The complaints and concerns about Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill suddenly have been replaced by chants and cheers. The same fans who once despised his mere presence are now fighting to be heard over those who swoon over every move he makes. Basically, Hill is yet one more example of how quickly life can change in the NFL if you produce. He’s done his part to prove he can be a good citizen off the field and his team is now in first place because of what he’s done on it.
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The Chiefs’ 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders will be remembered as the game that put Kansas City in the driver’s seat to win the AFC West. Both teams now hold 10-3 records but the Chiefs own all tiebreakers after having beaten the Raiders twice this season. What the contest also did was serve as a national coming-out party for one of the most dynamic rookies in the league. If Hill hadn’t been playing, the Chiefs probably don’t win this game.
Hill scored the game’s first touchdown by catching a 36-yard pass from quarterback Alex Smith in the second quarter. He also gave the Chiefs a 21-3 lead a few minutes later with a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. None of this, by the way, is anything new to people who’ve followed this team or even a surprise to Hill. As he said after Thursdays game, “I put the work in during the offseason. I guess it’s all falling into place.”
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Most of the work Hill put in before this season involved rehabilitating his tainted image. He was easily the most controversial player drafted by the Chiefs during the tenure of coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, largely because of a domestic violence conviction that resulted in his dismissal from Oklahoma State. When Kansas City selected Hill in the fifth round of this year’s draft (he finished his career at West Alabama), there were plenty of people who bashed the pick as insensitive for one main reason: This was the same franchise that watched former linebacker Jovan Belcher kill his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then himself during the 2012 season.
The criticism then was that Reid and Dorsey cared too much about physical ability instead of ethics. The reality is they felt comfortable enough with Hill to give him a second chance, and he’s made good on their faith so far. The Chiefs knew Hill could impact their return game because he ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. What’s been more startling is how quickly he’s changed the complexion of their offense.
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This unit used to be known mainly as one built around conservatism: Reid called games with an eye toward controlling tempo while Smith managed the action with a reluctance to take chances. Now the 5-foot-10, 185-pound athlete is being asked to out-jump defensive backs for acrobatic catches. He’s also becoming a fearless runner on reverses and a dangerous deep threat that puts even more pressure on opposing secondaries. Let’s also not forget about his success as a return man, as Thursday’s score marked the second time in the last three games that he produced a return for a touchdown (he had an 86-yard kick return against Denver in a win that also saw him add a receiving and rushing touchdown).
When Derek Carr’s MVP campaign ultimately falls short, he can point to his two back-breaking performances versus his division rival. The prediction in Kansas City this week, per NFL Network’s James Palmer, was that Carr’s fractured pinky finger would be stiff and painful in the elements. That certainly seemed to be the case, even if Carr downplayed the notion after the game. He took all of his snaps from the shotgun formation, misfired on basic throws, failed to generate his usual velocity on a few deeper passes and showed a disturbing penchant for dumping off short of the sticks on third downs. Carr finished the night averaging a minuscule 2.85 yards on 41 attempts, the second-lowest figure in the Super Bowl era by a quarterback with 40 or more throws.
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Speaking of playmakers, it took Jeremy Maclin’s groin injury for the Chiefs to feature Travis Kelce as the centerpiece of their passing game. Essentially Rob Gronkowski-lite as the NFL’s premier run-after-catch threat at tight end, Kelce joined Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham as the only players at the position to reach the 100-yard mark in four consecutive games.
Kansas City’s defense is developing a reputation as an MVP killer. After safety Eric Berry turned two Matt Ryan interceptions into a game-changing nine points last week, he and his cohorts comprehensively stifled Carr’s aerial attack. The Raiders had a prime opportunity to steal the victory with three takeaways in their opponent’s territory, only to manage just six points and a scant 14 yards on those possessions. It’s worth noting that Kansas City’s defense and special teams entered the night accounting for 49.5 percent of the team’s points this season. That’s a higher mark than the 1985 Bears (42.1), 2000 Ravens (46.5), 2002 Buccaneers (48.6) and 2015 Broncos (45.9) — regarded as the greatest defenses of the past four decades.
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On a more disappointing note, leading tackler Derrick Johnson ruptured his Achilles tendon for the second time in three years. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Johnson has been one of the league’s premier inside linebackers for the past half-decade.
Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack’s strip of Smith gave him a sack for an eighth consecutive game — the longest active streak in the league and tied for longest in Raiders history. Over the last six games, Mack has terrorized opposing offensive lines for eight sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, a touchdown and an interception. As transcendent as Mack has been of late, the rest of the defense looms as a stumbling block in the postseason. The Raiders entered the game allowing 6.2 yards per play, not just the most generous figure in the league but also the highest in franchise history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a system quarterback like Smith sliced and diced this secondary in his most aggressive performance of the season.