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Derrick Johnson discusses the turnaround of the unheralded Chiefs

“There was a sense of urgency. It was, ‘Hey guys, we’re underachieving. We have a good team. We need to start getting it done.’ ”

When the smoke clears after Week 17 of the regular season in the NFL, there will be a whopping four playoff-bound teams that dug themselves out of sizable holes in late October with impressive turnarounds: Washington and Seattle in the NFC, and Houston and Kansas City in the AFC. But nobody had more heavy-duty excavation work to do than the Chiefs, who found themselves sitting in last place in the AFC West on the morning of Week 7, Sunday, Oct. 25.

After winning a combined 20 games in coach Andy Reid’s first two seasons on the job, Kansas City entered the season with strong playoff hopes, only to lose five consecutive games following a win in its opener at Houston. At 1–5, the Chiefs were also dealing with the reality of having lost their most explosive playmaker, running back Jamaal Charles, to a season-ending knee injury in a Week 5 loss at Chicago.

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Things looked bleaker than bleak, given the 1970 Bengals were the NFL’s only team to ever rebound from a 1–5 start to make the playoffs, winning seven straight after starting 1–6 to earn a wild-card berth in the first season of the AFC-NFC format. But the Chiefs have yet to lose a sixth game, and their nine-game winning streak is the AFC’s longest active run, and is tied with Arizona for the league’s best. They’ve clinched at least a wild-card spot and could still win the division if they beat Oakland at home on Sunday and get a San Diego road upset of Denver.

I spoke with Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson—the team’s longest tenured player along with fellow 2005 draft pick Dustin Colquitt, the team’s punter—on Tuesday morning about his team’s remarkable comeback this season. Like his team, Johnson has rallied in 2015, after suffering a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 1 of last season. The three-time Pro Bowler has been perhaps Kansas City’s most consistent player this year and is one of the faces of the franchise.

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Don Banks:The Chiefs are the hottest team in the AFC, but I suggest that you’re on the most under-the-radar and overlooked nine-game winning streak in NFL history. Do you guys like that down-in-the-weeds position you’re in, and is that the perfect spot from which to mount a long playoff run?

Derrick Johnson: You’ve got to use anything you can for motivation. It may be quiet now, but when it’s all said and done and the playoffs get here, we’ll get as much media time as we need. So we’re O.K. flying under the radar. We don’t get distracted. We’ve got a high-character team and we just keep our heads down and keep working, and our goal is to win it all. We’re trying to put ourselves in the position to do that.

DB:Tell me the truth: At 1–5, are you thinking you’re still alive for the playoffs, or that nine straight wins are on the way?

DJ: You know what, that would be too far-fetched to actually even talk about the “P” word at that time. We were just trying to win one game, and we weren’t panicking, but there was a sense of urgency. It was, ‘Hey guys, we’re underachieving. We have a good team. We need to start getting it done.’ There was some players meetings going on. I knew if everything held true from what I believed at the beginning of the season, I knew we were a pretty good team. But we weren’t doing the job at the beginning of the year, for whatever reason.

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DB:As oversimplified as it may sound, did the Chiefs draw any inspiration from the Royals’ playoff success? Your turnaround as a team started two days before the World Series began. Did that spark a change in focus or attitude after Week 6 and that 1–5 start?

DJ: Well, I mean, of course it’s two different sports, and there was a whole lot of other elements involved with winning and losing in regards to the beginning of our season and the Royals being in the World Series. But for the city of Kansas City, that helped out the vibe, having the Royals winning the World Series and taking it all.

We were rooting for those guys and trying to get ourselves going at the same time. But it’s just a coincidence that it happened at that time, that our streak started at that time. We had been doing things the right way consistently, and finally the ball started rolling our way and we started winning. Not to take any credit away from the Royals, they did their thing. But we have a whole ‘nother sport and it’s different.

DB:But they must have helped at least set the tone for comebacks in Kansas City, didn’t they, with their repeated rallies in their playoff games? Did that help make it feel like anything’s possible in K.C. this year?

DJ: That’s exactly right. It just showed the grit and the motivation that this city and this community has, and how they’re behind us. Even when we were 1–5. Don’t get me wrong, we had some loyal fans. Kansas City is a Chiefs town. And for the Royals to do what they did, man, that just helped out big time. They painted the city blue and now we’re going to see if we can paint it red.

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DB:There’s never a good time to start 1–5, but if there is a better time to start 1–5, I’d imagine it was while the city was entirely captivated by the Royals postseason run. Did that buy you guys a little time to get things turned around?

