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Sammy Watkins has returned to the lineup — but what is in store beyond 2020’s final stretch?

Watkins played in his first game since Week 5 on Sunday against the Bucs.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins returned to the lineup for 54 offensive snaps in Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Watkins had been out of the mix since suffering a hamstring injury in the team’s Week 5 game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

By now, fans are well aware of Watkins’ impact. The Chiefs are a far more dangerous offense when he is on the field — and if wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce were putting up top-15 numbers without Watkins, his return is likely to boost their production even further.

The Chiefs saw the first example of that against the Buccaneers. Perhaps in part because Watkins was back on the field, Hill found himself with single coverage — at least to start the game. Hill took full advantage for an astonishing 269 yards and three touchdowns.

On seven targets, Watkins had four catches for 38 yards.

“Those guys are rolling, so I’m just trying to catch up to their speed,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I go out there and I’m like, ‘Man, dang, 10 (Tyreek Hill), you’ve got Demarcus Robinson, you’ve got everybody. (Marcus) Kemp, freaking Trav (Travis Kelce), everybody moving fast. I’ve got to catch up to that speed.’

“The offense is going to continue to do what they’ve been doing without me or with me. I’m just trying to catch up and add my game and my style of play to the game and continue to go out there and have fun, play and keep winning games.”

Seeing what Watkins was able to accomplish during last year’s three-game playoff run has made his 2020 circumstances as maddening to watch as the playoffs were enjoyable.

Watkins led the Chiefs with 114 receiving yards in the AFC title game, clinching the organization’s first conference championship with a 60-yard touchdown pass. His 38-yard reception over Richard Sherman in Super Bowl LIV will forever be remembered for getting the Chiefs within striking range of taking the lead.

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The idea and hope in Kansas City was that the 27-year-old would pick up right where he left off, but injury cost him a chunk of games — just as in his first two seasons as a Chief.

But he is back now — and maybe at no better time. The Chiefs — at 10-1 — need to continue to win each and every week, as the 11-0 Pittsburgh Steelers remain perfect and in control of the AFC. As all the Chiefs have alluded to in their own way, Watkins is choosing to control what he can control.

“I really don’t pay attention to it,” he revealed. “I’ve let the coaches take care of who we play and how we play. I think if we just continue to play how we’ve been playing, winning our games, and control what we can control, they could line up the 1985 Bears and as long as we’re playing our game and doing our thing, I think we’ll be OK.”

As we’ve mentioned on these pages in many different ways, the Chiefs are built to beat most teams in the NFL; it is down the stretch and in the playoffs when the Chiefs need Watkins the most. The Chiefs have decent replacements for their “X” position (often aligning on the line of scrimmage) on the roster (such as Demarcus Robinson), but nobody fills the role the way Watkins does.

NFL: New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

“What makes Sammy perfect is he compliments everyone as far as our receiving group goes,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said last week. “We got different body types, we got guys that present different issues, he’s a bigger body.”

Through their own admittance in personnel usage, the Chiefs don’t see the 5-foot-10, 187-pound Mecole Hardman as a proper candidate. The Chiefs list Watkins at 6 feet 1 and 211.

“The thing is,” explained Bieniemy, “he’s smart, he’s intelligent, he plays hard, he’s a great guy, he’s a professional so he brings a lot to the table.”

Watkins has led the Chiefs in receiving yards in back-to-back postseasons, a point that led the Chiefs to restructuring his contract so that he would stay for the repeat try.

Despite uncertainty in his desire to be a Chief during the offseason, both sides — the Chiefs and Watkins’ representation — agreed that this was the best place for him, thereby ending speculation that the Chiefs would cut Watkins to save money.

Still, Watkins will become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. And this final stretch of games may be key in deciding whether or not the relationship ends.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Watkins said. “All I can do is keep playing my game, having fun and enjoy. Of course, I love it here, I enjoy it here. Of course, we’re 10-1 and I love to win. If something gets written up and it fits me, fits my agent, of course I would love to be here.

“Right now, I just want to focus on the season, continue to win and hopefully bring home a Super Bowl.”

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