KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you need one strong reason to believe in the legitimacy of the suddenly surprising Kansas City Chiefs, look no further than their backfield. On one side there's a bald, thickly muscled veteran who hasn't figured out that being 32 equates to a decline in production. On the other is a 23-year-old speedster with flowing dreadlocks and a desire to spend as little time in the spotlight as humanly possible. Put them together and you've got a two-headed monster that has been gashing opponents on a weekly basis.
There's little doubt that Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles have been the most impressive rushing tandem in the NFL this season. They're both on pace for 1,000-yard seasons after seven games (Charles has 666 yards and Jones has amassed 538) and they've helped give the Chiefs the best rushing offense in the league. A good amount of that success is the result of an improved offensive line that was suspect at this time last season. But the skills of both Jones and Charles have plenty to do with this Kansas City resurgence, as well.
After all, two-time Pro Bowler Larry Johnson was the Chiefs' featured runner when last season began, and he often resembled a plow horse grinding through wet sand. With Jones and Charles carrying the football, Kansas City now boasts a combination of toughness and explosiveness that has helped lead the 5-2 Chiefs to first place in the AFC West.
"They've both done a good job of coming in and doing their jobs," Chiefs guard Brian Waters said. "It's a big plus for us when you don't have to change anything [in the play calling] when you change backs. Whatever we want to run, they can both do it."
That consistency is what makes the Chiefs' running attack so special. It would be one thing if the 5-foot-11, 199-pound Charles was merely a flash-and-dash artist seeking to beat defenses to the edge on every carry, or if the 5-foot-10, 212-pound Jones simply did the heavy lifting in tough-yardage situations. Instead, they're both adept at handling multiple roles in the offense led by new coordinator Charlie Weis. They even seem to delight in watching the other man take his shot at helping the offense succeed.
That was the indication coming from Jones after Charles gained 238 total yards (including 177 on 22 carries) in the Chiefs' 13-10 overtime win over Buffalo on Sunday. Included among Charles' top plays were a 31-yard catch-and-run to set up Kansas City's lone touchdown and a 32-yard scamper.
"Jamaal is a great running back," said Jones, who added 77 yards on 19 carries. "He has great speed and deceptive power. Every time he has a good game -- or we have one together -- it makes us a lot better as a team."
Charles, a third-year veteran, might have had similarly kind words for Jones if Charles had been speaking to the media after the game. Instead of celebrating his success, Charles remained quiet with the hopes that his blockers would get more credit for an effort Kansas City fans are starting to expect from their team. In racking up a season-high 274 yards on the ground, the Chiefs produced their third consecutive game with over 200 rushing yards. More important, that running attack has set a critical tone for a team that faced plenty of questions coming into this season.
The Chiefs still don't know if Matt Cassel can be their franchise quarterback and a soft schedule has helped them take an early lead in the division. What can't be disputed, however, is how much more tenaciously this team seems to be playing with each passing week. They feed off their toughness. You can see that attitude in their improved defense and you certainly can feel it with every carry Jones and Charles handle.
That aggressiveness has to come from the way Jones and Charles earned their success in this league. Despite their differences in age, they both know what it's like to struggle and fight for respect. Jones, for one, has had to do that for most of his 11-year career. He was dumped in Arizona (the team that made him a first-round pick in the 2000 draft), underappreciated in Chicago (who had bigger hopes for Cedric Benson) and tossed off by the New York Jets this past offseason despite running for 1,402 yards in 2009 (because the team thought LaDainian Tomlinson could be more helpful to their cause).
As for Charles, you would've thought he'd vandalized the home of Chiefs coach Todd Haley when you looked at his treatment early last season. Granted, his problems with fumbling made him a liability, but Charles barely had any chance of carrying the football until Johnson's off-the-field problems led to his being released. Once that door opened, Charles left no doubt as to what the Chiefs had been missing out on. He gained 968 of his career-high 1,120 yards over his final eight games ... while playing with a severe shoulder injury.
It would be easy to think that Jones and Charles would be facing the kind of friction that once existed between Johnson and former Chiefs star Priest Holmes when they were paired together. Instead, the Chiefs wound up with the best of both worlds. They have an aging veteran who will do anything to win and a rising star who can turn just about any play into a home run. They also have both those players hitting their strides as a suddenly critical AFC West trip to Oakland looms Sunday.
For all the good things the Chiefs have done this season, they understand that games like these are what will allow them to separate themselves from the rest of the division. They also know that a 5-2 start doesn't mean they're an elite team just yet. But when it comes to developing an identity -- which was a key goal for this team entering this season -- the Chiefs don't have to worry about how they're doing on that front. Every time they call a running play these days, we should know exactly who they are now.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.