BALTIMORE -- Dick Vermeil walked around the visitors' locker room at M&T Bank Stadium as Monday night gave way to Tuesday morning, offering pats on the back, congratulatory handshakes and hugs to his Kansas City Chiefs players. The emotional coach exchanged quiet words with tight end Tony Gonzalez during an embrace. From across the cramped room, a Chiefs player called out: "The NFL is in trouble now, baby!''
Maybe, just maybe, a season had been saved.
The Chiefs' Super Bowl aspirations looked farfetched when they opened with three straight losses. They played the same sort of pitiable defense that got them knocked from last season's playoffs by the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC semifinal after a 13-3 regular season, and they were unable to rev up their would-be high-powered offense to compensate.
But, for one night at least, they resembled a powerhouse again, completely outplaying the usually rugged Baltimore Ravens and surviving a couple of glaring breakdowns to win, 27-24, Monday night.
"If we had started 0-4, that would have been really bad; 0-3 was bad enough,'' Gonzalez said. "That's not us. We think we're one of the best teams in the NFL. We still think that. We'll take this as a positive and go from here. No one is saying after one win that we're headed to the Super Bowl, but this was a total team victory.''
There were no tears from Vermeil in his postgame news conference, but he did offer passionate support for his players.
"I'm very pleased,'' Vermeil said. "There's a lot you could say. To come in here and win when you've already lost three and people have written you off and took a lot of sarcastic shots at us, to do what they did, I have a lot of respect for it. That's hard to do, to come in here and win on a Monday night in front of the country and play those guys like we did.''
He added later: "Our defensive line and coaches have taken a lot of [second-guessing]. And I hope everybody that criticizes them and everything else forgets it. If you're patient with good kids and keep working at it, they usually get better. We're just fortunate they got better at the right time [Monday].''
Vermeil said he'd sensed that such a gritty performance was in the works when he stopped Friday's practice after a particularly spirited drill, fearing that someone was about to get hurt, and had his players take off their pads to finish with some lower-intensity work.
The Chiefs' offensive and defensive lines were dominant Monday. Kansas City tailback Priest Holmes ran for 125 yards, while the Chiefs' embattled defense limited Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis to 73 rushing yards.
"I was really very, very confident,'' Vermeil said. "I told [Chiefs president] Carl Peterson before the game, 'Carl, he [Lewis] will not run the ball well, but they might beat us on a reverse or a quarterback naked bootleg or a play-action pass.' I told him that before the game. That's how confident I was because I watched these guys on the practice field Friday. I had to stop the practice and take the pads off so we wouldn't beat each other up before we got here. They did not play like a desperate team [Monday]. They played like a determined team. I think that's the critical thing.''
Said Chiefs quarterback Trent Green: "It was great to see our defense step up when called upon. What a great game for them.''
Still, the Chiefs made just enough mistakes to keep the Ravens close. The Kansas City secondary was tricked by a second-quarter play in which Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller handed the ball to Lewis, who ran to the right, then turned and threw a lateral back to Boller; wide receiver Randy Hymes got behind the Chiefs defense and hauled in Boller's strike for a 57-yard touchdown. The Chiefs surrendered a touchdown on a 58-yard punt return by Ravens rookie B.J. Sams 11/2 minutes before halftime and were tied, 17-17, after a first half in which they had 14 first downs to Baltimore's three.
"We came in wanting to be aggressive with our running game,'' Green said. "We wanted to use our play-action passes. But to control the ball like that against this kind of defense, you can't expect that. . . . At halftime, we felt good about what we had done. We felt like we had dominated both sides of the ball, but we were only tied. They got us on a trick play and on a punt return.''
The Chiefs took control, though, with two sustained drives to open the second half, resulting in a field goal and a touchdown. They were without two defensive starters down the stretch -- tackle Ryan Simms pulled a hamstring and linebacker Scott Fujita sprained an ankle -- but withstood the Ravens' two possessions in the game's final six minutes in which Baltimore could have tied the game or stolen a victory if Boller and Lewis could have produced. They didn't. And the Chiefs, after a game in which they controlled the ball for nearly 40 of the 60 minutes, headed jubilantly to their postgame locker room. They enter a bye week convinced that their season again has possibilities.
