HOUSTON -- The most memorable image of the Kansas City Chiefs' first playoff win in 22 years wasn't that of beaming players racing off the field with their fists pumping. It was injured wide receiver Jeremy Maclin gingerly walking through a cramped locker room minutes later. He'd been a huge part of everything the Chiefs already had accomplished in a crazy season. Now, there was a very real possibility he wouldn't be around to contribute for much else.
It was Maclin's story that took most of the shine off Kansas City's 30-0 win over the Houston Texans in Saturday's AFC Wild Card matchup. As much as the game was about the Chiefs trying to break a drought that extended back to the 1993 season -- Kansas City's last postseason victory came that year -- it also was about the possibilities of a team that has been red hot. The Chiefs notched their 11th straight win with this shutout, but it left plenty of questions about what it will take for that streak to go to 12.
It's usually hard to buy into such talk when star players go down this late in the season. In the case of the Chiefs, it may be worth listening closely to what they're saying. This is a team that already has fought through an endless amount of challenges this season. The potential loss of Maclin -- who energized a moribund passing attack this year with a team-high 87 receptions, 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns -- merely fits right in with a narrative the Chiefs have authored all year.
After all, nobody thought the Chiefs could recover from a knee injury that shelved Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charlesin Week 5. The same skepticism existed when Kansas City lost five straight games after a season-opening win over these same Texans. Even Berry's play this season has been miraculous on so many levels. This is a first-team All-Pro who beat cancer after being diagnosed 13 months ago.
It's fair to say the Chiefs know a few things about resilience, which was evident when Maclin crumbled to the NRG Stadium turf with 7:03 left in the third quarter. What started out as a simple 7-yard catch, ended with trainers carting Maclin, who finished with three receptions for 29 yards, to the locker room. Tears streamed down his cheeks as doctors inspected a knee that already has sustained two anterior cruciate ligament tears. His teammates responded by finishing off an 11-play, 94-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to rookie Chris Conley.
It's important to note here that Conley scored on a play that Maclin normally runs. Smith also acknowledged that Conley hadn't really had many opportunities to run that route in practice.
"That's just the makeup of the guys we have," Smith said. "We have guys who don't think twice. It's the way we go."
That mindset is critical because the Chiefs are moving into uncharted waters for most of the players on this team. Smith is the only starter who has played in a divisional playoff game, and that was when he was a member of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. The Chiefs were good enough to smash a Houston team that was seriously flawed on offense. They'll certainly face more pushback next week against either the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots.
The upside here is that the Chiefs seem to relish proving people wrong. They also have a knack for finding fill-ins who don't shrink when their opportunities arise. The loss of Charles is substantial proof of that strength. Kansas City has received significant contributions from undrafted runners Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware (who combined for 93 rushing yards against Houston), while Smith gained 498 yards on the ground this season (ranking fourth among quarterbacks).
The Chiefs will have to find similar alternatives in their passing game if Maclin can't go next weekend. He's been everything Kansas City had hoped for when the franchise signed him as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Maclin brought speed, consistency and big-play ability to a team that didn't have one wide receiver catch a touchdown pass in 2014. He basically made life easier for Smith, Charles and everybody else on the offensive side of the football.
If Maclin can't go, the Chiefs certainly will ask more of Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, who torched the Texans for eight receptions and 128 yards. Both Conley and Albert Wilson have matured as the season has gone on, so they'll have to be just as reliable moving forward. The Chiefs also can't rule out special teams contributions. They'll need more big plays like the 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown produced by Knile Davis to start this contest.
That may sound like a lot to ask for, but that's also how these Chiefs have survived thus far. They never complained about the circumstances when they were dismissed as a team going nowhere, and they aren't willing to whine today. As nose tackle Dontari Poe said, "(This shutout) says a lot. It says a lot about our defense. It says a lot about our team. Just keep fighting no matter what the clock says or what the score is. Just keep playing."
The Chiefs will be the first to say there has been a blessing in the way their season began. They've been in playoff mode for most of the last two months while fully aware that one simple mistake could destroy their season. In the days leading up to this game, middle linebacker Derrick Johnson described it as "playing with blinders on." Alex Smith relied on a more commonly used phrase that appears at this time of year, saying, "that there is no tomorrow."
It really doesn't matter how the Chiefs choose to assess their situation. They knew they had problems months ago and they found solutions to them each week. They know Maclin's prognosis could be bleak but they'll cope with that as well. They learned a long time ago not to worry about such matters. Consternation isn't something that will help them win games in this league.
That focus may end up being the biggest strength of a Chiefs team that probably still doesn't get the respect it deserves. They've won 11 straight games by beating the odds, overcoming adversity and believing in themselves when all seemed lost. That approach turned them into a serious postseason contender that literally came out of nowhere. It also could be good enough to get them through their toughest challenge yet.