KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Jamaal Charles took the handoff on the first play of the game, skipped to his right and found a crease. He slipped through the hole, made a subtle cutback and then raced to the end zone.
On that 80-yard touchdown run against Cleveland, Charles looked as good as ever.
What he's gone through made it even more impressive.
This is a running back coming off a torn ACL last season, and who is going against defenses every week that know the Chiefs are dependent almost solely on him. He's a guy operating behind a patchwork offensive line for a team that's lost 11 of its first 13 games.
He's also a guy running with a heavy heart.
Charles was friends with Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, and helped introduce Belcher to wife Whitney's cousin, Kasandra Perkins. Two weeks ago Saturday, Belcher fatally shot Perkins in a home not far from Arrowhead Stadium, then drove to the team's practice facility and committed suicide as general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel watched.
Charles hasn't spoken publicly since the incident, and may not for the remainder of the season, but he's been able to perform at an All-Pro level despite everything that has transpired.
"I think it speaks to the character of him as a man, how he's able to have an optimistic perspective despite all the things he's been through right now," Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said. "It really speaks to who he is as man."
As a player, Charles leads the AFC with 1,220 yards rushing. His 91-yard touchdown run against the Saints is the longest in the league this season, and his four carries of 40-plus yards are tied for second-most in the NFL behind the Vikings' Adrian Peterson.
"We've leaned on him all year, as you look at it," Crennel said. "He's been the consistent staple in our offense, because he gains yards and he's the guy who has the potential to run for a touchdown. We kind of lean on him."
Especially the last few weeks.
Charles ran for 107 yards in a loss to the Broncos, the week before the murder-suicide that rocked the franchise. The day after it, when there were questions of whether the Chiefs would even play the Panthers, Charles ran for 127 yards in an emotional 27-21 victory.
Highlighted by his long TD run last week, Charles piled up 165 yards in a 30-7 loss to the Browns, providing a silver lining for a game — and a season — shrouded in darkness. Charles figures to have a big role in the game plan this week, too, and probably for the rest of the season. The Chiefs' only reliable wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe, has injured ribs that could keep him off the field for the final three games.
That means the Chiefs could become even more one-dimensional headed to Oakland this weekend.
"Everybody knows we can run the ball," Crennel said. "The thing we have to look at is they're going to load up the box to stop the run, and we've made some plays as a result of teams doing that against us. And Bowe has been a part of that. That's why I say other receivers have to step up, so we can throw the ball or do something different to back them off the running game."
Oakland was one of the few teams to have success in stopping Charles this season, though part of that was because the Raiders never really had to worry about him.
When the teams played at Arrowhead in late October, Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll only gave Charles five carries in the entire game, netting a whopping four yards.
He carried only 12 times for 39 yards the following week against San Diego.
It was at that point in the season that Crennel, who had been running the defense in addition to his head coaching duties, turned that side of the ball over to Gary Gibbs. Crennel said at the time that he wanted to have a bigger role in overseeing the offense, but he might just as well have been saying that he wanted to ensure Charles was getting touches.
Charles only averaged about 16 carries over the first eight games of the season. He's toted the ball nearly 22 times per game over the past five.
Crennel said he's not worried about Charles' durability, either, despite the devastating knee injury he sustained last season in Detroit. The former Pro Bowl running back has proven that he can carry a heavy load, stand up after taking a hit and prepare to do it all over again.
"Jamaal is a tough guy, even though he looks like the wind could blow him over sometimes," Crennel said. "He's pretty tough, and he's been here every day in practice, working hard, trying to get better and trying to help this team. You have to give him some kudos for being able to do that week-in and week-out. You take a pounding at the running back position."
The physical toll this season has taken has been enormous. So has the emotional toll.
Through it all, Charles has remained one of the few bright spots for a Chiefs franchise in turmoil, one of the rare reasons to cheer in a season that long ago spiraled out of control.
"He's a tremendous player, and for whatever reasons, obviously teams in the hunt, or have a little better record, get a little more recognition," Quinn said, "but that kid is obviously blessed."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL