ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Everything pointed to a special day for Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali on Sunday.
It was his 30th birthday. The Penn State marching band, from his alma mater, performed before the game and at halftime.
And Hali celebrated in grand style, pouncing on a fourth-quarter fumble and returning it 11 yards for the decisive points in the Chiefs’ 23-13 win over the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Hali’s touchdown — as well as Sean Smith’s 100-yard touchdown return in the third quarter — epitomized the hallmark of the NFL’s stingiest scoring defense.
The Chiefs not only lead the NFL with 23 takeaways and a plus-15 turnover ratio, but they convert those turnovers into points.
The Chiefs have returned four interceptions for touchdowns this season — one each by Hali, Eric Berry, Husain Abdullah and Smith.
The Chiefs also recovered a muffed punt for a touchdown by Marcus Cooper at Tennessee, giving them a league-leading six defensive returns for touchdowns.
Best of all, the Chiefs have turned the 23 takeaways into 84 points — 39 percent of the 215 total points Kansas City has scored this season.
On Sunday, turnovers accounted for 17 of the Chiefs’ 23 points, starting with Kendrick Lewis’ second-quarter interception that set up the first of Ryan Succop’s three field goals.
Then, Smith and Hali provided the other two touchdowns on a day the Chiefs’ offense did not get in the end zone.
“Bob Sutton does a great job with our defense,” Hali said of the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator. “He allows us to play; we make mistakes when we’re in there, we blow coverages … a lot of that happens, but we keep playing, and then things happen to go our way.
“Our guys are strong-minded men who continue to play the game the way it should be played because you never know what might happen on the next play.”
Hali, a former AFC sack leader, had not scored a touchdown in his eight-year career until this season, and now he has two.
The game was tied 13-13 early in the fourth quarter when Buffalo rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel, making his first NFL start and playing in his second game, completed a pass over the middle to wide receiver T.J. Graham.
Graham gained 3 yards to the Bills’ 11, where Chiefs cornerback Cooper stripped him of the ball.
Hali was there to scoop the ball up and rumbled 11 yards for the touchdown, giving the Chiefs the lead for good.
“It happened so quick,” Hali said. “When he was stopped, I thought the play was over. I just picked it up … and it just kept happening … and I ran it in.”
Hali didn’t have to run nearly as far as Smith did with his game-changing interception.
The Bills, leading 10-3, had third and goal at the Chiefs’ 1 and were on the brink of blowing the game open with a touchdown — or at least making it 13-3 with a field goal — when Tuel didn’t see a wide-open Stevie Johnson in the end zone and tried to force the ball to Graham.
Instead, Tuel found Smith, who intercepted his second pass of the season.
“It looked like he didn’t see me,” Smith said. “I’m glad he threw it … we had a bracket coverage on the slot receiver. Once he went inside, my job was to back off and get in the window of the nickel back, and it worked.”
Once Smith had the ball, he headed down the sideline with a convoy of blockers led by linebacker Derrick Johnson, who stayed between Smith and Tuel, the only Bill with a chance at catching Smith.
Smith, in his first season with the Chiefs after signing as a free agent from Miami, has fit right in with the ball-hawking defense.
“We have so much talent, so many playmakers on this side of the ball,” Smith said, “and all want to make a play … the play … not wait for somebody else to make the play. … We all are capable of making the play, and we can’t wait to go out there and make it, especially these situations.”
That mentality has enabled the Chiefs to turn a situation in which the opponent is at their goal line into six points for Kansas City.
“We pride ourselves on applying pressure and getting turnovers,” said Lewis. “We preach it in practice … ‘Score with the ball, score with the ball’ … it’s been a success.
“We play better when our backs are to the wall. We play as one. We never panic, not for one second. We always go in knowing somebody on our defense, no matter who it may be, someone will come up with a play.”