"Nobody ever started pointing fingers,'' Gonzalez said. "That's a hole -- 0-3 -- but it's not something we can't get out of. We knew we had to come here and get a victory. And we did.''
Said Green, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown Monday: "Nobody was talking about it in terms of desperation. We're all extremely disappointed about how we started the season. We still are. That hasn't changed. But fortunately or unfortunately, I've been through a lot in my career, both personally and team-wise, in Washington, St. Louis and Kansas City. You don't fold because of three bad games. We have confidence in ourselves. We have confidence in our system. We believe in Al [Saunders, the Chiefs' offensive coordinator] and the coaches. We knew we could come out and have a game like this. When you look at how we moved the ball and how we controlled the ball, it was really a dominant performance by our offensive line and our offense in general.''
Vermeil won't have to spend the next few weeks answering questions about why the club failed to upgrade its defensive personnel in the offseason and believed that the arrival of new coordinator Gunther Cunningham alone would produce improvement.
"I'm fortunate enough to have coached 15 years in this league, and I have a lot of experience losing three in a row,'' Vermeil said. "I think I know how to handle it, with the help of good coaches. It's not a lot of fun, especially for guys that have worked as hard and have the expectations that we had. And everyone was so willing to jump ship on us. People kind of forget that we won 13 games. It's still there. Maybe I'm screwing them up, but it's not gone. Sooner or later, we were going to get it going. It was critical that we come in here and play hard and play well.''
No New Deal For McKenzie -- Yet
Cornerback Mike McKenzie will play for his new team, the New Orleans Saints, under the terms of his current contract, but agent Drew Rosenhaus hopes to negotiate a new deal with General Manager Mickey Loomis after the season.
McKenzie is in the third season of a five-year, $17.1-million contract. The Green Bay Packers traded him to the Saints on Monday, finally giving up on McKenzie when he remained a headache for Coach Mike Sherman even after ending a holdout following the club's opening game of the season. McKenzie's motivation to play became an issue. He was on the Packers' inactive list for his final two games with the team because of what was called a hamstring injury.
"I just felt because of the focus, the attention from the outside in, it was becoming a distraction,'' Sherman said during a news conference Monday. " . . . We just never got to a point where that was a comfortable situation.''
Sherman said the Packers shopped McKenzie around the league and sought an established defensive player in return before settling for the Saints' package of young quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan and a second-round draft pick next year. The Packers also sent a conditional draft choice to New Orleans.
"We inquired about other corners, about other defensive players,'' Sherman said. "That was something we exhausted right up until the other day. I think we exhausted every possibility in this situation. . . . From the outside in, the focus that's been on what Mike did and didn't do -- that's been well-documented, and we don't have to worry about that any more.''
Sherman said it was his doing, not McKenzie's, that McKenzie wasn't on the Packers' sideline for last Sunday's loss to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field.
"It didn't make any sense to me for him to be out there and be a distraction,'' Sherman said. "That was not a final straw.'' . . .
Saints Coach Jim Haslett said at his news conference that it was too soon to know whether McKenzie would play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Any time you can get a starting corner in this league, in this time of the season, it's a great move,'' Haslett said. "He's a heck of a football player. He's a big guy. He's physical. He's tough. He looks like he's smart on the film that I watched of him. He's a guy you can't find in the draft.'' . . .
The acquisition of O'Sullivan gives the Packers four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster -- Brett Favre, Doug Pederson, Craig Nall and O'Sullivan. But Pederson could be headed to the injured reserve list. He broke a rib and a transverse process (a bony projection off the side of a vertebra that serves as an attachment for muscles and ligaments) during the Giants game after Favre exited with a concussion, and is to be sidelined at least six weeks.
"We had two quarterbacks knocked out of the ballgame, so I don't feel we're overloaded,'' Sherman said. . . .
Favre underwent tests Monday and should be ready to start Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, Sherman said. It was Favre's first concussion since 1995, according to the coach, who indicated that he might withhold Favre from Wednesday's practice but expects the quarterback to practice Thursday. Favre has started 193 consecutive regular season games but has failed to finish the last two games. . . .
Haslett was in damage-control mode Monday after Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks and defensive end Charles Grant got into a verbal confrontation on the team plane after Sunday's loss at Arizona.
