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Chiefs' defense plays starring role in dominant playoff victory

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This wasn't the script that anybody expected to play out inside Arrowhead Stadium. If the Kansas City Chiefs were going to claim their first home playoff win in 25 years, it was supposed to be star quarterback Patrick Mahomes receiving the bulk of the credit in the end. A Chiefs defense that had been feeble and frustrating all season was an unlikely candidate to play a starring role. Yet that is exactly what happened Saturday, which means the rest of the AFC should be on notice.

The Chiefs' 31-13 Divisional Round win over the Indianapolis Colts was the kind of victory this team needed. Nobody doubted Kansas City would score points in the postseason, not with Mahomes and the league's best offense benefitting from a first-round bye. The real question was whether the Chiefs' defense would eventually ruin all the optimism that had been building around a team that earned the top seed in the AFC playoffs. That unit finished the regular season ranked 31st in yards allowed and 24th in points per game.

There was little reason to believe in Kansas City's defense until this contest began. Now there's plenty to like about this bunch, especially since the Chiefs just dominated a team that had won 10 of its last 11 games.

"The key was getting pressure on that monster they have at quarterback (Andrew Luck) and not letting them run the ball," said Chiefs inside linebacker Reggie Ragland. "We did a good job of just playing good, solid defense and just playing ball. Finally, it's all coming together for us."

Ragland's sense of relief shouldn't be underestimated. The Chiefs have struggled to stop the run and the pass during most of this season, and they've played almost the entire year without star safety Eric Berry, who didn't suit up in this game. Kansas City had been especially underwhelming when facing Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. In six games against players of that stature -- a group that included Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Jared Goff and Russell Wilson -- they had allowed an average of 38 points per game.

That same defense wasn't on the field against Indianapolis. The unit that showed up Saturday didn't care about the 200 rushing yards the Colts gained in a wild-card win over Houston, and they weren't awed by Luck or an offensive line that has quickly earned a reputation as the best in the NFL. The Chiefs believed they could produce a better defensive performance than anyone had seen from them all season. It was just a matter of everything coming together at the right time.

The Colts -- the best team in the league on third down -- finished the game with no third-down conversions in nine attempts. They gained just 263 total yards, including a paltry 91 yards in the first half. As for that dominant offensive line, the unit that was capable of controlling tempo and helping the Colts chew up clock, it helped Indianapolis hold the ball for all of 20 minutes, 11 seconds. In other words, it was like the Colts suddenly found themselves fighting for points against the '85 Chicago Bears.

The Chiefs say there were no secrets to their success. It just came down to their collective attitude.

"It's the approach we were taking out there," said inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens. "It's not about the stuff that coach (defensive coordinator Bob Sutton) is calling. It's not about what we're doing. It's how we're doing it. We're playing with aggressiveness. We're having fun. We're jumping around. It's just a different type of vibe from our defense. It's never too late and we caught on at the right time."

"We just played hard," added cornerback Kendall Fuller. "Everybody locked in on the little things and took care of the little details. One thing that Eric Berry told us when we came to the sidelines was that everybody was playing inspired football. Everybody was flying around and celebrating and having fun. That's what we we're doing and that's what we need going forward."

The Chiefs really couldn't pin down exactly when their change in attitude happened. They've had a strong pass rush all season, so good in fact that they tied Pittsburgh with a league-high 52 sacks. What they lacked, however, was consistent tackling, reliable coverage and a penchant for getting off the field in a timely fashion. None of those issues emerged during this win over Indianapolis.

Some of that newfound success can be traced to Sutton's willingness to change his personnel, as younger players like cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Jordan Lucas have brought more athleticism to the secondary. More of the Chiefs' brilliance is also the direct result of returning to a dependable formula. Kansas City was most dangerous this season when its offense raced out to early leads and allowed the defense to settle in to a comfort zone. That's exactly what happened Saturday, as Mahomes, who finished with 278 passing yards and no touchdowns, led his team to a 17-0 advantage before the Colts ever crossed midfield.

The question now is whether Kansas City can keep this type of defense rolling as it heads toward the AFC Championship Game. They'll either see the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Chargers, both of whom beat the Chiefs with stellar quarterback play. Brady threw for 340 yards and a touchdown in New England's 43-40 win, while Rivers led the Chargers to a 29-28 win in Arrowhead Stadium after his team trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter. But the defense that faced those squads wasn't nearly as confident as the one Kansas City fields now.

The Chiefs didn't even spend much time celebrating the fact that this is Kansas City's first playoff win since the 1993 season. As Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones noted, "This is a new era. It's a new team, new mindset and we're changing the culture here."

Added Ragland: "That stuff happened in past years. We have to worry about what's ahead of us and going forward. We have Coach (Andy) Reid and we have Pat leading the way. Whatever happened in the past, damn all that. I'm going forward. Now is now. We'll take this opportunity and run with it because you don't get too many like this."

Reid reinforced that attitude as he walked toward the tunnel at the end of the game. As Chiefs fans applauded him, he held up two fingers to symbolize that Kansas City needed only two more wins to be world champions. It didn't matter much that the Chiefs already had set up their first-ever opportunity to play for the AFC title in their home stadium. Their belief is this season won't be successful unless they're bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Kansas City.

For most of this season, it's been obvious that such a goal wouldn't happen without plenty of magic from Mahomes. This season has been about his rise, his brilliance and the incredibly bright future he's created for this franchise. After Saturday's win, it's looking like Mahomes will have a little more help in that quest for a championship. It's just that now it's finally coming from a place that nobody ever expected.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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