DJ: That’s so true. That’s so true. You never want to start out a season like that. If you told us that at the beginning of the year, you guys’ll be 1–5, but you’ll get to the playoffs, we would have said you’re crazy. That’s crazy. But we’ve got a lot of leaders on this team, veteran leadership, and Andy Reid, as far as the job he’s done, keeping our confidence high at all times, even when we were losing, he’s just a heck of a coach. At 1–5, you have to coach your butt off. He’s a big part of this winning streak.

DB:You haven’t lost since Oct. 18, Week 6. What’s that feel like to be a football player and go 71 days, or more than 10 weeks, without tasting defeat?

DJ: That doesn’t happen often. One other time a couple years ago (in 2013), we started 9–0. But now we’re peaking at the right time and our confidence is really high. We’re not conceited, but very confident. And that’s going to help us throughout the playoffs, knowing our wins came in the second half of the season. We just need to keep rolling. We’re an excited group, but there’s a lot more that we can do better.

DB:You’re tied for being the senior-most Chief in terms of continuous service, and you’ve said this is the most talented Chiefs team you’ve been on? You’ve been to the playoffs in 2006, 2010, 2013 and now you’re going in 2015. Why was this your most talented team in your eyes?

DJ: We just have a lot of proven players, a lot of Pro Bowl players. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to say the Pro Bowl is the best thing out there, but it puts a tag on people as far as what caliber players we are. We’ve got a lot of Pro Bowl players on this team and at the beginning of the year, I said it a couple times that this is probably the top one or two teams I’ve been on in my 11 years, and that’s saying a lot.

DB:Watching that Denver game Monday night must have been tough. Cincinnati is winning 14–0, and Kansas City’s shot to win the AFC West is so close you almost can taste it, and then it all turns the other way. Does that hurt, or are all your goals still attainable via the wild-card route if you have to go that way?

DJ: Everything’s still attainable. You don’t want to get too focused in on other people controlling your destiny. We know we still control our destiny. We’re in a heck of a spot right now. Of course we can move up in the seedings, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter the [seed] that you go into the playoffs with. Our mindset is if we’re going to go, we’re trying to win it all. However it unfolds, we’ve got to win it all.

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DB:You’ve punched your ticket for the playoffs, so all that’s left is tasting victory in the postseason. This franchise is 0–7 in its last seven playoff trips going back to 1994, and you’re personally 0–3 in the playoffs. Two years ago in Indianapolis, the Chiefs let that huge second-half lead get away. How much does it burn to get that goose egg off the board in the playoffs for the franchise?

DJ: Man, we need to get it off real quick. It’s one of those things that’s been hanging over our heads. Every year is different, so we’re not going to be going into the game thinking, ‘Oh, we haven’t won in a playoff game in however many years.’ It’s not like that. But we have to take advantage of our opportunity and seize the moment and what better way to do that than to come from 1–5, working our way all the way back, and now to have an opportunity to win our first playoff game in probably 20 years?

DB:How does a team lose one of the best running backs in the league in Jamaal Charles and proceed to lead the NFL in rushing from Week 6 on? That defies logic and conventional wisdom. Can you explain that?

DJ: Not at all. I cannot tell you how that happened. If you had told me that before it happened, I’d say something’s not right about that. But what have I seen go right is the determination of the young guys stepping up when they needed to, being that next man up. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have done a great job of helping out with big shoes to fill. We needed two people to fill Jamaal Charles’s shoes. It’s one of those things we wish he was with us, but it’s always next man up.

DB:You have four sacks this season and are one sack away from a career high. You’ve turned in another strong season, but you play with stars like Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, so you don’t always get the media attention. It would seem you’re having an under-the-radar season on this under-the-radar team.

DJ: I appreciate that, man. We have a lot of good players on this team, and even though the media part is not there as much because it’s a smaller market here in Kansas City, I think the guys on the team really appreciate what I bring to the table and I really value their opinions. I got my 1,000th career tackle earlier this year against Green Bay and broke the Chiefs’ team tackle record, so that was a big deal for me, especially coming off the Achilles injury last year. Being all the way back now and being able to help my team win, it’s been an awesome year.

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DB:What’s the DNA of this team? I see almost no turnovers by quarterback Alex Smith, a reliable running game and a stout defense with so many different playmakers, doing whatever it takes to win games. What’s your assessment of this team’s winning formula?

DJ: We’re tough, a very tough-minded team. We have a running game that’s always there for us, we don’t turn the ball over, and we try to create turnovers on defense and stop the run, making teams one-dimensional. That’s been the pedigree through this winning streak we’ve had, and hopefully we can keep it going.

DB:Let’s talk about Andy Reid’s dancing. He’s doing the dab. Your thoughts, critiques?

DJ: You know what, that surprised the heck out of me, man. Usually as we come in he gives us a little fist bump, or maybe a “How ‘bout those Chiefs?” after we win. But for him to do the current dance, the dab, that was a good one that he laid on us, to see an older guy get himself to do that.