As he anticipated the return to full-go of teammates such as linebacker Dee Ford and receiver Jeremy Maclin, linebacker Derrick Johnson figured this Chiefs team was morphing into the most complete one he’d known since joining the franchise in 2005.
In what would ultimately become a momentous 21-13 win over the Raiders on Thursday at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs looked like every bit of that for the first 25 minutes-plus …
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That is, before they found themselves hanging on by a strand, again, at the end of a pendulum-swinging night that has emerged as their nature.
It was a night that reminds you they are greater than the sum of their considerable parts — even if they are determined to make you sweat and fret all the way.
This time, instead of needing an insane late rally, the Chiefs had seized a 21-3 lead over AFC West-leading Oakland after Tyreek Hill responded to thunderous chants of his first name with a 78-yard punt return.
Into the Raiders’ last drive of the half, the defense had stifled them to just 33 yards of offense and one first down.
Then the complexion of the game, and the completeness of the team at least for the night and perhaps for the season, changed instantly when Johnson abruptly went down without contact as he suffered a left Achilles’ tendon injury.
Johnson could put no weight on that foot as he was helped off the field, done for the game and for the foreseeable future with a rupture.
And as a hush came over Arrowhead, a demoralized defense sagged and the Raiders made a game of it with a 92-yard touchdown drive before the half.
And with that you have a microcosm of the night and the season, even, one in which the Chiefs (10-3) seem on the very verge of something special but again and again are forced to take detours — or create entirely new paths — to get there.
Their mojo is their modus operandi, which is at once exhilarating and inspiring and exhausting and simultaneously leaves you incredibly hopeful but anxiety-ridden.
Without Johnson, one of their linchpins and best run-defender, the Chiefs had more trouble containing the Raiders, who had 17 first downs with him out of the game.
If he is indeed absent down the stretch, the Chiefs will severely miss his dynamic leadership and uncanny feel for the flow of a play — which accounts some for why Latavius Murray rushed for 19 yards with Johnson in the game and 84 with him out.
Then again, the defense still held Oakland to 13 points and 244 yards overall.
And it still bristled when it had to after two startling turnovers by Alex Smith, who in keeping with the theme here was special in the first half and error-prone in the second. Smith completed 16 of 22 passes for 202 yards in the first 30 minutes on this frigid, windy night at Arrowhead.
His play was highlighted by a 39-yard pass to Chris Conley, an absolutely perfectly feathered 36-yard TD pass to Hill and a nimble tap-dance at the very line of scrimmage to hit Conley.
This was everything you might want in a quarterback you hope can take you deep into the playoffs.
Then came the second half, when Smith promptly was intercepted by T.J. Carrie on a ball that looked intended for … Carrie.
Now, what actually happened was that Smith seemed to have a miscommunication with Maclin on the pattern, something that’s happened a few times this season and perhaps was understandable with Maclin playing his first game in weeks.
But then Smith fumbled on the Chiefs’ very next play from scrimmage, evidently with no sense at all of Khalil Mack barging in from behind him to knock it loose … and you could only think how this whole enterprise looks vulnerable with mistakes like that.
You could look at other segments of this game and be left with the same conflicting feelings, of course.
The Chiefs continue to sputter running the ball lately, with Spencer Ware only able to muster 56 yards on 20 carries with a long of 8 against a team that was ranked 29th in rushing defense … gave up 212 yards on 30 carries a week ago against Buffalo … and against which Ware led the way as the Chiefs amassed a season-high 183 yards on 40 carries in their first meeting.
Just the same, if you apply the best-known Rorschach test to this team, what you should see is not the old woman but the young lady … warts and all.
These Chiefs are more of a resourceful, resilient team than a complete one, after all, but there is a beauty to that all its own … and one that has no ceiling on it no matter how hard they make it look.