Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins is one of the league's finest up-and-coming talents, and through one half of football on Sunday, he sure showed it.
As the Bills headed into the halftime locker room with a 16-14 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs, Watkins had already recorded 6 catches on 9 targets, 158 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns.
It truly appeared like the Chiefs defense didn't have an answer for the former first-round pick, but then something strange happened.
Watkins finished with that exact stat line.
He was completely shut out in the second half and the Chiefs came back to win, 30-22.
"Eliminating explosive plays," said Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith of what made the difference in the second half. "The deep ball was killing us. We were putting ourselves in some bad situations, and they were just making some plays, so in the second half that was our main focus."
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was proud of the way Smith responded to the first half adversity.
"You saw Sean [Smith], he had a rough first half," Reid said. "No matter how you cut it, it was a rough first half, but he's having a Pro Bowl year. You saw why because he fixed the problem, and he kept competing. That's what this group's all about. I was proud of him for the way he went after it. They targeted him a few times in that second half and he was covered and the quarterback had to go elsewhere."
Coinciding with the play of Smith and the secondary in the second half, linebacker Tamba Hali put together another outstanding performance in what has actually become typical for the 32-year-old over the last few weeks.
With 10 minutes left in the third quarter in a 21-16 game, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor set up in the shotgun facing third-and-7 on the Buffalo 39. Hali was one on one with right tackle Seantrel Henderson.
Using a combination of speed and athleticism, Hali beat Henderson, and then dived at Taylor, knocking the ball from his grasp.
Nose tackle Dontari Poe saw the play the whole way and jumped on the ball. The Chiefs extended their lead with a field goal off the turnover.
Hali, in a game that fellow LB Justin Houston had to leave in the first quarter with a knee injury, recorded a sack for the second game in a row, adding to his total of 6.5 on the season.
"We fight together, we're a family," he said after the game. "We pride ourselves on calling each other family. We break our huddles saying 'family.' When our guys go down the next guys have to be ready and our guys did a tremendous job of stepping up this game and filling in for guys who went down."
Hali said that he believes part of the reason he's felt so good lately is the practice schedule the coaching staff has given him as a veteran. Hali typically hasn't practiced on Wednesday or Friday as of late, allowing him to be fresh for game days on Sunday.
"I think with the amount of rest that Coach Reid has given me for the past month has helped me come onto the field and have that energy and that bounce in my step," he explained, "so our coaches and our players – we play together and I think it's allowed me to play better this year."
As Hali continues to be a leader for the Chiefs defense, so too is Derrick Johnson, who had 9 tackles (7 solo), including 6 against running back LeSean McCoy, against the Bills. McCoy is one of the league's best in gaining yards after initial contact.
The 9 tackles gave Johnson a total of 68 on the season, tying fellow LB Josh Mauga for the team lead.
"The best thing about [the game against the Bills], we came back," he said. "We fought through adversity. The last few weeks have been some blowout games, but today we knew we were going against a really tough Rex Ryan group. They came in and punched us in the mouth early and we responded, so I'm glad to see us win the way we did today."
In the first half, the Bills had 296 yards of offense and Watkins looked unstoppable. In the second, they were held to 124 and Watkins never caught a pass.
Without their best defensive player in Houston for most of the game Sunday, the defense did the job.
"Well it's one of those things—next man up," Johnson said. "Coach Andy Reid holds us to a high level, everybody across the board, second and third string, offense and defense.
"You have to come in and respond and play [well]. We did that today."