I'm not sure which is more surprising: That the San Diego Chargers aren't on top of the AFC West or that Kansas City is.
OK, I understand the only reason San Diego isn't tied with the Chiefs is because it played one fewer game. And, yes, I expect that when this is all over the Chargers win the division for the third time in four years. But it's not San Diego that intrigues me at the moment. It's Kansas City. The Chiefs were supposed to settle at or near the bottom of the AFC West, the price of having to rebuild an aging roster.
But look at today's standings. They're a half-game ahead of the Chargers, and don't turn to Larry Johnson or Tony Gonzalez for an explanation.
Dial Gunther Cunningham instead.
He's the team's defensive coordinator, and it's his unit that has the Chiefs where they're not supposed to be. For years it was Kansas City's defense that held the club back, but times have changed and the Chiefs defense changed with them.
Cunningham's players are younger, faster and better, and they lead the league in the number of plays stopped for minus yardage. Not Baltimore. Not Chicago. Not Tampa Bay. Kansas City.
Now, look at this season's results. Kansas City is the only club not to allow more than 20 points in any game. It surrenders an average of 16.1, which is good for seventh in the league, but if you remove two returns for touchdowns that figure drops to 14.1.
"We're not the Chiefs of the poor anymore," said Cunningham. "We're a lot better than we were, but we just have to keep it going."
Four years ago the Chiefs had the second-best record in the NFL and one of the worst defenses anywhere, surrendering an average of 356 yards and 20.75 points per game. So after bowing out of the playoffs with a resounding loss to Indianapolis -- a game where the Colts punted once -- they vowed to make changes.
And they did. Only one starter from that defense remains.
Now the Chiefs have young players like Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Jarrad Page mixed with veterans like Donnie Edwards, Patrick Surtain and Ty Law. Free-agent pickup Alfonso Boone has been a surprise, while defensive end Jared Allen is one of the most underrated and underappreciated players in the business.
Allen is tied with the Giants' Osi Umenyiora for the league lead in sacks with eight, yet he played two fewer games.
"I can't imagine too many people who can rush the passer better," said Cunningham. "But the change in his game is that this year he's playing the run as well as he's playing the pass. I look at how much he's grown in the run game the last six months, and I'm amazed. He knows what he can do."
What he can do is dominate opponents. It is no coincidence that since Allen's return from a two-game suspension, the Chiefs have won four of five starts. Included is a defeat of the Chargers -- in San Diego no less, where they blanked the Bolts in the second half.
"We have a lot of power and a lot of speed and a lot of leadership," said Cunningham. "It's fun for me to go into that room (for defensive meetings) every day. I remember the first time I went in there were a lot of dead eyes. That's not the case anymore. Now these guys are self-motivated."
As an example, Cunningham cited the team's bus ride last Sunday morning from its hotel to Oakland's McAfee Coliseum. Players spent the bulk of the trip, Cunningham said, discussing how they were going to defend the Raiders and adhere to a scheme they've come to trust.
"We've got it down," one defender told Cunningham as he exited the bus. "You just call the defenses, and we'll take care of it."
And they did. The Raiders scored one touchdown and 10 points, while quarterback Daunte Culpepper was sacked twice and intercepted by Page on the Raiders' last drive.
So what's new? Five times the Chiefs failed to score more than 13 points in a game this season, yet they managed to win twice. And they won because of a defense that ranks in the top third of most categories, including yards allowed (10th), pass defense (9th), takeaways (tied for fifth), third-down efficiency (4th), sacks (tied for third) and red-zone efficiency (first).
What's odd about all this is that I'm betting you barely know these guys. In fact, other than Johnson and Gonzalez most people outside of Overland Park would have a tough time naming three Chiefs on offense or defense.
Well, then, it's time to start getting educated.
"We've got so many things going for us," said Cunningham. "Priest Holmes, the quarterback situation, L.J. They're the ones people are talking about. We're about 143rd on the list, and that's OK. We play tough, and we play hard. But people (we play) have respect for us, and that's the way we like it."