KANSAS CITY – No words were spoken between Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green and referee Bill Vinovich, who stood alongside Green in the backfield midway through the fourth quarter. All they did was look at each other, admiring the work of Chiefs running back Larry Johnson on one of the more spectacular carries you will see from any running back.
"It was just one of those looks like, 'Yeah, that was pretty unbelievable,'" Green said.
Johnson's 15-yard run in the fourth quarter exemplified a night that may have changed the AFC West and the conference playoff race in a significant way. With Johnson posting his second 150-plus yard rushing game in the span of five days, Kansas City brushed aside Denver 19-10 at Arrowhead Stadium on Thanksgiving Day.
It was Kansas City's fifth win in the past six games, a half-dozen outings defined by Johnson's unique blend of power and grace. With that, the Chiefs now stand at 7-4 after opening the season at 2-3 and not looking so good in the process.
By comparison, Denver was 5-1 a little more than a month ago and many observers were thinking they were on the way to the Super Bowl. Now, they are 7-4, trailing San Diego (8-2) and the Chiefs in the AFC West based on division record. A win by Jacksonville this weekend would leave the Broncos on the outside of the playoff race with five games left.
Moreover, it would leave the Broncos struggling for answers as they try to deal with a growing quarterback controversy and a suddenly questionable defense. Quarterback Jake Plummer continued to be his mediocre self, fueling the masses who are calling for rookie Jay Cutler.
As for the Denver defense, the Chiefs' running game produced 223 yards rushing on 41 carries. This comes on the heels of San Diego putting up 35 points on Sunday and Indianapolis putting up 34 by scoring on seven of eight possessions (excluding an end-of-half kneel down) against the Broncos.
For all the criticism that the Broncos will take in the coming days, Johnson deserves as much admiration. For the past six games, Chiefs coach Herm Edwards has been working Johnson like a mule. Yet Johnson continues to dance as that carry showed. It was his 27th of 34 carries on the night, not to mention his 58th of 65 when you add his performance Sunday against Oakland.
But on a second-and-1 play from the Kansas City 45-yard line, Johnson made a move that awed everyone. Johnson took the delayed handoff and ran toward a hole between the center and left guard. Denver linebacker Ian Gold went to fill the hole when Johnson made the most subtle of stutter moves. Gold fell over as he tried to get his footing and Johnson accelerated for the 15-yard gain.
It's part of an interesting transformation for Johnson. As Green said, Johnson was "running on power and anger" last year. Now, he's picking out the right time to make a move, evoking a little of former Chiefs starter Priest Holmes.
"I saw the replay," Chiefs guard Brian Waters said. "Yeah, that was ridiculous. But it's like he says, he doesn't even get warmed up until he gets 30 carries."
Over the past six games, Edwards has done his best to get Johnson warmed up. Johnson has 177 carries over that span, piling up 845 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns in the process. Over a 16-game schedule, those numbers project to more than 470 carries, 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. If not for this guy named LaDainian Tomlinson, Johnson would be the toast of the league.
Of course, that type of workload can't really last. Edwards made a straight-faced joke that Johnson was "about 15 carries behind his pace" for the season. Johnson, with 282 totes this season, is looking at about 400 carries for the season – a recipe for burnout.
Still, when a guy is making moves like that in the fourth quarter, who can say he can't keep going?
"When you're having fun, you don't take a look at how many carries you have," Johnson said. "You just go out there and try to compete as hard as you can and put your team in a position to win."
Edwards was blunt about his plan.
"I learned one thing about this game a long time ago: you get the ball in the hands of your best players," Edwards said. "Look, I graduated."
In other words, Johnson is Kansas City's meal ticket, its bell cow, its workhorse … or whatever you like to call your best option. Whatever the cost, it's time to run Johnson now.
"He ain't going to have a 10-year career," Edwards said. "He's a power guy who loves the work, loves the contact. So we're going to give it to him."