Sam Mellinger

Jamaal Charles’ return, blowout of Patriots change everything for Chiefs

Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrated a touchdown by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the 41-14 win over the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. on Monday night, September 29, 2014.
Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrated a touchdown by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the 41-14 win over the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. on Monday night, September 29, 2014. The Kansas City Star

The night that changed the season came out like a fist fight and ended like a party. The NFL changes fast, faster than any of our other sports, but even by those standards this was a bolt of lightning.

Hard to believe that the last time the Chiefs played here they were embarrassed by the Titans. Did that really happen? Was this the team that lost its last four at Arrowhead Stadium?

The Chiefs emasculated the Patriots 41-14 in front of a national audience on “Monday Night Football.” If this ends up as the season the Patriots fall from the top of the sport, their tumble will be marked by this uncompetitive blowout loss.

But more relevant here, this has the feel of the night that everything changed for the Chiefs, and that’s being written by the dummy who wrote off their playoff chances last week. One of the greatest sports weeks in Kansas City history is off to a make-believe start, and if they’re smart, those guys from Guinness who measured another “world record” decibel reading at Arrowhead will be on the other side of the parking lot for the Royals’ playoff game on Tuesday.

You couldn’t have imagined a night like this, the Chiefs shaming Bill Belichick and Tom Brady into what for them is a historic loss. Not after being blown out by the Titans the last time they played here. This is a remarkable progression. In the opener, they were as bad as they ever were in 2012. Against the Patriots, the Chiefs were better than they ever were last season.

“Coach Reid, he’s been doing this a long time,” Jamaal Charles says. “Since I was probably a little kid. He knows how to control the game.”

Andy Reid, predictably, is acts allergic to taking credit. He wanted the blame after the Titans game, and shoved the credit on Monday to his coaches and players.

There are some tangible differences we can point to about the Chiefs’ improvement. More creative play-calling. A better feel for when and how to use three tight ends at once. A new complement with Charles and Knile Davis, who has now rushed for 239 yards the last two weeks.

But going forward, for the Chiefs, the most important part may have been the referees putting their arms straight into the air as the guy who’s supposed to be a track star freight trains another linebacker at the goal line.

Charles comes out of the pile and the crowd explodes like it hasn’t since last season. This is a sight they haven’t seen since December, Charles wiping down his uniform and shoes after a touchdown. They got to see it two more times, the full return of an irreplaceable star.

Charles suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the week two loss at Denver. Charles nearly played last week and got the ball on four of the Chiefs’ first five plays against New England. No two injuries are the same, and Charles’ toughness is an increasingly acknowledged part of his value, but high-ankle sprains are supposed to be at least four-week injuries. Charles missed one game.

Especially with Derrick Johnson out for the season, and Eric Berry missing his second straight game because of an injury, Charles is the guy the Chiefs count on more than anyone else. There is something reassuring for the Chiefs when Charles wipes it down. He is their best and most important player, but that’s probably an inadequate way to describe it.

He is a beloved teammate, a relentless worker and a superstar with a practice squad player’s ego. The Chiefs took Denver to the last play and won at Miami without Charles, but he remains the biggest key to the Chiefs’ encore of last year’s playoff run.

A brief reminder of his importance came after his third touchdown, when he sprung off his right leg into the end zone and then grabbed at his hamstring. Charles didn’t let that stop him from celebrating, but you could feel the anxiety when he limped off the field and back to the locker room. The injury turned out to be a blip, Charles returned, and the party resumed.

Briefly, the fans here spent a break in the action chanting “Let’s Go Royals!”

These are strange, strange days here in Kansas City.

The best part of this Chiefs team is that it has made significant improvements each week. Some of that is the low standard set in the opener, but most of it is a very good coaching staff finding its groove. It’s one thing to gameplan against holes with the Dolphins. It’s quite another to do it against Belichick and the Patriots.

“I don’t think there’s any secret,” quarterback Alex Smith says. “Just work. Working at it. There’s been progress every game of the season. There’s been a step every single week, and that’s what you hope to have.”

The Chiefs have started 2-1 in what figured to be a killer five-game stretch through Denver, Miami, the Patriots at home and then games at San Francisco and San Diego. The optics of that stretch are so different now, injuries be darned.

We’re all used to quick and sweeping changes in the NFL, but even so, this is a wild first four weeks for the Chiefs. This may very well be the best game the Chiefs play all year. This would be the best game all year for a lot of teams.

This would be the best game all year for some playoff teams.

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

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