Before he took the field with his teammates for a potentially season-shaping 33-3 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Chiefs safety Eric Berry stood before his teammates with a message to deliver.
The Chiefs had been through a lot over the last few months, including the loss of Jamaal Charles, their best offensive player, amid a miserable 1-5 start. But they never turned on each other, never gave up, and now here they stood, with a chance to do something special — to somehow pull to .500, win their fourth straight game and prove something to everyone who wrote them off long ago.
It was, Berry told them, the kind of moment he worked so hard this offseason to experience with his teammates once again after his diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma late last year.
“My thing was that I was going to do whatever I could in my power and in my control to get back to this point and to be back with my teammates,” said Berry, who fast-tracked his cancer recovery this offseason. “I told them before the game that I put my life on the line to be here with you all, and you helped me get here to this point.
“To me, it’s not a game. It’s bigger than that.”
The goal for Berry has always been to win the Super Bowl, but the playoffs come first, and five weeks ago, even that looked bleak.
But on Sunday, the Chiefs took a huge step toward completing their improbable comeback from the NFL depths, thanks in large part to a stifling, ascending defense that flaunted its wares before a crowd of 65,837 at Qualcomm Stadium.
“When we play like this, it doesn’t matter who we play against — we’re unstoppable,” defensive end Mike DeVito said. “With the way our schedule has been … we’ve been in playoff mode for the last three or four weeks.”
For the Chiefs, the beauty of the victory is it had little to do with the performance of the hapless Chargers, who dropped to 2-8.
Instead, it was about a win that not only improved their record to 5-5, but also reinforced their belief that sticking together through the tough times — and not turning on each other — would ultimately pay off in the form of a reward.
“I’m going to tell you I’m proud of the guys for the character they have,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Very easily, they could have gone the other way — coach and players for that matter — and they didn’t do that.”
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith agreed, and noted that he’s been on teams that went the opposite way the Chiefs did after a poor start.
“(At 1-5), it’s dark and things can turn easily,” Smith said. “It’s easy to look around, point fingers and make excuses … credit to the character we have in the locker room and the leaders we have, not letting it go to that kind of place and being able to climb our way out.”
Smith also credited the coaching staff for keeping the team together, while outside linebacker Justin Houston noted that the Chiefs consider themselves to be a family.
“A season has its ups and downs, but we never turned out backs on each other and started pointing fingers,” Houston said. “That’s when bad stuff starts happening.”
On Sunday, however, they were rarely tested in that manner, as this one was pretty much all Chiefs from the start. On the second play of their second offensive drive, Smith connected with running back Charcandrick West on an angle route over the middle. It was the same route by West that went for 80 yards and a touchdown last week against Denver, but this one only went for 47 yards.
Nevertheless, the completion not only gave Smith the new club record for most passing attempts without an interception — it would grow to 253 by the end of the game — it also set up one of the sights of the season, a 1-yard touchdown run by 346-pound nose tackle Dontari Poe — that’s right, Poe — on fourth and goal at the Chargers’ 1.
The ensuing extra point sailed through the uprights, but it was wiped off the board following a 10-yard penalty on Travis Kelce for illegal use of hands. The next extra point — which was from 43 yards away — sailed wide left.
It was one of the only things that went wrong for the Chiefs all day. After the teams exchanged field goals, Smith guided the Chiefs on another scoring march to end the first half. A 12-yard touchdown throw to Kelce was overruled — he didn’t catch the pass — and the Chiefs ultimately settled for another field goal.
The kick gave the Chiefs a 12-3 lead they would only build on in the second half, when Houston intercepted a Philip Rivers pass intended for running back Danny Woodhead and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown — the second interception and first touchdown of Houston’s career.
With the Chargers’ offense helpless — Rivers, the league’s second-leading passer, completed 19 of 30 passes for a season-low 178 yards, and running back Melvin Gordon only had 37 yards rushing — the Chiefs continued to pour it on. After West left the game because of a hamstring injury, his replacement, Spencer Ware scored twice, pushing the Chiefs to a 30-point advantage.
The win sets up a big game against the Buffalo Bills, 5-4, next Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Bills, who play the undefeated New England Patriots on Monday, are in the thick of the wild-card race, just like the Chiefs. That said, the game could have tie-breaker implications, something that seemed so improbable only five short weeks ago.
But they stuck together, and now, the Chiefs’ 2015 campaign has essentially turned into a six-game season, five of which come against teams that currently have losing records.
What’s more, four of those games will be at Arrowhead Stadium, and the one on Dec. 13 will be against the Chargers, the team they handled thoroughly Sunday.
But the Chiefs aren’t getting ahead of themselves. Just like Berry fought his way back from cancer by taking it one day at a time, the Chiefs fought their way back from the abyss of 1-5 by doing the same.
The “one-day-at-a-time” adage might be a cliche, but in many ways, it’s the secret to winning, one the Chiefs have embraced wholeheartedly — along with sticking together, of course.
“Five and five, obviously, is not the goal,” Berry said. “But we have our goals set and we know what mission we are on, so we’ve got to keep striving for that.”