By TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist
The first half was the easy part, though nothing comes that easy for the only undefeated team in the NFL.
The Kansas City Chiefs are 8-0, remarkable by itself in a league where parity rules and only hapless Jacksonville counts as a sure win. It borders on amazing when you consider the Chiefs were 2-14 a year ago and so anemic offensively that some fans actually cheered when quarterback Matt Cassel left with a concussion in a home loss to Baltimore.
The Chiefs went out and got a new quarterback, a new coach and a new general manager after that. A lot of the team is new, too, with some 30 different names on this season’s roster than last.
They’re good, yes, because you have to be good to win eight straight games in the NFL. Defensively, they’re top-notch, and Alex Smith does a commendable job managing an offense that takes few risks but makes even fewer mistakes.
Still, no one outside Missouri and Kansas talks about the Chiefs in the same breath as the Broncos, Seahawks or 49ers, all teams that have lost. They’re not Super Bowl favorites in the sports books in Las Vegas, where the wise guys still aren’t convinced they belong among the NFL elite.
The Chiefs have their doubters, and win No. 8 Sunday at home against Cleveland likely did nothing to persuade them to jump on the bandwagon. A mediocre team at best, the Browns were in the game until the final minutes before finally falling 23-17.
It told no one anything about the Chiefs they didn’t already know. And it remains anyone’s guess how deep the team can possibly go in the playoffs.
But the players are starting to believe. And it may not be long before these Chiefs finally get some believers, too.
“The best you can be right now is 8-0 and that’s where we’re at,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Everybody’s going to give us their best. We know that. If we can take that punch and keep rolling, that’s what we did today. It wasn’t pretty, but a ‘W’ sure does look good.”
It does, though those “W’s” weren’t exactly piled up at the expense of the better teams in the league. None of the teams the Chiefs have beaten have winning records at the midpoint of the season, and the weak schedule makes it tough to evaluate just where Kansas City should be ranked.
Not to worry, because that’s about to change. The second half of the schedule isn’t filled with the cupcakes the Chiefs have been fortunate to meet so far. It includes not just one, but two, meetings with the high-powered Broncos, and two more with a San Diego team that seems to be rapidly improving.
Throw in games against Indianapolis and Washington, and the second half of the schedule is about as tough as the first half was easy.
“The goal is to go farther and farther,” running back Jamaal Charles said. “We’re going to take this one game at a time and look at the next opponent, but it’s a blessing to be 8-0.”
While the Chiefs retooled a big chunk of their roster under new coach Andy Reid and new GM John Dorsey, the real key to the turnaround may lie with the steady play of Smith, who never seems terribly impressive but always seems to win. Cast off by San Francisco after a concussion gave Colin Kaepernick a chance to shine, Smith has won 27 of his last 33 starts over 2½ seasons with two teams.
Smith was his usual efficient self against the Browns, throwing for 225 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs play it close to the vest, but Smith has thrown only four interceptions all year and is the second leading rusher on the team.
The only stat that really matters, though, is that Smith is undefeated as quarterback of the Chiefs.
“This is the NFL and there’s not going to be blowouts week in and week out,” Smith said. “But it’s fun being around this team. We enjoy coming to work, we enjoy preparing.”
A lot of people in Kansas City are enjoying coming to the stadium on Sundays, too. As good as this season has gone so far, last season was so miserable that fans raised money to fly a banner over the stadium calling for Cassel to be benched and GM Scott Pioli to be fired.
If the fans have moved on, so have the players.
“Last year is last year,” receiver Dexter McCluster said. “I’m done talking about it. 8-0 speaks for itself.”
It does, though it doesn’t speak loudly. There are a lot of games still to be played, and a lot of questions still to be answered.
The Kansas City Chiefs may not be the best team in the NFL, or even the best team in their division.
But right now their record says they are.