There may not have been a story that was covered more extensively heading into the 2016 season for the Kansas City Chiefs—particularly offensively—than the fact that second-year receiver Chris Conley and third-year receiver Albert Wilson spent a good portion of their offseason training with veteran Jeremy Maclin in Kansas City.
Every time any of them spoke with the media, the question was asked about their time together and what it could mean for their development heading into this season.
Through 14 games, the work Conley put in has paid dividends. He's already doubled his production from his rookie year with 38 receptions on 62 targets (17 receptions on 31 targets last year), 461 (199) yards receiving and 25 (12) first-down receptions.
To give even more context to those numbers, Conley has obviously developed a trust with Smith, as he leads the team in targets (10), receptions (7), yards receiving (103) and conversion percentage (50 percent) in third-and-long (8 or more yards) situations.
Conley leads the team by averaging 13.6 yards per reception on third down.
"When the ball comes my way it's an opportunity for me to make a play," Conley explained. "I feel like I've done a lot better at that. [I've had] very few missed opportunities this year and that comes down to the work I was able to put in with Alex [Smith] in the offseason and some of the learning I did with Jeremy [Maclin].
"The fact that they'll call plays to my side (on third-and-long) and Alex will look there – it's a respect thing. I'm thankful for that. It's huge when someone will give you that opportunity and call your number, but you have to make a play."
When it comes down to a few of the key offensive categories that the Chiefs offense has struggled with this season, particularly third-down conversions (34.8 percent, 27th in NFL) and red-zone efficiency (44.4 percent, 27th in NFL), Conley said when it comes down to play call versus execution, that it's on the players.
"That comes down to us," Conley explained. "Coaches are there to put you in a position to make plays but, ultimately, it's the player that has to make the play. There are some opportunities we had and we didn't make the plays."
One play the Chiefs were able to make last week in their 19-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans and has gotten plenty of attention was rookie player Tyreek Hill's 68-yard touchdown run, which came early in the game and has gotten plenty of run over the past week.
One player who might not get the credit rightfully deserved on that play is Conley, who had a key block on the outside to spring Hill down the field.
"There's a physicality to the game and I think that's part of the game that they can't take away," Conley explained. "Legally, you're able to play, to be physical and to dominate someone from whistle to whistle. Now, here and there the refs might want you to tone it back and pull off a guy, but as long as it's legal, I'm going after whoever it is that's lined up across from me and my guy isn't going to make the play."
As Conley and company now get set to take on the Denver Broncos in primetime, they'll be facing two of best cornerbacks in the league in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, who were both recently named to the Pro Bowl for the third straight season. They are just the second cornerback duo in NFL history to make three straight Pro Bowls.
"They're guys who make you earn everything," Conley said of Harris and Talib. "They don't ever give anything up. There's rarely big plays on them and if there is a big play, they're right there to make the tackle. There's a lot of blanketed coverage, so you have to work extremely hard to get open.
"You don't take those things for granted when you play these guys."
The Chiefs can earn a playoff spot with a victory on Sunday night, while the Broncos will be officially eliminated from playoff contention with a loss.
"There's no other way we would have it," Conley said. "This is a team that plays championship football – they're defending – and this is a defense that plays extremely well. They have a great back-end and a great front seven. There's no excuses. There's no excuses for this game for either team.
"We know what it's about and we know what's on the line here, so we have to get it done."
In order for Conley and the offense to take a step forward and help lead the team to a win on Sunday, he says they need to find the consistency for an entire game that's eluded them all year.
"We have to put a complete game together," Conley explained. "I think so far this year, there's been plenty of games where we've played a quarter of good football, a half of good football or three quarters of good football, but we've been winning, so people overlook that and we've overlooked that at some points.
"I think in order to go where we want to go in this postseason, we need to put four good quarters of football together."