When indispensable star running back Jamaal Charles was waylaid by a season-ending knee injury and the Chiefs tumbled to 1-4 on Oct. 11 against Chicago, well, that surely was about it for the 2015 campaign.
Their presumed fate was only reinforced by a slapstick-laden loss a week later at Minnesota, framed by offensive lineman Donald Stephenson barging into Charles’ previously anonymous replacement, Charcandrick West, to force a fumble.
That all seemed light years ago by Saturday, when the Chiefs steamrolled Houston 30-0 to extend their winning streak to 11 games.
The most lopsided postseason win in franchise history was a proper exorcism for a 22-year playoff victory drought.
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But the win was forged on the particular resilience of this team, which lost another seemingly indispensable force, receiver Jeremy Maclin, for the game — and who knows how long from here? — to a right knee injury.
Maclin, who declined comment after the game, was walking gingerly in the locker room afterward and is scheduled to undergo an MRI today.
His presence this season has changed the dynamics of the offense, as much in terms of the fire he has added as the skills.
“It’s not just … his physical talents,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “I think he rubs off on everybody, the competitor that he is, what he brings on game day, that energy. I think everybody kind of feeds off that.”
So what happens from here with Maclin, who this season set a team regular-season receivers record with 87 catches, is anyone’s guess as of late Saturday night.
And replacing him wouldn’t be simple.
“We’ve got capable players,” said receiver Jason Avant, who also was Maclin’s teammate in Philadelphia. “But there’s no substitute for Jeremy Maclin.”
But what happened in the moment of his injury also offered some hope and was a reflection of the makeup of this team.
It just keeps cobbling together a way to win even without superstar Charles, despite an offensive line that has been in constant flux with injuries and being without key defenders Justin Houston and Husain Abdullah for the previous five games.
“I don’t think anybody blinked because we’ve been doing that for a while now,” Smith said, adding, “All that stuff stays with you. I think you get confidence from” it.
In the latest testimony, the Chiefs led just 13-0 and were facing third and 3 at their own 45 when Maclin had to be helped off after landing awkwardly on a 7-yard reception.
On the same play, incidentally, monstrous Houston defensive end J.J. Watt also was injured, not to return.
There are any number of pivot points in any game, of course, but this certainly was among them.
Never mind that seemingly comfortable lead … as any Chiefs fan knows after the unthinkable second-half collapse in the playoffs against Indianapolis with a 38-10 lead two years ago.
Even if Houston quarterback Brian Hoyer seemed incapable of doing anything right, one Texans score would have changed the complexion of the game.
Conscious as the Chiefs were of Maclin’s injury, and his absence, even as Maclin appeared in tears and was being helped onto a cart to leave the sideline, they were instantly back in gear with Smith’s 16-yard pass to Travis Kelce.
Perhaps the truest measure of their singular concentration, though, came four plays later when Smith found rookie Chris Conley in the back of the end zone between defenders for a 9-yard TD.
Conley was assuming the role of Maclin on the play, so much so that he actually said, “That play call wasn’t for me.”
As it happens, Smith and Conley never had even worked the play together at full speed before.
“Those are all Jeremy’s looks,” Smith said.
“Luckily,” Conley would say, they were both on the same page with Smith essentially threading a needle throwing to a spot Conley happened to arrive in.
“The windows in this league are very small,” Conley said. “Being open doesn’t have to be wide open. You’ve got to throw the ball, and you’ve got to trust.”
Because they hadn’t done this before, though, there was a leap of faith in this trust from Smith to Conley, a promising talent who had just 17 catches in the regular season as he learns the complicated offense.
About in one breath afterward, Smith linked it all together: from Maclin’s infectious influence, to the prevailing approach of this team to Conley’s own ownership of the moment.
“Obviously, you never want to see somebody go down; we know how much Jeremy means to us,” Smith said. “It’s just kind of the mentality (of the team), though …
“Chris has just stayed ready. He works hard. He stays after every day at practice, just working, staying ready. That kind of guy. …
“For him to come in and not even blink and make the catch like he did, it says a lot about the entire group.”
So now the entire group can hope for the best but has to prepare for the worst with Maclin, who has had two major surgeries on the same knee and come back remarkably each time.
Nothing will get easier if they are without him, of course.
But this season, and Saturday in particular, is here to tell you that you count this team out at your own folly — a trait at least partly infused in them by Maclin.
“I think we all try to pick it up and keep that,” Smith said. “He has kind of brought that with him, just playing with that kind of edge all game … That kind of rubs off on everybody.”