KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs wouldn’t be in the race for a first-round bye in the AFC without Patrick Mahomes, who is charting a course toward a second MVP, along with three-time All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce and a host of other big-name stars.
Nor would they have been in the mix without the unsung and overlooked.
At the top of the list is Jerick McKinnon, whose one-year deal paying him $1,272,500 was signed without fanfare — it barely merited mention most places — but has turned out to be one of the biggest steals in the NFL.
The journeyman running back has scored in four straight games with seven touchdowns over that span, including one in last week’s 24-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks that kept the Chiefs tied with Buffalo for the best record in the conference.
“Opportunity meeting preparation,” McKinnon said, by way of an explanation. “The opportunities the last couple of weeks have ramped up from the beginning of the season and I prepared myself for this. Running with the opportunities I do get and making the most out of them.”
The Chiefs hope to get 2020 first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire back from injured reserve, where he’s rehabbing a high ankle sprain. But with seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco becoming the lead back, and McKinnon playing at such a high level, the Chiefs are suddenly flush with options in the backfield.
“He’s just a true professional. He does everything the right way when he’s in the building,” Mahomes said of McKinnon.
“He’s taking care of his body every single day and he does everything — like I said, he does everything the right way. He protects well, he runs routes well, he runs the ball well. And so, we can have him in there and trust that he’s going to know exactly the protection assignment, where to be at, on time and whenever we give him the runs, he’ll make plays.”
It’s not just McKinnon, though. The Chiefs (12-3) have a multitude of players in similar positions.
Right tackle Andrew Wylie became a starter because of injuries elsewhere a handful of years ago, and he returned to Kansas City on a one-year deal paying him $2,537,500. Yet he’s been a stalwart up front for the highest-scoring offense in the league, not only protecting Mahomes but helping to turn Pacheco into a rookie sensation.
Then there’s wide receiver Justin Watson, who signed a one-year deal for $1,035,000 with no guarantee that he’d even make the team. But when injuries hit Mecole Hardman, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney at various points, Watson became a useful option that allowed the Kansas City passing game to keep on humming.
On defense, guys such as defensive tackle Brandon Williams and safety Deon Bush have made important contributions.
The Chiefs will need all of them to keep it up. The Bills hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over them with two games to go, which means Kansas City likely needs to win out and then hope someone tops Buffalo down the stretch.
Kelce had six catches for 113 yards against the Seahawks, once more proving that apparently no defense can hold him down for an entire game. Two of his catches, including a 52-yarder, came on the touchdown drive that clinched the win.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
The Chiefs were just 3 of 11 on third down against the Seahawks, which was glaring given that they trailed only Buffalo for the best conversion rate in the league. Their offense only gained 297 yards with 14 first downs in the game.
It took defensive end George Karlaftis until Week 12 to get his first full sack, but the first-round pick has now had one in four of the past five games. He also had an important pass deflection in the win over Seattle.
The Chiefs need tight ends Noah Gray and Blake Bell, who just came off injured reserve, to play a bigger role in the offense — and if nothing else, give Kelce a break. Jody Fortson had been a useful backup but is now on IR.
The Chiefs hope Hardman (abdomen) plays this week for the first time since Nov. 6. He’s practiced the past two weeks.
12 — The Chiefs have won at least 12 games in five consecutive seasons, the third-longest streak in NFL history. Only the Colts from 2003-09 and the Patriots from 2010-17 own longer streaks.
The Chiefs face the Broncos on New Year’s Day before concluding their season at Las Vegas.