Tyreek Hill becoming valuable asset for Chiefs’ playoff hopes

The complaints and concerns about Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill suddenly have been replaced by chants and cheers.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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Nike Texans #90 Jadeveon Clowney Black Men's Stitched NFL Impact Limited JerseyOn 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.

Chiefs re-sign Knile Davis, place Parker Ehinger on IR

Knile Davis is back where he belongs.

The former Chiefs running back is now the current Chiefs running back after Kansas City re-signed him to the active roster on Saturday.

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To make room for Davis, the Chiefs placed rookie guard Parker Ehinger on injured reserve with a knee injury. Ehinger has not practiced since leaving last week’s win over the Colts with the injury. Zach Fulton will likely replace him.

Davis returns to an injury-riddled Chiefs running back room. Jamaal Charles is on injured reserve and Spencer Ware is out this week with a concussion, leaving Charcandrick West, Bishop Sankey and Anthony Sherman as the only active backs on the roster.

For much of the season, Davis was the Chiefs’ fourth running back, but was traded to the Packers when Charles was 100 percent healthy — or so Kansas City thought. Davis appeared in two games in Green Bay before being waived. Davis was then briefly signed by the Jets before being waived less than one day later to make space for fellow free agent tailback C.J. Spiller.

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The absence of Jeremy Maclin has limited Kansas City’s offense in many respects, but one positive to be drawn from his hiatus is the emergence of Tyreek Hill as an offensive threat and a name-brand fireball. Hill was responsible for all three of Kansas City’s touchdowns, earning them with a reception, a rush and a punt return. The rookie’s breakaway speed was a known commodity — Hill reached a max speed of 22.77 mph on his return score, a league-best — but Hill’s catching ability and route running have improved, showing up on his game-tying receiving TD and the catch that set up Santos’ game-winning field goal. Half Dante Hall, half Dexter McCluster, Hill is a three-dimensional weapon in the making.

After a string of turnover-laden showings and sluggish offensive performances, Trevor Siemian put together his most composed game of football of the season in a big spot. Siemian recovered from a sack-heavy first half to throw three touchdowns and top 300 passing yards for the first time since Week 3.

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Nike Texans #90 Jadeveon Clowney Grey Shadow Men's Stitched NFL Elite JerseyThe first-year starter showed poise and mobility in the pocket on two plays in particular. Siemian’s escapability was on display during an impromptu spin-move away from Justin Houston and roll-out touchdown pass to Jordan Taylor in the red zone that took 9.53 seconds to fully develop. Then, deep in his own territory in the fourth, Siemian deftly moved the pocket to convert a long third down to another tight end, A.J. Derby, before launching two bombs to Emmanuel Sanders. If Siemian can perform with this confidence down the stretch, Denver won’t even need to look in Tony Romo’s direction in the offseason.

Houston, we have a pass rush. In his second game back, Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston dominated Denver’s offensive line in the first half. His three sacks of Siemian forced Denver to bench converted right tackle Ty Sambrailo in favor of Donald Stephenson in the second quarter. The result neutralized Houston’s sack surge for the remainder of the night, but the damage had been done. The sixth-year pass rusher single-handedly disrupted the Broncos’ offensive rhythm for an entire half and will be a force to be reckoned with down the stretch.

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Surprise, surprise: The Super Bowl MVP went off again. Von Miller took the league lead in sacks with 12.5 after compiling another three on Alex Smith and tallied 10 total tackles on the night. Miller has now surpassed his sack total from last year and is on pace to tie his career high (18.5). Miller and Houston’s sack six-pack made Sunday night the first game with two players with three sacks since 2013.

Phillip Gaines is going to want this game tape burned, buried and forgotten. The Chiefs cornerback surrendered 175 yards on three plays in the fourth quarter that put K.C. behind the eight ball, including two on one drive to Sanders. Down nickel back Steven Nelson, Gaines and Kenneth Acker were routinely victimized in the slot by Sanders; the former lost track of Bennie Fowler on a late-game 75-yard catch-and-run.

Kansas City Chiefs likely will pass on Nick Foles’ option

Put the key in the ignition. It’s time for some offseason quarterback news.

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According to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, the Chiefs are “likely to pass on Nick Foles’ option for 2017.” This would make the former Eagles standout and Rams bust a free agent. Garafolo added that he was due $6.4 million and not $10.4 million, which was a number previously associated with the option.

While this could theoretically spring Foles into the open market and allow him to flirt with the Jets, Bills, Bears, 49ers and Texans, it is uncertain whether or not he represents a marked upgrade. Following his miraculous Pro Bowl season in 2013, Foles has appeared in 22 games, completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 4,625 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He would be a difficult sell (right now) for any franchise promising their fans an upgrade. Of course, injuries and other outside circumstances tend to change situations quickly.

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“He’s working like the dickens to get himself ready for ’17. We’ll see what happens in March, but right now I see him as a Chief,” Dorsey said, per the Kansas City Star’s Terez Paylor.

It’s a fairly non-committal answer from Dorsey, which is understandable since he doesn’t have to make a decision in the short-term.

Charles played only eight games in the past two seasons due to knee injuries and had just 12 carries in 2016. The 30-year-old back has said he wants to remain in Kansas City, but that decision will likely come down to money.

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Nike Texans #87 C.J. Fiedorowicz White Men's Stitched NFL Elite JerseyThe Chiefs can save more than $6 million in salary-cap space by cutting the veteran. That’s a significant amount for a franchise in the bottom three in terms of cap space heading into 2017. There is a chance, if Charles is healthy, the Chiefs could keep their all-time leading rusher in-house on a restructured deal.

“I hope so,” Berry said, via the Kansas City Star. “I think my agent had a conversation yesterday … It’s early.”

The Chiefs franchise tagged Berry last season, paying him $10.8 million, but never locked down a long-term deal. K.C. could franchise the 28-year-old again, which would cost around $13 million.

The exorbitant salary-cap hit by tagging Berry isn’t the only factor for the Chiefs to consider when making that decision. Dontari Poe is also set to be a free agent, leaving the team with a potential dilemma if they can’t get one signed before free agency.

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The Chiefs also currently only have $4.7 million in cap space for 2017, per OverTheCap.com, which could lead to some tough decisions for the K.C. brass to make — the money issues are one reason many believe Jamaal Charles won’t be back next season, certainly not at his current salary.

Potentially losing Berry would be a devastating blow for a Chiefs defense that can be a stingy, dangerous group when healthy. Berry, a playmaker versus the run and the pass, keys the entire unit. The back-to-back first-team All-Pro safety displayed his difference-making ability with a ridiculously good game in a win over the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons in Week 13.

Berry leaving would create a Vredefort Crater-sized hole in the Chiefs’ secondary.