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Jamaal Charles' Chiefs find moxie as AFC playoff race heats up

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When the Kansas City Chiefs completed their first comeback this season from a double-digit deficit to beat the Buffalo Bills 17-13 Sunday, running back Jamaal Charles was thinking about Indianapolis. The Colts were the opponent that, in the playoffs last season, exposed the Chiefs' inability to close out a game, roaring back to erase Kansas City's 28-point third-quarter lead and eliminate the Chiefs from the postseason.

"This felt like a playoff game," Charles said, referring to Sunday's triumph. "Last year against the Colts, we didn't finish. This could have been a big blowout; they came out really fast. I'm happy we got that playoff feeling when playing against a team that has the same record as you."

What has changed for the Chiefs since that playoff collapse?

"A lot of injuries, a lot of people that went down, I think we've been through that," Charles said. "We know if somebody goes down, somebody has to step up. We have to finish.

"You can come out fast on us," Charles added. "We've got great team chemistry. We've got a lot of leaders on offense. Some of the people have been in this position before. I used to be in the situation when I was younger, we could never come back. Now, it feels so good."

The Chiefs, who were helped by the Bills' fatal failure to score a touchdown on four of five trips into the red zone, still do not possess the ability to pile up points quickly, the way the Colts, Patriots and Broncos do. This is in part because they're the only team in the NFL that has yet to throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver this season. Quarterback Alex Smith still does not throw downfield -- he entered the game with his passes averaging just 5.5 yards in the air, the lowest mark in the league -- although the Bills' fearsome defensive front can take some credit for rushing him all day.

That said, on a relatively balmy afternoon in Buffalo, the Chiefs did show what Andy Reid called "grit" in the second half, withstanding a less than perfect performance. In the locker room afterward, the feeling among the Chiefs was that they had cleared a hurdle, not just in an opponent, but in a mindset. Charles personified that. He started slowly -- at one point in the first half, the running game had negative yardage -- and suffered a stinger. But on the sideline, Reid said he could hear Charles encouraging the offensive line to keep working.

After looking largely overwhelmed by the Bills' defensive front, the Chiefs turned it to their advantage on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter. With the defense crashing down and anticipating a short inside run, Smith pitched the ball to Charles on the left side. He ran 39 yards untouched, pulling the Chiefs to within three points.

The Buffalo crowd went quiet. The Bills have the longest playoff-less streak in the league at 14 seasons, and fans weren't so much stunned by the Chiefs' comeback as they were resigned to its dreaded familiarity. The stakes of this game felt strangely like those of a postseason matchup, strangely because it is still so early in November, and because the field is so crowded that nearly every AFC game right now will seemingly have playoff implications. The Chiefs and Bills, who both started the day 5-3, are two of 11 AFC teams clogging the standings above .500, muddying a playoff picture that has grown more complicated each week.

Kansas City lauded the Bills' front four as one of the top two it has faced this season. That Bills defensive front will be responsible for keeping Buffalo in the playoff race Thursday night when the Bills go to Miami, who lost to the Lions on Sunday and also lost left tackle Branden Albert to injury. The AFC North is the first division in which every team is at least two games above .500 at any point in the season since 1935. With the Browns unexpectedly leading the group after dominating the Bengals on Thursday night, the Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins and a few others are realistically fighting for just one wild-card spot, presuming the other will go to a team out of the North.

The Chiefs have now piled up victories against three potential foes for that berth: the Bills, Dolphins and Chargers. This is important fodder for them because their season-opening loss to Tennessee will count against them if tiebreakers are needed to determine playoff eligibility. As the Chiefs improved their position Sunday, they may have accomplished something nearly as critical: proving to themselves that their playoff outcome might be different this time.

"You're not going to play games where you're always going to have success and things are always going well," Smith said. "I thought our guys handled it well. We came in at halftime and there wasn't any panic. We all knew we were one play away from changing the game.

"Sometimes they're like that. I think these wins are different, for sure. It's a different kind of confidence you get when you win games like this."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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