KANSAS CITY — The Chiefs were trailing New Orleans 24-6, well on their way to a third straight humiliating defeat. Then the defense stiffened, Jamaal Charles started to gouge the Saints for big yards, and Kansas City suddenly has new life.
The Chiefs (1-2) will try to build on the momentum generated by the 27-24 overtime thriller next Sunday when they face the San Diego Chargers in an AFC West tussle.
If they can make it two straight wins, Kansas City would move into an improbable tie atop the division. Oakland and Denver are also 1-2 through their first three games.
"Games like this can build momentum throughout a season," said wide receiver Steve Breaston, who may take on an increased role for Kansas City after an injury to Dexter McCluster on Sunday. "Being able to win a game like that brings a team together."
Indeed, the Chiefs had preached for two straight weeks — make it five, if you count three straight losses to finish the preseason — that they were better than they were showing. They told anyone who would listen to have patience, that the season is a marathon rather than a sprint.
Hard to make anyone listen following lopsided losses to Atlanta and Buffalo.
But the Chiefs managed to convince themselves, if not anybody else, and that mindset helped them score 18 straight points to force overtime and then hold the Saints to get a second try on offense — and ultimately, kick the field goal that capped the biggest comeback in franchise history.
"That's probably the best way it happens. Guys are put in pressure situations and have to prove themselves," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "That's the way chemistry grows."
There are certainly some shadows accompanying the newfound sense of optimism.
The Chiefs still have just one victory, and the team they finally beat is winless.
Moreover, the Saints remain the only win for the other two teams to have played them, Carolina and Washington. And they've had to make do without head coach Sean Payton and interim coach Joe Vitt, while weathering the fallout of a bounty scandal that has dominated the news for months.
Then there are the injuries that could make the immediate future far more difficult.
McCluster hurt his left elbow when it bent at a gruesome angle as he was falling to the turf. The Chiefs' second-leading receiver was in such pain when he hit the floor of the Superdome that he willingly gave up the ball, and the Saints recovered it for a turnover.
McCluster did not return, and Crennel said Monday he's not sure when he'll be back.
Perhaps even more disconcerting is the knee injury to second-year center Rodney Hudson, if only because the Chiefs are thin at the position. Ryan Lilja slid over from guard for the remainder of the game, and rookie Jeff Allen played well in Lilja's place during the Chiefs' rally.
"It was impressive," right tackle Eric Winston conceded. "He put a lot of work into it. He's such a reliable guy. If that ends up being our center that ends up being our center."
Still, Lilja has little experience snapping the ball, and even though he performed the task admirably when pressed into service, it's not exactly the ideal scenario for Kansas City.
One bit of positive injury news concerns safety Kendrick Lewis, who hurt his right shoulder in a preseason game against St. Louis. He finally worked out in pads last week, and he's expected to start hitting in practice this week, an indication that he could be ready to play Sunday.
"We'll have to wait until later in the week to know for sure," Crennel said.
So yes, there are plenty of reasons for the Chiefs to be optimistic, just as there are plenty of reasons to temper all the enthusiasm. But one fact that remains undeniable is that their start already bears a striking resemblance to the beginning of last season.
Both times the Chiefs dropped their first two games in embarrassing fashion and responded in Week 3 by showing vast improvement on the road. The only difference is they lost by a field goal a year ago, starting 0-3, and squeaked by New Orleans by the same margin on Sunday.
Kansas City rolled off four straight wins after its sluggish start last season, and the same kind of run this time around could make everyone forget about another rough, early stretch.
"I think what this victory has done for the team is give them some confidence," Crennel said. "Everybody's not telling them how bad they are anymore and how they can't win. Now, they're hearing, 'Good job.'"