When the Chiefs dreamed of success before the start of this season, that was the three-headed dynamo they believed would carry them, after signing Maclin to a $55 million contract. That makes it all the more amusing that their offense did not take off until it lost Charles for the season to injury.
The latest breakout performance came Sunday in a 30–22 win over Buffalo, the Chiefs' fifth straight triumph. During that stretch they have averaged 32 points per game, with the likes of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware (114 yards and a touchdown) carrying the load out of the backfield. But it was Maclin who stepped to the forefront Sunday, proving unstoppable in a nine-catch, 160-yard showing that helped Kansas City erase a 10-point deficit—not to mention a huge game from Buffalo's Sammy Watkins—to claim a massive victory.
This was exactly what the Chiefs paid for over the summer: an explosive receiver capable of hurting defenses in the open field and stretching the game out deep. Maclin caught a beautifully thrown 41-yard touchdown pass to pull his team within two before halftime, and on numerous occasions was the go-to option when Kansas City needed to move the chains.
Alex Smith always has had a reputation as a quarterback unable to throw the deep ball. Heck, unwilling to throw it. But after the Chiefs acquired Maclin, he promised things would change.
Perhaps they finally have.
“It’s a matter of time and striking when it’s right and being able to take advantage of those opportunities that are few and far between,” Smith told ESPN.com back in August of finding those big plays. “And when you get them, you’ve got to be able to hit them, That’s kind of the nature of it. They are a lower percentage just across the board.
“I think as far as Jeremy goes, I think he’s the type of receiver that excels in all the areas. I think that’s his biggest strength is just watching from afar. I don’t think you can kind of pigeon-hole him as just a speed guy or over-the-top guy. His game is way more complex than that, and he can do a lot of different things.”
Sure, the Bills have underachieved on defense this season—there can be little arguing that, given their 2014 performance, their returning personnel and Rex Ryan's background—and Smith was hardly the first quarterback to find holes against Buffalo this season, at all levels of the field. But there is still a difference between finding them and exploiting them.
The Chiefs were unable to sustain anything positive, offensively or defensively, during their 1–5 start. They turned it over five times in a Week 2 loss at Denver, then fell short of 300 total yards a few weeks later during an upset loss at Chicago. By the time Minnesota knocked them off 16–10 in Week 6, it almost looked like it was time to start penning the Chiefs' 2015 eulogy.
No longer. Cornerback Sean Smith floundered vs. Watkins on Sunday, but as of late, the Kansas City defense has been playing like everyone expected it would when the season began.
And the offense is as well, somewhat against the odds.
“We can be better than we are now,” coach Andy Reid said earlier in the week, perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for Sunday's contest.
Sustaining Maclin's Week 12 performance for the remainder of the season could be the real ticket. He had two impressive statistical games early, with Charles still in the lineup—141 yards and a touchdown in Week 3 at Green Bay; 148 yards in Week 4 at Cincinnati. The Chiefs lost both of those games because his work was an outlier amidst mediocrity. There was limited cohesiveness shown by the offense, certainly not enough to carry the momentum over to the defense's play.
All is clicking now. As a result, the Chiefs not only have emerged as a wild-card favorite, but they're starting to push Denver in the AFC West. Should the Broncos lose to New England on Sunday night, the Chiefs would sit just two games back and their schedule remains extremely favorable—two with the Raiders, home games vs. San Diego and Cleveland, and a trip to Baltimore.
Even if the division title remains out of reach, Kansas City has to feel great about its current situation. The prognosis on the knee injury Justin Houston suffered vs. Buffalo could adjust the picture, but this no longer is a defense-only, grind-it-out ballclub.
The Chiefs' offense is playing an explosive brand of football, and that was the case even before Maclin turned it loose Sunday. Should he kick it into another gear down the home stretch, Kansas City will be very dangerous.