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Shutdown Countdown: Kansas City Chiefs challenged to repeat 2013

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

The Kansas City Chiefs had a fantastic 2013.

Coming off a 2-14 season, new coach Andy Reid guided the Chiefs to a 9-0 start. There was talk of Kansas City competing for the AFC West title with Denver. The Chiefs stumbled at the end, but they were a wild card team and that was a pretty good result.

Then 2014 came, and it has not been pretty for Kansas City.

The Chiefs blew a 38-10 third quarter lead at Indianapolis to lose 45-44 and get eliminated from the playoffs. Smart observers knew the Chiefs were fortunate to be 9-0 – an incredibly soft schedule was made even softer because Kansas City managed to face four teams in a row whose starting quarterback was out with an injury but losing six of their last eight including the playoff nightmare at Indianapolis was a really tough blow.

The Chiefs then were the losers of free agency. Yes, they deserved the worst grade of all 32 teams. In the first 90 minutes of free agency the Chiefs lost five key players tackle Branden Albert, guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, defensive end Tyson Jackson and receiver-returner Dexter McCluster. They would later lose cornerback Brandon Flowers and safeties Quintin Demps and Kendrick Lewis, all probable starters on their new teams. But Kansas City made up for it by signing ... well, not much. Guard Jeff Linkenbach was a part-time starter with the Colts, as was cornerback Chris Owens with the Dolphins. Vance Walker was a solid defensive tackle for the Raiders. Those are the main players the Chiefs added. Oh, and they had no second-round draft pick thanks to the trade for quarterback Alex Smith last year.

That's a bad, bad few months for the organization after the deserved optimism of that 9-0 start.

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Andy Reid and Alex Smith (AP)

Andy Reid and Alex Smith (AP)

Kansas City still has a lot of good players who helped get that wild-card spot, and Reid is a very good coach. Because the schedule will get much tougher it would be almost impossible to get worse and the loss of so many key contributors, the Chiefs will take a step back this season. And if they get back to the playoffs, Reid deserves that coach of the year award that eluded him last year.

2013 review in less than 25 words: A fantastic 9-0 start was wiped away by a 2-6 finish that included Indianapolis pulling off the second biggest playoff comeback ever.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Well, you saw the names up there who left in free agency. The roster is obviously worse. That happens when you lose three-fifths of your offensive line. Not only was it three-fifths of the line, but Albert, Asamoah and Schwartz were among the most sought-after offensive linemen in the free-agent class. There's no way that can be spun as a positive, even if 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher thrives moving to left tackle. There wasn't one addition that you'd anticipate will have a major impact this year. Not only is the Chiefs roster worse, it's not even a close call.

Best offseason acquisition: The pickings are slim, so the answer has to be top pick Dee Ford. A first-round pick out of Auburn, Ford will initially back up Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, but he'll fit into an important role as an edge rusher and should play some as a rookie. That assumes he can transition from being a 4-3 end in college to a 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros, but that shouldn't be a problem.

Achilles heel: The Chiefs' pass defense might be a concern. Kansas City got a reputation for being a great pass-rushing team last year, and did have 30 sacks in six games. Then they had a paltry 17 sacks in their last 10 regular-season games. Flowers wasn't great at cornerback last year, but replacing him won't be easy either. There's a question at the safety spot opposite the tremendous Eric Berry. Having little depth in the secondary isn't great news when you're chasing Peyton Manning and the Broncos for a division title. It certainly was an issue when Andrew Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns in that playoff game.

Position in flux: The offensive line needs to be rebuilt. Left guard Jeff Allen, center Rodney Hudson and Fisher all started most of last season, although Fisher faces a big challenge moving to left tackle. Donald Stephenson, with 14 starts in two seasons, will be the right tackle. Right guard is a full competition, with Linkenbach and sixth-round pick Zach Fulton among the contenders. At least the Chiefs had some experienced players ready to start when they lost three good linemen in free agency. But there's still a lot of questions about this line and if it can be as good as last year's unit.

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Jamaal Charles and Eric Fisher (Getty Images)

Jamaal Charles and Eric Fisher (Getty Images)

Ready to break out: This could be tight end Travis Kelce, but it's hard to say how he'll bounce back from microfracture surgery on his knee. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe already broke out, last year. So we'll go with Fisher, although a bit reluctantly. The move from right tackle to left tackle will be another adjustment for last year's top pick. He struggled a lot early as a rookie, but improved as the season went on. Also, left tackle is his natural position, so maybe the adjustment won't be so rough. Either way, we'd bet on Fisher looking sharp at left tackle by at least the end of this season, and his real breakout being in 2015.

Stat fact: Remember a few years ago when Todd Haley wasted all those carries on Thomas Jones because he refused to believe that Jamaal Charles was a workhorse back? In the last two seasons as Kansas City's starting tailback, he has 544 carries and 2,796 yards, a nifty 5.1-yard average. Only 10 qualifiers in NFL history have a career average of at least 5 yards per carry, and Charles is one. Last season, Charles' yards per carry improved every month: 4.13 in September, 4.17 in October, 6.02 in November, 6.25 in December. Yep, clearly he can't handle a big workload. 

Schedule degree of difficulty: The difference from last year to this year for the Chiefs is like a college team moving from Conference USA to the SEC. The Chiefs go from the easiest schedule in 2013 to the seventh hardest in 2014, and that's with two games against the Raiders. That's what happens when the NFC East is replaced by the NFC West on the schedule.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: This team still does have talent, although less depth. It can't afford injuries. Smith looked a lot more confident at quarterback late last season and had perhaps the best game of his career in the playoffs. Maybe the coaching staff will allow him to make plays this season instead of playing it so safe. That would help. If the pass rushers are healthy and bolstered by Ford, maybe the defense can get back to the formula that worked during the good times last year. The Chiefs aren't winning the West, but could they get a wild card? If everything goes well, sure.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: There are two that could send the Chiefs reeling. One, if the defense keeps playing like it did in the second half of last season, rather than reverting to what it looked like in the first half. And, if Charles gets hurt. Knile Davis is a talented backup, but Charles is a special player. Without him, the Chiefs' offense is painfully average. This is a team that lost six of its last eight with Charles playing great football. So the nightmare scenario is pretty bad.

The crystal ball says: In a perfect world, the Chiefs would have used the 9-0 start as a springboard to better things in the future. It certainly doesn't seem that way after the Colts loss and a brutal offseason. The Chiefs won't duplicate last year's 11-win season. Can they get enough wins to get in the playoffs? That seems doubtful too.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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