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Chiefs' Damien Williams goes from afterthought to feature back

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Two months ago, Damien Williams was an afterthought for the Kansas City Chiefs, a third-string running back who got the ball six times in the season’s first 11 games.

He’s as surprised as anyone at the quick turn of fortune that will make him Kansas City’s featured back in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS).

“This is the last thing I would have thought," Williams said. “I know the type of player I am and I knew I was going to be involved some kind of way, but being here in this position now, it’s amazing. If you know my history and where I started and where I am now, it means a lot to me."

Count the Chiefs among those who aren’t surprised at Williams’ emergence from the bottom of the roster. They couldn’t have predicted the loss of Kareem Hunt, who was released late in the season after video emerged of him pushing and kicking a woman, or Spencer Ware, who missed the past four games because of a hamstring injury.

But they were quietly confident when circumstances forced them to turn to Williams. So far, at least, that confidence has been well-placed.

“Everybody felt with Damien if he just had an opportunity to go, you’d get an idea [what he was capable of]," coach Andy Reid said in his usual understated manner. “I thought we were going to be OK there."

In the regular season, Williams rushed for 256 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and caught 23 passes. He scored six touchdowns, fourth on the Chiefs behind their big trio of Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

He had his best game in the divisional-round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts with 129 rushing yards and a touchdown. Williams also caught five passes.

The Chiefs liked Williams’ versatility when they signed him as a free agent in the offseason. Immediately upon joining the Chiefs, he became the closest player they had in approximating Hunt’s skills.

Running with the ball has always been natural for Williams. Catching it is another matter.

“I definitely, for sure, had to work on that," he said. “If you’d call a couple of my [high school and college] coaches, they’re kind of mad. They’re like, 'Where did you learn how to catch all of a sudden?’ It’s for sure something you have to work on and that’s just [using the football-throwing machine] every day after practice."

In college at Oklahoma, Williams would work on his receiving skills by catching tennis balls.

“With [coach Bob] Stoops, it was high on his list that you had to know how to catch out of the backfield," Williams said.

He learned to catch well enough to latch on with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. He lasted four seasons in Miami, mainly as a third-down back.

Now, the Chiefs occasionally line up him as a wide receiver.

“We use him out there, and you have to cover him," Reid said. "He’s a legitimate receiver in those positions. Damien has done a nice job of stepping in and putting his own personality to that position. ... He brings a lot of energy. He’s got a short memory, which is important. If he has a hiccup in there, he jumps right back on and wants the ball again to try to do the right thing.

“We’ve appreciated having him here and what he’s done for our football team."

The Chiefs appreciated Williams’ contributions enough that they signed him to a contract extension in December. That’s partial validation of the work Williams put in to get to this point.

Playing a big role in getting the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl in 49 years would take it the rest of the way. Williams said he would leave everything on the field on Sunday to make that happen.

“I play with passion," Williams said. “Where I was at and where I’m at now, I’m letting that all out each time I’m on the field. Guys see that. Guys feel that. If it’s real, if it’s genuine, people feed off that.

“This is what I love to do. At the end of the day, as long as I’m playing football, as long as I’m involved, I was cool. You want to be in position to be the man and I’m in position right now to be that man, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing."