Chiefs still leaning on defense to bail out tepid offense

Eric Berry's pick-six against Carolina was key, but the safety says his favorite moment in the game was less spectacular.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The play that may have netted Chiefs safety Eric Berry the AFC defensive player of the week award was a game-changing pick-six in the fourth quarter that helped Kansas City rally past Carolina.

It's not the play Berry remembers most fondly from last weekend.

The Chiefs were trailing 17-3 when the Panthers began a march that ultimately lasted 20 plays and chewed up more than 10 minutes. But in what is becoming very Chiefs-like fashion, Kansas City responded with back-to-back sacks to not only force fourth down, but also take Carolina out of field-goal range.

"That was my favorite part of the game," Berry said. "Those are the little things that people don't notice, but those are the things that set you up."

The Chiefs (7-2) have ripped off five straight wins to climb into a tie atop the AFC West and get into position for a first-round playoff bye. And they've done it with a defense that has done everything -- big things and little -- so well that the Chiefs have been able to overcome a lackluster offense.

Along with turning back Carolina's potentially game-sealing drive, and Berry's interception return for a touchdown, Marcus Peters stripped Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the final minute to give Kansas City kicker Cairo Santos a chance to knock through the winning field goal on the road.

As a result, the Chiefs won a game in which they converted just two third downs, never scored on three trips inside the red zone and wound up with less than 260 yards of total offense.

"We practice very hard, put in a lot of work and a lot of hours, and really putting in more than is required," Berry said. "So we're going to keep putting those things in and hope it'll pay off for us."

It's not like the Chiefs are the 2016 version of the Steel Curtain, though. They're more like a rubber band, stretching and yielding but seemingly always springing back to shape.

Part of that is due to turnovers: They are a league-leading plus-14 in turnover margin.

"This team has such a great belief, whether it's offense, defense or special teams, this team takes so much pride in playing together as a team," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "We find a way, lean on one another and being in those types of environments helps. The more you play in types of games, not just this year but for the guys that have been here, that often contributes to when it does get down to crunch time and when you fall behind. There's never a panic, we just go about our business."

Smith acknowledged that the defense can't keep bailing them out, though, and pointed to third downs and the red zone as areas where Kansas City needs to make crucial improvement. The Chiefs are converting just 34.7 percent of third downs, which is 29th out of 32 teams. And they are scoring touchdowns on 40 percent of red-zone trips, which is tied for 30th.

"You can't beat yourself, especially in this kind of offense," Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley said. "You can't have false starts, mental errors. You have to execute."

But if not on offense, at least on defense. And so far that hasn't been a problem.

Kansas City could be getting even better, too, if four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Justin Houston comes back at close to 100 percent. Houston has been out since surgery in February to repair the ACL in his left knee, and there have been indications this week that he could make his season debut on Sunday at home against Tampa Bay.

"We'll just see. He's feeling pretty good," coach Andy Reid said. "We'll get him out there, see what he can do, move him around a little bit. At any point it becomes an issue, we'll step him back."

Besides, what's the rush the way the Chiefs are playing these days?

Notes: RB Jamaal Charles had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Monday, trainer Rick Burkholder said. Charles had a similar procedure on his right knee a few weeks ago. Both have had ACL reconstructions and had been causing Charles pain this season. He remains on injured reserve. ... LB Tamba Hali (knee soreness) and DT Dontari Poe (knee swelling) returned to practice Thursday. WR Jeremy Maclin (groin), DT Jaye Howard (hip flexor), CB Marcus Peters (hip pointer) and LB Derrick Johnson (hamstring spasms) remained out.