KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Of all the positives that emerged for the Kansas City Chiefs in their 30-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the most critical involved the emphatic return to form of cornerback Marcus Peters. He picked off passes in crucial situations. He stripped the football away from one receiver and helped shut down plenty of others. This was the man the Chiefs had been waiting to see all season, one who gave this team one more reason to dream even bigger about its postseason possibilities.
It clearly wasn't lost on Peters that he was playing the most important game in his three years with this franchise. He missed last week's victory over the Oakland Raiders, serving a one-game suspension for launching an official's penalty flag into the stands during a 38-31 loss to the New York Jets. The Chiefs responded to his absence by playing their best defensive game in weeks. In doing so, they resembled a team that didn't need a two-time All-Pro cornerback as much as some initially believed.
Peters effectively reminded people Saturday of why he's so important. He finished the game with two interceptions, three pass deflections and a forced fumble. Even though Peters didn't speak after the contest, his performance said plenty about where his head is at today.
It's not a stretch to say Peters helped elevate the Chiefs to an entirely different level of playoff contender on Saturday night. Kansas City recently had rediscovered its offensive explosiveness (with the decision by head coach Andy Reid to cede play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy) and also recommitted itself to its long-lost running game (as rookie Kareem Hunt surpassed the 100-yard mark for the second straight week, with 155 yards on 24 carries). What it hadn't done was provide enough evidence that the defense could be counted on as a difference-maker in clutch moments. Its best efforts had come mainly against offenses either plagued by injury, ineptitude or both.
The performance Peters produced is solid proof that the Chiefs defense can step up when necessary. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers came into Saturday's game riding a three-game stretch where he'd thrown for 1,097 yards with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. He wound up completing 55.5 percent of his passes with three interceptions against Kansas City. Peters was the chief reason why the Chargers signal-caller suffered through such a tough night.
Peters' first interception came after Rivers floated an ill-advised pass into coverage. Peters picked off the ball at his own 32-yard line and returned it to the Chargers' 6-yard line to set up a 24-yard field goal by Harrison Butker. Peters then stripped Chargers running back Austin Ekeler on the next possession, creating a fumble that Chiefs safety Ron Parker recovered and returned to the Chiefs' 44-yard line. That turnover led to a 51-yard field goal by Butker.
Peters ended his night with one more theft, this one just after the two-minute warning when he darted in front of another Rivers' throw at the Chiefs' 44-yard line. This is what great players do -- they deliver when it matters most.
"Definitely not surprised," said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith when asked about the performance Peters produced. "He's such a competitor on top of the kind of player he is. He has amazing ability. He has great eyes and such a feel for the game. The plays he makes -- we've been going against that [in practice] for a few years now."
"He's a good player so every snap to him is the last snap," Reid added. "That's how he plays the game. He's always impressive in his play. So this wasn't different. I don't think he was trying to prove anything [after the suspension]."
Reid's decision to punish Peters might end up being one of the key junctures in a Chiefs season that has been a full-fledged roller coaster. Peters' meltdown against the Jets was, for many, the truest indication of how far Kansas City had fallen. The same team that had started the season with five straight wins somehow managed to lose six of its next seven. When Peters threw that penalty flag into the stands in New York -- and had a verbal altercation with a coach after that loss to the Jets -- it served as ample evidence that the Chiefs had struck rock bottom.
Peters always has been combustible. The emotion he brings to the game is what helps him play at such a high level in the first place. The problem is that this year has been filled with too many moments when his high-strung personality has gotten the best of him. He's yelled at fans in the stands, his defensive coordinator on the sideline and been hit with enough unsportsmanlike conduct penalties to give his biggest critics enough ammunition to label him as a problem child.
Peters always had the numbers to back up the assertion that it was worth waiting for him to push through such growing pains. However, the same player who intercepted 14 passes in his first two seasons wasn't nearly as productive earlier this year. Opposing quarterbacks weren't as fearful of throwing in his direction -- even though he had three interceptions prior to Saturday -- and his willingness to avoid tackling was becoming a running joke. All that suspension did was create a debate that seemed laughable when the season began, one that centered around the possibility that the Chiefs' star cornerback might be playing his way out of town.
That is one that can be put to rest today. There's a big difference between being immature and being incorrigible and Peters is far from being the epitome of a bad guy. Too many teammates have spoken up for him and his biggest issue is that he's not growing up fast enough to control his emotions.
"He's a young talent, Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back and one of the leaders on this team, especially on defense," said Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis. "It definitely hurt him (to be suspended). But at the same time, it's great to have him back and making the plays that we know he's capable of making."
It's even more important that Peters is making these plays at this time of year. The Chiefs' win over the Chargers now gives them a sizable advantage in the AFC West race. Only two games remain and Kansas City, now 8-6, holds a one-game lead over Los Angeles. If the Chiefs win one of those last two contests, they will clinch the division title.
That's a nice reward for a team that has been through so many highs and lows this season. It's also fitting that Peters has gotten his groove back as his squad tries to win consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history. He's been a big part of the success the Chiefs have enjoyed the last two years. He'll also be even more vital to anything they hope to accomplish in the near future.