KANSAS CITY — The half-eaten hot dog that sat on Gunther Cunningham’s desk overnight was looking awfully stale.
But a workaholic doesn’t want to waste precious minutes scaring up something fresh. And besides, everything tastes wonderful to a defensive coordinator the day after his team intercepts four of Tom Brady’s passes.
So Cunningham washed it down with a glass of water Monday morning and plunged right back into the work he so dearly loves: rebuilding a Kansas City defense that seems to be getting good enough for the Chiefs to become bona fide playoff contenders.
“I just saw this thing laying there and remembered I hadn’t finished it when I left the office about 7 o’clock last night,” Cunningham said with a laugh. “People would probably say it was terrible. But I don’t care. This defense is coming on. They’re getting better. The good part is they feel good about themselves.”
It’s been a while since a Kansas City defense felt good about itself. Not since Cunningham was in his first tour of duty as defensive coordinator in the 1990s have opponents had much to fear when they lined up against the Chiefs. The past four years, the Chiefs have had one of the sorriest defenses in the league.
But with a host of newcomers, particularly at linebacker and defensive back, Kansas City seems to be turning the corner. A 26-16 victory Sunday over Brady’s injury-tattered New England Patriots was the third win in four games for the Chiefs (7-4), keeping them squarely in the AFC playoff hunt.
“It’s been a long, long journey to get this to this phase,” Cunningham said. “I’m happy with the way they work during the week. I really like them.
I hope the feeling is mutual.”
Though they were missing such key players as running back Corey Dillon, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots still had won two straight. But both their touchdowns and many of their 306 yards came after the Chiefs had seized a commanding 26-3 lead in the third quarter.
Blitzing often, as Cunningham loves to do, Kansas City kept up relentless pressure on Brady. Three of his interceptions were deflected, but he hardly got off an unhurried throw all day.
“We’re becoming consistent now, and that’s what we strive for,” said defensive end Eric Hicks. “We’ve put a couple of games together in a row and that’s all we can ask for. That was a quality offensive football team even if they didn’t have Corey Dillon.”
The defense has not played poorly since a 28-20 loss at San Diego that was not as close as the final score.
Since then, the Chiefs are 3-1 and have held Oakland to 263 yards, Buffalo to 209 and Houston to 259.
“We had that San Diego game and, boy, we didn’t tackle well,” Cunningham said. “But from that point on, we’ve really stepped it up.
“My goal is for this to be a less-than-300-yard defense. We still give up some yards on stupid plays. And on plays when we’re ahead.
“The thing I need to see is consistency game to game. It’s coming.”
The road will get tougher the next five weeks for the Chiefs, who will probably have to take a wild-card slot from several contenders because Denver holds a two-game lead over Kansas City in the AFC West. Every opponent the rest of the season has a winning record, starting with the Broncos, who are in Kansas City on Sunday.
“The pleasure I feel is we’ve changed the culture,” said Cunningham. “We’re back to a bunch of rough guys, tough guys.”