Sam Mellinger: Berry's outsized importance to the Chiefs' playoff chances, and his bet on himselfJanuary 12, 2017 9:46am

Jan. 11-- The man who already has gained more from this season than all but a select few of his teammates is in no mood to count profit.

Eric Berry has spoken of this moment from the very beginning, from the hot afternoons in St. Joseph, Mo., through the freeze of the Titans loss to the predicted icy rain of a playoff game against the Steelers on Sunday.

Berry just finished what some inside the Chiefs building and around the NFL believe is the best season of a career that could be on a Hall of Fame track.

He has done this the season after betting on himself, when a negotiation that should've been relatively straightforward instead went nowhere. Berry heard questions about his durability, which is a heck of a thing to say about a man who just beat Hodgkin's lymphoma, but football is among America's coldest businesses so he signed a one-year deal under the franchise tag and has carried himself like an absolute boss.

He is faster than his early days, and stronger than last year. His brain never stops-Tamba Hali says Berry watches a "sickening" amount of film-which has helped outdate the criticisms of his coverage skills.

He won the game in Atlanta, intercepted Cam Newton, zig-zagged his way for a touchdown in Charlotte and loaded film of all 16 games with more subtle impact.

A year ago, the Chiefs finally killed an embarrassing drought of playoff success with a blowout win in Houston. This year, they have been very clear that the standard is a Super Bowl. It's the Chiefs' best team in more than a decade, even better than the 11-wins-in-a-row group from a year ago.

"Chemistry and experience," Berry said when asked where this team is better than last year. "Lot of people don't count for chemistry on a team. Some of them solely deal with talent. But I feel like the chemistry has been very good."

Berry will probably be named the team MVP next month. By then, we will know how this season turns out. But already, we know that no player has meant more to that chemistry, and with the possible exception of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, no player has meant more on the field, either.

We also know that this matchup with the Steelers will depend heavily on the full spectrum of Berry's value.

The Steelers present a unique challenge. Other teams have quarterbacks on their way to Canton. A few have receivers more productive than Antonio Brown. Some have running backs who, on a given day, can approach Le'Veon Bell's breathtaking gifts.

But none have quite the combination of all three, and there is perhaps no single player on the defense whose duties in stopping it stretch as wide or far as Berry.

His position gives him certain freedoms not available to others, and his talents give him the opportunity to make more impact. He is the one, more than anyone else, who will spend time tracking Brown down the field and Bell at the line of scrimmage.

"If we just play together as a team, and just get to the ball, I think we'll be OK," Berry said. "I think that's the main thing."

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That's easier said than done, of course. Bell is the only player in NFL history to average more than 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving in a season. He is perhaps the most dynamic talent in the league, and what makes it worse for the Chiefs is that even with 144 yards rushing he wasn't a major factor in the Steelers' 43-14 win in October.

Bell's first carry that night went for just two yards, with the Steelers already up 15-0. His second carry went for four yards, with the Steelers up 22-0.

That doesn't mean we can't take anything from it. Bell had five runs for nine yards or more, and made at least one tackler miss each time. To the point of this column, Bell's 44-yard run that night-his second-longest of the season-came by outrunning angles by Tamba Hali and Dadi Nicolas, and the last 30 or so yards after making Berry miss a tackle.

Berry's responsibility in the pass game increases against the Steelers, too. No team in the AFC had more passing plays of 20 yards or more than the Steelers (64). Five of them came in that blowout win over the Chiefs.

Berry may have been at fault for one of those, but either way, he shoulders an outsized responsibility to keep one of the league's most explosive passing offenses from putting together another highlight film.

Part of what makes that so difficult is that Roethlisberger's arm and ability to extend plays mean the entire field has to be defended, but the Steelers' various sets and timing mean they can bust short passes into big gains.

In the wild-card round win over the Dolphins, for instance, Brown scored touchdowns of 62 and 50 yards on passes that went a combined 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But seven of his touchdown catches (that's more than anyone on the Chiefs) traveled an average of 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

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A hundred factors will go into this game. Justin Houston's knee, Dontari Poe's and Chris Jones' push, Marcus Peters' coverage, Tyreek Hill's speed, Travis Kelce's talents, the offensive line's success, and Alex Smith's decisions.

But in a game that could turn on a big play, in both the run and pass, no Chiefs defender's responsibilities range from sideline to sideline, and from the line of scrimmage to the outer boundaries of Roethlisberger's strong right arm, quite like Berry.

"I feel like we're very prepared," Berry said. "We're focused, man. We've been focused from the get-go. We're going to go out and handle business."

On Wednesday morning, Eric Berry stood in front of his teammates and spoke. He doesn't do this much. Not nearly as often as his stature would allow, anyway, and maybe that's the point because when he speaks his teammates know it's important.

He told them to believe. To open their hearts and believe, because if your heart believes it, your mind and body will follow. Chris Jones said he was ready to play a game, right then, on a Wednesday morning.

"It was like one of those Ray Lewis speeches, man," Jones said.

There are few people better at compartmentalizing than Berry. This is part of why his form of lymphoma-which, thankfully, has a high survival rate-never stood a chance.

On a much less important level, it's also part of how he's played so well this season-first-team All-Pro, and the second-highest Pro Football Focus grade of his career.

In a way, this has highlighted his value more than ever before. He continues to be among the most respected men in the locker room, the big brother helping Peters channel his gifts the right way, and the one who could've made an issue over a botched negotiation but has instead been one of the strongest forces pushing the Chiefs forward.

He will almost certainly be rewarded for all of that this offseason, when the Chiefs must decide between giving him another raise through the franchise tag system, negotiating a presumably bigger contract than the one that could've been done a year ago, or allowing him to enter free agency and be someone else's light.

For now, though, he is entirely consumed with the biggest challenge of the season both for him personally and his team. He has talked all year about creating habits, and a routine, to lean on in these moments to help slow what everyone says is a faster game in the playoffs.

That's part of why he has so much responsibility on Sunday, and part of why he won by betting on himself for what has turned out to be the best season of his already remarkable career.

___

(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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