SEATTLE (TNS) — Do this job long enough and the signs make themselves obvious. The worst losses have a different sound afterward, the busy silence occasionally broken up by a locker door slamming, or team leaders declining to talk to reporters, or hope for hope's sake.
The losses that sting make clear the difference between a team that's earned the AFC's No. 1 seed and a team that might still wear that title despite itself.
The moments that shake are the difference between a team that lost, and these Chiefs who lost their swagger after a 38-31 nationally televised loss here to the Seahawks.
"It seems extreme right now but that's not the reality of it," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "Just a fix a couple things and we'll be alright."
He might be right. Actually, that's not true. He is right. Just a couple things. The Chiefs have now lost four games, by a total of 14 points, each of them decided in one form or another late in the fourth quarter.
They've lost to two AFC teams. The Patriots have lost three of five, and the Chargers have led the Chiefs for exactly 4 of 7,200 seconds this season. The Chiefs play the Raiders at home next week, which is the closest thing the NFL offers to a week 17 bye. Win that and the Chiefs have the No. 1 seed.
So, Reid is right. Just a couple things. This is not a disaster.
But you sure can see disaster from here.
"You have to find a way to win these games," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "We haven't been lately, so that's the most frustrating thing. Everybody's got to step up."
Repeat: Just a couple things. We'll be alright.
That works enough as coach speak in a postgame press conference, words that nobody in the room believes tell the whole story, but let's play along. A couple things.
One would be the run defense. The Seahawks ran for the most predictable 210 yards in NFL history. Up the middle, around the edge, quarterback Russell Wilson on a scramble. Whatever. It all worked.
One would be the pass defense. The Chiefs again could not cover, and when they did cover, they could not make the play. They made up for all of that by missing far too many tackles.
One would be penalties. They padded their league-leading total with eight more, including one on a missed field goal and four others that gave the Seahawks first downs.
One would be the offense. Nobody wants to admit it, but this is two games in a row the offense has not been good enough. Last week against the Chargers, they needed one first down on their last possession. They went three and out. This week, they managed just 10 points with two turnovers (one that gifted the Seahawks a touchdown) before halftime. They had five possessions in which they punted or turned it over within three plays.
This team was always going as far as the offense would take it, whether that's fair or not, and the last two weeks the offense hasn't been good enough.
That's four things, which is technically more than "a couple," but this is no time for nitpicking so let's get to the point.
Do you have confidence the Chiefs will fix these problems? And if so, why? How?
The Chiefs are in a precarious place. They are the probable No. 1 seed, even still, and are giving seldom-used rookie defensive backs the ol' screw-it-how-much-worse-could-they-be opportunities in week 16 road games.
They have been the AFC's best team for virtually the entire season, but at this point that feels more like an indictment on the rest of the conference than a reason to be confident in the Chiefs.
Assuming they beat the Raiders next week — and if they don't, they've got much bigger problems — we are still three weeks from the Chiefs' next real test.
And the heck of it is that Reid is factually accurate. They're not that far off. The NFL's gravitational pull means parity rules the day, always has, and the Chiefs will likely have homefield advantage, the best quarterback, and the best offense in the field.
That is an incredible place to be, particularly in what the organization originally forecasted as a transition year.
But the Chiefs are trending the wrong way, at the wrong time. That offense isn't as dynamic as it once was. Eric Berry is playing again, but most of the biggest problems on defense still exist, even when he's not on the sideline during the most important moments.
The Chiefs have everything in front of them, even still.
But the truth is a lot of their fans are terrified of what that means.
Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star.