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Jerick McKinnon grabbed timely opportunity to lead Chiefs’ backfield

The veteran Kansas City running back’s breakout game came at the season’s most important time.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

A month or two ago, the last Kansas City Chiefs player anyone could have guessed as someone could lead the team in total yards during a playoff game would have been running back Jerick McKinnon.

But during Wild Card Weekend, that’s exactly what he did in the Chiefs’ 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. McKinnon earned 142 yards — 61 of them on the ground and 81 through the air. It was nearly the most gained in a single game by any Chiefs running back this year, coming in just under Darrel Williams’ 144-yard performance against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10.

Injuries gave him the chance. Starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire missed Sunday’s game — and Darrel Williams played only in a limited capacity. If they had been healthy, McKinnon might not have had the chance to shine — but he did, giving the team a reason to keep putting him on the field.

The wait for this big of an opportunity may have been long, but McKinnon could always see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I did an interview in camp, and I said something along the lines of, ‘Every day, you have something to prove in this league,’” McKinnon told reporters after the game. “I knew that I would get more opportunities than I’ve had in the other games, so I just wanted to prove to my teammates [and] coaches that I can get the job done. My teammates allowed me to do that tonight.”

NFL: JAN 16 AFC Wild Card - Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whether it was from creating seams or leading with perfect blocks for screen passes, McKinnon’s teammates on the offensive line were his biggest helpers. His other offensive teammates contributed by attracting defenders to them, giving McKinnon advantageous situations with the ball in his hands. A player like tight end Travis Kelce still ended up with a big day — but when he wasn’t catching (or throwing) a touchdown, he was noticing the performance McKinnon was putting together.

“He just brings the energy; he runs his tail off,” Kelce emphasized to reporters in his post-game press conference. “Every single week, every time he gets the ball, he’s a non-stop, downhill, aggressive runner. That’s fun to play with; that’s fun to block for. You know you’ve got the upper hand when you’ve got a guy back there with his ability and his talent — and sure enough, you saw it showcased tonight both in the run game and the pass game.”

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes seemed to have great timing with McKinnon on multiple screen passes, where McKinnon’s release into the route and Mahomes’ throw synced up to take full advantage of the Steelers’ defense. That chemistry may derive from the offseason, when Mahomes first noticed how McKinnon could contribute to the offense.

“I’ve seen it from training camp on that he’s a playmaker,” reflected Mahomes after the game. “There’s a reason he’s been a playmaker in this league for the last few years here. Obviously, he’s dealt with injuries in his career — and dealt with injuries this season — but he kept his mindset right and kept working hard. I knew with other guys being down and dinged up, he would step up and fill in nicely.”

Unfortunately, McKinnon knows all too well about dealing with pain or injuries. He’s had two surgeries to repair torn ligaments in his knee — procedures kept him out of football for over two years. McKinnon said that it made one of the best games of his career that much sweeter.

“When you get in a place like [recovering from two knee injuries] and you’re just fighting and battling back, the only thing you can do is put your head down and keep working — knowing in the back of your mind that the hard work is going to pay off. I got that opportunity tonight — and the hard work I put in the past years to overcome everything showed.”

With the injuries among the team’s running backs, McKinnon’s performance was especially welcome. It puts him into a mix of players that all deserve chances to tote the rock — and the team has been preparing them for just that situation.

“[Coach Greg Lewis] does a good job of switching everyone in, getting reps with different teams, different people — and it paid off,” noted McKinnon. “That running back group we have is very deep — and it’s been showing all year... we’re all able to make plays when called upon.”

This depth has allowed the Chiefs to keep legs fresh throughout the season — and now into the postseason. But that said, there will always be a player who gets into a rhythm and deserves to play more than the rest.

In the playoffs, could that player be McKinnon? What we saw on Sunday night indicates that it’s possible.