Hindsight is a tricky bugger, so we won’t know for a while yet if Jamaal Charles’ 91-yard touchdown run actually saved the Kansas City Chiefs’ season or just delayed another oncoming storm of bad.
But it’s the first to the medal stand. And not just because it happened to be longest run from scrimmage in franchise history. Not just because it brought Charles’ comeback from a season-ending knee injury, suffered a year ago this month, full-circle.
No, this was about timing as much as aesthetics, depth as much as distance. Namely, imagine how different Chiefs 27, Saints 24, might’ve looked without it.
Consider the context: There’s 5:18 left in the third quarter, and New Orleans has just turned a Matt Cassel pick into Drew Brees’ third touchdown pass of the afternoon. The Chiefs trail, 24-6. They’re getting ready to celebrate coach Romeo Crennel with a jazz funeral, right through the heart of Rue Bourbon.
Only Charles breaks through the line at the Kansas City 9-yard-line, cuts left and leaves the rest of the Big Easy in his wake. Suddenly, it’s a two-score tilt, as opposed to three. Suddenly, the Saints have doubts.
Suddenly, the Superdome wonders why the 0-2 Chiefs won’t go the heck away. Suddenly, the Kansas City sideline vooms to life, as if somebody came along and hooked a big ol’ set of jumper cables to it.
“We knew coming in that we could run against this defense,” Charles, who finished with 233 rushing yards on the day, told reporters. “It was an opportunity we had to take advantage of.”
Which they did, running for 273 yards on 45 attempts and possessing the ball for 42:32 of the game’s 68 minutes and 33 seconds.
“The best part,” kicker Ryan Succop told reporters, “is (that) our guys never gave up.”
While Crennel’s conservatism over the final 90 seconds of regulation — playing for three inside the New Orleans 30 instead of taking shots at the end zone with a timeout in his pocket — makes you wonder about his faith in Cassel long-term, Succop made his old coach look smart by nailing all six of his field-goal tries.
This was a song danced The Chiefs Way, essentially: ground, pound and the occasional timely pass. It was just as they drew it up in the offseason, except for the part about Cassel nearly getting his receivers killed — slot man Dexter McCluster left Louisiana with his arm in a sling after getting his elbow bent the wrong way trying to corral an errant toss — with a steady stream of curiously high throws.
And, unlike the first two forgettable weeks, the mojo seeped over to the defensive side of things as well. After watching Brees connect on three of his first four pass attempts and pilot the hosts to a quick 7-0 lead, Crennel’s defense found something they’d been missing for a month: A steady groove. Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson recorded a sack, while running mate Justin Houston totaled three, including one in the New Orleans end zone that accounted for a safety that cuts the Saints’ lead to 24-21.
“I think we ran the ball well and we played much better defense than we’ve been playing,” Crennel told reporters. “I think if we can do that, then we’ll be in the games.”
If they do that, they’ll be in position to finish them. Consider this: The Saints converted their first three third-down opportunities, all for massive gains. They only notched two of their last 10 chances the rest of the way.
Over the final 20 minutes of regulation, when the Chiefs defense needed to get Brees off the field, they did. From a distance, on a day of encouraging signs, that last one might’ve been the most uplifting of all.