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Once again, Chiefs turn to their defense for the win

Updated: 2013-11-21T21:19:22Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— Marcus Cooper had been waiting for this all week. He knew it was coming. Or, more accurately, he hoped it would come. The Chiefs’ coaches told him that when the Titans bunched three receivers to the right side, his man was probably running an out route and this would be Cooper’s chance.

Jump the route.

Make a play.

Push this undefeated season at least one week more.

“All I know is I got my hands on it,” he says, “and I wasn’t letting go.”

For a symbol of the Chiefs’ 26-17 win over the Titans and a 5-0 start that will gain ground this week as a national talking point, you probably can’t do any better than Cooper.

He is a converted receiver added off waivers just before the roster deadline in early September, the NFL’s version of a flea market. He has already done more than anyone could’ve predicted, and made the most important play of what could be the Chiefs’ most impressive win so far with a mix of preparation, guts and strength.

Sounds a bit like the personification of the NFL’s most surprising team this year, right?

Cooper has worked himself into more snaps, and more important snaps. The Chiefs led by three with about 6 minutes left, a wild game with a thousand plays that could’ve turned the whole thing either way. Once again, the Chiefs pushed and twisted and worked a game into a place where it would be decided by defense.

Cooper seemed like as reasonable a guy as any to make the play.

If you watch the replay, you can see Akeem Jordan on the sideline with the coaches, leaping with anticipation when the ball is in the air. Jordan knew what Cooper knew. Cooper made his move, high-pointed the ball, and wrestled it away from Nate Washington — Tennessee’s leader in receiving yards.

One more time, the Chiefs put it on their defense to win a game.

One more time, the Chiefs’ defense won a game.

“We look at ourselves as the leaders of the team,” defensive end Tyson Jackson says. “Just being on the defense, period.”

It is a non-conformist approach in today’s NFL, where quarterbacks are groomed and protected and paid and worshiped. But there just aren’t many Peyton Mannings in the world, so the Chiefs are making their own way and at least for an afternoon, it helped to get some good luck along with the great defense.

The Chiefs’ first touchdown — their only touchdown, until the fourth quarter — came on a punt that deflected off a Tennessee blocker’s foot and into the end zone. Cooper was the first to the ball, grabbing it with both arms, smothering it with his body, and waiting for the officials to clear the pile.

Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who entered the week’s games tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, dropped two picks, including one he might’ve returned for a touchdown.

Of course, the Titans got a few breaks as well — Alex Smith’s interception came just after the skies opened up, which may have made the ball slick — and it’s also true that NFL teams often make their own luck. Stopping the Titans four consecutive times from the 1-yard line, for instance. And nose tackle Dontari Poe was dominant, again, forcing the Titans to limit and change their approach on offense. Besides, after the last few years, the Chiefs have earned a little good fortune.

The Chiefs’ counterculture ways are going to take up more of the national conversation this week, and as long as they remain undefeated. Say this about them, too: they’re proving themselves to be both resilient and resourceful.

Unable to create consistent pressure on Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Chiefs had to go off script in this one. Most notably, that meant coming back from their first fourth quarter deficit of the season.

The Patriots and Seahawks lost, leaving the Saints, Broncos and Chiefs as the NFL’s last unbeaten teams. The Chiefs, clearly, are the biggest surprise in that group — even as the Saints went 7-9 last year, and even as enough people picked the Chiefs as a preseason “sleeper” to make the term a misnomer.

They seem to know it, too. Walk through the locker room. You might find cornerback Sean Smith saying he knew back in OTAs that these Chiefs would be special — “You guys are finally seeing what it is,” he says — but you will also hear Dexter McCluster saying this feels like a dream and Jamaal Charles saying he’s speechless.

Five-and-oh? C’mon. You didn’t expect this. Nobody did. The Chiefs are doing this with defense and coaching and an important togetherness they lacked last year.

They entered this week 17th in offense, and basically gained their season average in yards. Recent NFL history tells us they’ll need to move the ball more than that for success in the playoffs.

But, seriously. This team won two games last year, and now we’re talking about what the playoffs might be like. The Chiefs are winning with defense in a league that favors offense, and it’s fair to wonder how far that can take them.

Also, it’s only right to celebrate it getting them to 5-0.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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