You hear the phrase "next man up" in the NFL all the time, but few teams have demonstrated the concept better than the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are actually right in the middle of the league in terms of total games missed due to injury: 16th in the league with 149 total games missed, according to to this site. But it's their ability to step in and play as a team and continue to execute after losing key players that has allowed the Chiefs to get on a roll and into the postseason.
The Chiefs played much of this regular season without their best offensive player and a third of the season without their best defensive player. We all remember that sense of doom when Jamaal Charles tore another ACL and when Justin Houston's knee bent in the wrong direction, and we didn't know how long he'd be out. Prior Chiefs teams would have (and did) fold in the face of this type of adversity. This group has demonstrated a different level of mental toughness and determination.
The most painful recent examples can be found in the 2013 playoff loss to the Colts, where seven different Chiefs starters, including Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers, Donnie Avery as well as backups like Knile Davis left the game, and the team couldn't stop the bleeding in the second half. This was the first season of John Dorsey and Andy Reid, and the Chiefs roster didn't have the depth and talent it has today.
In 2015, there have been multiple periods of time where the team needed someone to step up, and time after time, someone did. By my count they've used at least eight different offensive line combinations. Defensive linemen Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito and Allen Bailey have all missed time. De'Anthony Thomas missed multiple games with a concussion, and ended up on the NFI list. Promising starting CB Phillip Gaines was lost for the season in Week 3, just as Sean Smith was coming back from Suspension.
Here are just a few of the depth players that have had key roles in getting the Chiefs into the playoffs, some of whom could be factors in winning this weekend.
Key Depth Player: Zach Fulton
Fulton was the full time Right Guard starter in 2014, but lost his job going into the 2015 season. When Mitch Morse has missed time with concussions, Fulton stepped in to a relatively new position for him and didn't miss a beat. In fact, it might just be that center is Fulton's best position.
Key Depth Player: Jah Reid
Brought in as depth, Reid has started 10 games this season at right tackle and earned himself a new contract. Andy Reid has said that Jah Reid brings a mean streak to the Chiefs offensive line, and whether he's a starter or depth, he's shown to be a reliable blocker.
Key Depth Player: Donald Stephenson
I've been one of Don's biggest critics. He appeared to really struggle as a starter, and was relegated back to swing tackle duty. But he's made HUGE blocks on key plays as a tackle eligible and has stepped in as a guard, left tackle and right tackle to cover injuries.
Key Depth Players: Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware
The Chiefs have found two gems at running back after losing Jamaal Charles for the season.
These guys have very different styles but have been equally effective. Against all odds, the Chiefs offense has actually IMPROVED after losing its best player. Each guy has over 400 yards rushing, and they've combined for 10 touchdowns. Each has sparked the team with big plays and relentless effort.
Side note: there isn't an award for best position coach, but if there was, give RB Coach Eric Bieniemy my vote.
Key Depth Players: Frank Zombo and Dee Ford
When Houston has been out, Dee Ford took the spotlight. Ford had the one breakout game where he had three sacks and the game winning pass defended ... but the encouraging signs for the young pass rusher have been the glimpses of improvement in his all-around game. Dee's also been able to do what he does best. His 23 total pressures in the month of December was tops among all 3-4 OLBs, according to PFF (via Matt Conner via Twitter)
Frank Zombo is the definition of the under-appreciated depth player. He's retained his spot on the roster by being able to play outside and inside linebacker, and being a core special teams performer. When called upon, he's responded with three sacks and a forced fumble.
Key Depth Player: Ramik Wilson
Wilson filled in for an injured Josh Mauga for three games in October and was part of 20 tackles. He's since been relegated to the bench, but he showed that the Chiefs have a solid player at inside linebacker for the future. Josh Mauga and Derrick Johnson are playing as well as we've ever seen each of them play, so there isn't a reason to see much Ramik at this point, but it's good to know that he's ready and able when needed.
Key Depth Player: Tyvon Branch
Branch was the forgotten man in the Chiefs secondary when Eric Berry made his miraculous return. Some even wanted to cut or trade him before the season started. Branch played a bit of slot corner with limited success. His big contributions have come as an enforcer and opportunistic safety. His touchdown in Oakland was a game changer, and he's had several highlight-reel hits on receivers.
Key Role Player: Ron Parker
Yes, I realize that Parker is a starter at safety, but his ability to fill in at cornerback and play different roles was key to filling in for Sean Smith's suspension and Phillip Gaines's injury.Chiefs DC Bob Sutton also allowed Eric Berry to play more of the free safety centerfielder position, and had Parker working closer to the line of scrimmage and covering the slot. Parker has arguably been the Chiefs most consistent defender this season, and he's more than justified the faith John Dorsey showed by giving him a sizeable contract this offseason.
Key Role Player: Anthony Sherman
The Sausage has been among the best fullbacks in the NFL again this season but has also contributed on special teams as one of the team's leading tacklers. His 18 yard catch to open the game against Oakland helped spark a scoring drive and his blocks on the goal line have paved the way for multiple Chiefs touchdowns. Sherman does a lot of the dirty work that helps this team, and I think most Chiefs fans would agree he should see more snaps than he does.
Key Role Player: D.J. Alexander
Alexander came into the league this season as a speedy but raw inside linebacker. He hasn't seen the field on defense, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been valuable. Before the season started, special teams Coach Dave Toub talked about how Alexander would need to be a contributor on his squad in order to make the team. Sixteen games later, Alexander leads the team in special teams tackles, and blocked the first punt for the Chiefs of the Toub era (last one was in 2012).