On a Sunday when NFL players could literally wear their hearts on their personalized cleats, no one stood taller than Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Berry, already having another huge season after overcoming cancer in 2015 to be named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, was playing before friends and family in his hometown of Atlanta, and ended up shining brighter than anyone in the NFL in Week 13.
Berry was already quietly building a resume for NFL Defensive Player of the Year prior to Sunday, but this tour de force performance will only enhance his case. A few weeks ago Berry single-handedly shifted the scope of a game by picking off Cam Newton around midfield and weaving through a sea of Panthers to somehow return it for a touchdown. It was one of the singular highlights of the 2016 season. Then, he went and did nearly the same thing again this week, picking off Matt Ryan — he of the potential MVP candidacy — and returning it to the house for a 37-yard touchdown that put the Chiefs up 20-13 in the final minute of the first half.
Berry, wearing cleats with purple ribbons to honor those still battling cancer, was able to jog over to his mom after making the play and hand her the game ball. Pretty amazing moment. The kind that inspires immediate goosebumps. But Berry was not done.
“The last time I came home midseason it was to get treatment for cancer”— Eric Berry
After Ryan led the Falcons charging back — as he is known to do — Berry actually managed to one-up himself. Atlanta had the lead, 28-27, and was going for two, when Berry read the quarterback’s eyes, dropped back into the end zone and picked off Ryan again to race the length of the field with a two-point conversion to effectively end what had been one of the wildest games of the season. It couldn’t have come from a better guy, on a better day. Eric Berry’s return to his team lifted the Chiefs a year ago, and now, with him back just a few miles from where he spent so much time a few years ago, getting treatment for a disease that threatened to take his life, he was celebrating a victory that kept Kansas City in the vicinity of the AFC’s top seed.
“The last time I came home midseason it was to get treatment for cancer,” Berry told our Jamie Erdahl a few minutes after the win on the field. Berry was composed and even-keeled, the kind of super-mature mentality that served him so well in his fight with cancer. After the game his teammates gathered around their leader, with him the hero of the day, and coach Andy Reid placed his land on Berry’s head as the team kneeled in prayer in the locker room. Berry allowed the Chiefs to savor their latest conquest — another wild win in a season in which they’ve also stunned the Chargers, Panthers and Broncos, with late theatrics — but then urged them to remain “locked in.”
So much for the Chiefs being due for a letdown after their overtime win at Denver on Monday night. They played with passion and enthusiasm and beat the Falcons playing Atlanta’s style of game, on the road no less. The Chiefs’ infusion of speed on offense continued to pay dividends and their savvy special teams coach Dave Toub — who should be receiving annual consideration for head coaching jobs — constructed another game-changing play. Facing fourth-and-1 and their own 45 on the first drive of the second half, Toub called a fake that upback Albert Wilson took 55 yards to the house to put the Chiefs up 27-16. That one play shifted momentum in Kansas City’s favor for much of the game.
It would be hard to imagine the Chiefs on quite this ride without their heartbeat of a safety, who continues to prove you shouldn’t bet against him. After not getting anywhere near a long-term deal last offseason before signing his franchise tag, Berry is having another career year. The price is only going up.
The Chiefs will probably put the franchise tag on defensive tackle Dontari Poe in 2017, and aim to secure Berry’s future to them well before the market opens in March. They’d be wise to do so. There hasn’t been a better story in the league the past two seasons, and there aren’t many better players.