The Chiefs' offense went through another week when it didn't have dazzling offensive numbers -- it finished with 370 total yards and two turnovers -- but it did more than enough to win this game. Mahomes is trying to be more patient in the pocket instead of forcing throws into coverage. The reality that chunk plays will be few and far between is something that is being embraced more on that side of the football.

The difference today is the Chiefs don't always need an electric offense to win. If teams are going to contain Mahomes and his weapons, or if that bunch has a bad day, there are other options available moving forward. It wasn't that long ago that the Chiefs had to wonder what would happen when Mahomes ran off the field after a possession. Now it feels like that's the time when we'll learn how good this team actually can become.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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