Kansas City Chiefs  

 

Chiefs growing up fast and eager to make playoff run now

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Tom Gannam / Associated Press
Matt Cassel helped deliver a crucial late-season win over the Rams last week for the playoff-aspired Chiefs.


Of all the great games last weekend -- Eagles-Giants, Steelers-Jets, Packers-Patriots, Ravens-Saints -- none stuck out more to me than how the Chiefs manned up against the Rams in St. Louis.

For the past few weeks, we've been waiting for the Chiefs to slip and allow the surging Chargers to leapfrog them and snatch the AFC West title and playoff berth. San Diego's thumping of Matt Cassel-less Kansas City a few weeks ago seemed to grease the skids. The Chargers (8-6) then blew out San Francisco on Thursday Night Football and put pressure on the Chiefs to win in St. Louis.

The Chiefs responded in a big way. This is supposed to be a young team just winning on enthusiasm and blind faith. You don't win an important game 27-13 with so much at stake in the house of another team even more desperate for a win by being too young to know better.

Playoff picture
With their final two games at the friendly confines of Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs are in the enviable position of controlling their own destiny in the AFC West race. More ...

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AFC West-leading Kansas City (9-5) showed it is all grown up and in it to win it.

"That's all about being professional," said highly overlooked linebacker Derrick Johnson, who was named the AFC's defensive player of the week and was signed to a five-year, $34-million extension last month. "You can't look at it as if it's a college situation where you have four years to get going and build a program. It's the NFL. It's a sense of urgency to win every week. After the year was over last season, we made a commitment that this year we're trying to win it all. That's how it is in the NFL."

We know that the Chiefs were awful last season and that they are one of this season's surprises. They run the ball well, Cassel is evolving and wideout Dwayne Bowe is an emerging star. What's happening right now, in crunch time, isn't so much about all that. There is a mindset in play that second-year coach Todd Haley isn't talking about publicly -- he loves to say that they are simply building a foundation -- about now being their time.

Johnson said that players have bought in and that nothing is more important than the sacrifices they all have to make at this crucial juncture. Johnson cited Cassel's return Sunday, a week after having an appendectomy, as to how much players want to win. There is no doubting Cassel's commitment. He is as tough as they come in a lot of ways. Not many people know that because he's just coming into his own, but if he keeps on his current track it will become apparent soon.

Players already appreciated Cassel as a leader, but his return to action last Sunday moved them further in that direction, running back Jamaal Charles told me.

It's not just Cassel who wants it though. In the phone conversation I had with Charles, who just signed to a five-year, $32.5-million extension, he said how important these final two games are, and, like Johnson, cited Cassel as proof.

I caught him off guard with my next question.

"With everything being so important, wouldn't you have come back from an appendectomy like Cassel did?" I asked.

Charles paused.

"I probably would because this is not promised forever," Charles said. "I've never had this opportunity before, so I probably would have come back after I had an organ taken out. I've never been to the playoffs and a lot of other guys haven't. I'd try to come back as soon as possible since I might make the playoffs for the first time.

"You may only get one chance. I don't know how other people look at it, but we don't want to fall short this year. We want to make the playoffs and make a run."

The Chiefs play Tennessee and Oakland at home to close out the season. The Raiders are still in the playoff hunt, but the Chargers are the biggest threat. San Diego closes at Cincinnati and Denver. The pressure isn't off Kansas City, which is why players don't mind San Diego is getting most of the attention right now.

As hot as the Chargers have been (they've won six of their past seven games), the Chiefs have won four of their last five, so if they've felt the heat, they haven't come unglued except for the 31-0 white-washing they suffered to the Chargers on Dec. 12.

"They've had more success in the past than us the last few years, and they have more superstars, so there are a lot of reasons for people to be talking about San Diego; it's well deserved," Johnson said. "At the same time, numbers don't lie. We're still at the top of the division. We'll fly under the radar right now. When the smoke clears and playoff time comes, if we handle our business, we'll be getting talked about as well."

That doesn't sound like a team that doesn't fully understand exactly what's at stake. Or one that doesn't know what it takes to get there.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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