"It was not bad," Haslett said. " . . . Both guys are passionate about winning. They're both upset about the way they played and we played. . . . . By the time it [becomes public], it's probably an all-out brawl and the plane almost went down. It was nothing like that at all."
QB Change for Bucs?
Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden left open the possibility Monday of his 0-4 club making a starting-quarterback switch, from Brad Johnson to Brian Griese or Chris Simms, this week.
"I do not want to make any starting jobs known right now," Gruden said during his news briefing. . . .
The Chicago Bears are 1-3 but, after a bye this week, face three opponents -- the Redskins, Buccaneers and 49ers -- with a combined record of 1-11. Coach Lovie Smith said Monday he's sticking with Jonathan Quinn as his quarterback even though the career backup, filling in for the injured Rex Grossman, produced little while the outcome still was in doubt in a 19-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We think we can win with Jonathan Quinn," Smith said during his news conference. . . . .
First-round draft choice Vernon Carey likely will move into the Miami Dolphins' starting lineup Sunday against the New England Patriots at right tackle because of John St. Clair's sprained ankle. Carey struggled at both tackle and guard during the preseason and opened the season on the bench. . . .
Jason Ball reclaims the San Diego Chargers' starting center job this week because Nick Hardwick had arthroscopic knee surgery Monday and is to miss at least two weeks. Ball lost his starting spot because of an ill-advised holdout, trying to pressure the Chargers to increase his $380,000 salary even though he had absolutely no leverage because he isn't eligible for even restricted free agency until next spring. . . .
The Colts will be closely monitoring the health of kicker Mike Vanderjagt this week. He strained a hamstring in Sunday's win at Jacksonville but indicated he expects to be available for this weekend's game against Oakland. . . . The Giants could hold auditions for Steve Christie's job after the veteran kicker missed field-goal attempts of 49, 30 and 33 yards Sunday against the Packers.
Vikings Short-Handed At RB
The Minnesota Vikings might be down to their fourth-string tailback -- rookie Mewelde Moore, a fourth-round draft pick out of Tulane -- for Sunday's game at Houston.
The Vikings were one of the teams that every club looking for help at tailback targeted in the preseason because of their depth at the position, with Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith and Moe Williams. But Bennett has been sidelined since spraining his right medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in late August. He was to return this week but tore meniscus in the knee while blocking during a bye-week practice Thursday. Bennett underwent surgery Monday and is to miss another two to four weeks.
Smith has filled in but is facing a four-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He played the first three games while his appeal of his suspension was pending. But a hearing on his appeal is scheduled for Wednesday and if it's denied, the suspension could take effect immediately. Smith might even withdraw his appeal, trying to ensure that he returns for the second half of the season, if the league does not make an immediate ruling.
Williams has a strained calf muscle, and Coach Mike Tice joked at his news conference Monday: "Good news [is] on the horizon: Herschel Walker is going to come out of retirement and start for us this week.'' . . . Buffalo cornerback Troy Vincent underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and probably will be sidelined for two weeks. . . .
Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio still was seething Monday about a defensive-holding call on cornerback Dewayne Washington late in Sunday's loss to the Colts that kept alive Indianapolis's game-winning touchdown drive following a third-down incompletion.
"This is probably worthy of a phone call" to NFL officiating director Mike Pereira, Del Rio said during his news briefing. ". . . There was no hold. The quarterback was out of the pocket. The infraction occurred away from the play. And the defender was inside the five-yard cushion you're allowed to have contact in."
Back judge Billy Smith called the penalty on Washington for holding wide receiver Reggie Wayne on the left side of the field as quarterback Peyton Manning threw incomplete on the right side of the field to wideout Marvin Harrison with just more than nine minutes to play and the game tied.
"You can't think someone's out to get you," Del Rio said. . . . The Jaguars turn to veteran Ephraim Salaam, a former starter for Atlanta and Denver, as their starter at left tackle with Mike Pearson likely sidelined for the remainder of the season after suffering an apparent torn knee ligament Sunday. . . .
The New York Jets have turned their negotiating focus to offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie after contract talks with defensive end Shaun Ellis stalled. The Jets signed one of their prospective free agents, quarterback Chad Pennington, to a contract extension before the season and would like to re-sign at least one more during the season.