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The formula: Why this Kansas City Chiefs team is different

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SAN DIEGO -- "We're focused on what's next."

Safety Eric Berry slid out of the first Chiefs locker room to win a division championship since his rookie season of 2010 nonplussed. He's been to the playoffs three times before. This group won a playoff game together last season. Sunday's 37-27 victory over the Chargers, which helped clinch a bye and the No. 2 seed in the AFC, was an example of why this Chiefs group can accomplish so much more.

In this Any Given Sunday league, the Chiefs put out nearly the same product every weekend. They have a proven formula, one that makes them one of only three legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, along with New England and Pittsburgh.

Week after week, they win the turnover margin. They get big plays from their secondary. Andy Reid cooks up creative plays that get his playmakers shockingly open. And then Tyreek Hill does the rest.

"The formula isn't that hard," said longtime Chiefs defensive end Tamba Hali. "We have to win all three phases. We don't have one of those teams where we're just going to dominate on offense. When you have guys that want to put everything into winning special teams, winning offense and winning defense, we are really hard to beat."

The team's 23-5 record since mid-October last season (including playoffs) proves Hali's point. The Chiefs are coaching cliches come to life. They truly do get massive contributions from each phase, and they rarely beat themselves. Perhaps this bye, secured by the combination of the Chiefs win and Oakland's loss in Denver on Sunday, will help shine a light on what makes this oft-ignored group so special this season. And it starts with Hill.

The X-factor

Hill has put this team over the top. His 95-yard punt return touchdown against the Chargers made this the fourth straight game in which he scored a touchdown over 60 yards. He's the first player to do that since the Chiefs' Dante Hall in 2003, not coincidentally the last year this organization had a bye.

Anyone looking for reasons why the 2016 Chiefs can go further than last year's team, which lost in the Divisional Round to New England, should start with Hill.

"I've never seen a guy like that," Hali said.

Hali is usually looking at defensive play cutups when Hill is returning punts. Then he gets interrupted.

"You hear the crowd noise, and you look up, and he's just doing something special. He's inhuman," Hali said. "If I could do anything for that kid, I would."

Hill's speed and ability to make other professionals look slow and fearful pops off the field, even from the press box. I've never seen a guy like that, either. He added 61 yards from scrimmage, and every touch had a moment when I thought he might go all the way.

Berry called Hill the team's X-factor. When asked to explain, Berry just shook his head and laughed.

"You've seen the film."

Hill seemed almost embarrassed by how easy he's made it look to score 12 touchdowns as a rookie. He said his No. 1 moment as a pro remains simply lining up next to guys like Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce in OTAs for the first time, hardly believing he'd made it this far. He lauded Maclin for teaching him how to slow down.

"I'm used to going full speed every play," Hill said. "In this league you have to know how to work at a working speed."

If Hill has another gear, he may be the living embodiment of Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson. He couldn't explain how it feels to go faster than his competitors, admitting he only knows he's faster when he watches on film. He insists he won't feel the pressure to keep delivering the impossible.

"No pressure, man. I'm just going to keep doing like I do," Hill said. "If it pops, it pops."

Like the rest of the Chiefs' offense of late, it's been popping.

Offensive play-calling

The second part of the Chiefs' formula starts with coach Andy Reid. He is on a roll as a play-caller, dialing up a dizzying amount of formations and plays each week to incredible effect. This is not a boring group, despite quarterback Alex Smith's reputation. Travis Kelce has emerged as the best tight end in football, with Rob Gronkowski injured. Jeremy Maclin, who has battled injuries this season, looked good Sunday winning one-on-one matchups against Pro Bowl Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward.

Reid has a reputation for getting too cute. On Sunday, when Kelce was asked about a terrific block that he made on Smith's rushing touchdown, Kelce noted that it was the exact same play that sprung Smith for a touchdown last week. Reid is sticking with what works.

"Coach Reid is always going to dial the right plays up. He's a guru," Kelce said.

This offense is just now hitting its stride. After a sluggish start to the season, the Chiefs were third among all teams in yards per play over the last four games entering Week 17. Their performance Sunday was a master class in efficiency. Kansas City scored on six of seven possessions with Smith in the game. The only Chargers defensive stop in that stretch came after a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage in the red zone. Otherwise, the offense threw a near-perfect game.

"I'm pretty sure we can match any team in the league with offensive weapons," Kelce said after the game.

While we'd put Atlanta, Oakland and Dallas among the teams with more firepower, the boast is no longer that ridiculous. It speaks to how this team has evolved under Reid. Sunday's 37-point explosion came without starting running back Spencer Ware, not to mention all-time great Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles.

The key for the Chiefs: Their playmakers are spread throughout the roster.

Secondary and turnover margin

Marcus Peters notched his sixth interception of the season Sunday, giving him 14 in his two NFL campaigns. It was a beautiful play where he ran a better route than the receiver he was covering. Safety Daniel Sorensen had another gorgeous pick of Philip Rivers in the end zone, diving for the ball while keeping his feet inbounds.

This is how you lead the league in takeaways and finish tied for the league lead in turnover margin at plus-16. The Chiefs give up yards, but their secondary, led by Berry, finds a way to make the highlight reel. Sorensen said the members of the secondary feed off one another. Berry echoed the sentiment.

"We play for each other. That's the biggest thing," Berry said. "We talk about that every day. ... We understand how important we are to each other. You can't do it alone out there. They (Sorensen and Peters) had opportunities today, and they did it."

Those opportunities often turn into points. The Chiefs scored eight non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most in the NFL.

This is where the "offense/defense/special teams" mantra hits home. Three separate players, unprompted, echoed Hali's sentiments about each phase playing a role. Reid would be so proud.

So why now?

The skepticism regarding the Chiefs is understandable. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger certainly cut the figure of a Super Bowl quarterback compared with Smith. But the 2015 Broncos were a reminder that it's not only about the quarterback.

It's rare that a team's vision so obviously comes to fruition on the field. General manager John Dorsey and Reid have taken four years to put this team together in their image. They have a rare combination of continuity, depth and youth.

With Justin Houston out most of the season, Hali noted that rookie Chris Jones and third-year pro Dee Ford have revitalized the team's pass rush. Hali believes Jones is the most dominant 3-technique defensive tackle the Chiefs have ever seen. ("And guys on the other side of the ball know it.")

The combination of playmakers in every phase and experience has this Chiefs team expecting more.

"There's a lot more confidence going into the playoffs this year than last year," Kelce said.

The Chiefs will get a week off and then host a Divisional Round game. Their path is far easier than it was a season ago, when they tried to win three straight on the road. That's why this result in San Diego, however important, was treated as a signpost, not a destination.

Just 30 minutes after going 6-0 in the toughest division in football, Berry was on to the next one.

"We have perspective," Berry said. "Every opportunity and every moment is vital, so [we] have to treat it that way. We're focused on preparing, and that's where our mind is right now. This is just one step."

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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