One might think that after an offseason full of Super Bowl talk, the Chiefs’ listless season-opening performance in the first half Sunday — which resulted in an 18-point halftime deficit — might inspire some angry words from their head coach in the locker room.
But Chiefs coach Andy Reid has been doing this a long time (18 years, as he likes to remind them) and did not yell. Instead, he calmly spoke to the players, and simply told them what they needed to do to reverse the tide against the visiting San Diego Chargers.
It conveyed a sense of confidence, one that helped set the stage for a stunning 33-27 overtime victory, the greatest second-half comeback (by margin) in club history in front of an announced crowd of 73,238 at Arrowhead Stadium.
“He was cool,” running back Charcandrick West said of Reid. “We were 1-5 last year, bro. It doesn’t get much worse than that.”
The Chiefs, of course, rallied to win 11 straight games and earn their first playoff victory in 22 years following last year’s miserable start. So no one was panicking Sunday, even when another San Diego field goal put the Chiefs in a 24-3 hole with a little over 6 minutes left in the third quarter.
To that point, they had been outplayed, outschemed and outgained 283 yards to 101. But things were about to change.
“You’re gonna have games like this that you have to rely on your character, your grit,” Reid said.
But a victory like this — in which the Chiefs outscored the Chargers 30-3 over the last 21 minutes of the game to eclipse their previous biggest comeback victory, a 27-24 win over New Orleans in 2012 in which they rallied from 18 down — requires more than grit.
It also required a quarterback, Alex Smith, who proved he could make plays when it counted, and a defense that finally figured out how to contain a running game that had gashed it for 121 yards — an average of 5.5 per carry — by the midway point of the third quarter. That provided a balance that allowed quarterback Philip Rivers to complete an absurd 18 of 22 passes for 162 yards by that same point.
But make no mistake, the comeback started with Smith, the Chiefs’ 32-year-old signal-caller, who finished the game 34 of 48 for 363 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another after being criticized for his inability to lead them to comeback victories in the past.
Smith got it going by accounting for all the yardage on a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive to end the third quarter, in which he converted a fourth-and-5 at the Chargers’ 25-yard line and capped the march with a 9-yard toss to receiver Tyreek Hill on a tunnel screen.
And while Smith threw an interception to open the fourth quarter, he and Maclin quickly got their revenge, as they capped a 56-yard scoring march on their next drive with a gorgeous 19-yard back-shoulder fade for a touchdown.
The Chargers still led 27-17 with 9 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game, but the momentum, which seemed to turn after receiver Keenan Allen suffered a significant knee injury in the second quarter, had shifted the Chiefs’ way.
The defense stepped up against the run, limiting the Chargers to 34 yards in their last 11 carries (a 3.1 average). And with the Chargers now forced to go farther on second and third downs, it allowed the defense to hunt the non-mobile Rivers, who only completed seven of his final 14 throws for 81 yards.
The Chiefs forced a punt on the Chargers’ next possession and netted a field goal that cut the deficit to seven with a little over 3 minutes left. After another Chargers’ three-and-out — not to mention a terrible 17-yard punt that gave the Chiefs the ball at the Chargers’ 42-yard line with a little under 2 minutes left — the Chiefs were suddenly in business.
Smith led the Chiefs on a four-play scoring drive, which included a 22-yard missile among three defenders to Maclin and a 5-yard scoring run by Spencer Ware (11 carries for 70 yards and a team-high seven pass receptions for 129 yards). The touchdown knotted the score at 27-27, and the Chiefs’ defense sent the game into overtime by wiping out a final San Diego drive, which featured a timely sack by Dee Ford.
The Chiefs won the toss to open overtime, and Smith completed the comeback by leading his team on a 10-play, 70-yard scoring march. He completed touch passes downfield to tight end Travis Kelce and Ware that extended the drive, and in the end, the quarterback who has been roundly criticized for his inability to lead his team back from late-game deficits did just that by capping the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on a read-option keeper.
“That was him,” Reid said, referring to the final play, in which Smith called an audible. “Give him the credit.”
Afterward, the locker room was upbeat and happy, but not as jubilant as one might think. There was a sense of “been there, done that,” which was a bit surprising, considering the circumstances.
“We expect more out of ourselves,” safety Eric Berry explained. “We got the win, but I think the emphasis that we had was starting early … and we came out a little flat.”
So yes, the Chiefs are 1-0, but they’re not amped. It’s an attitude reflected by their coach, who helped set the stage for the comeback by setting the tone at halftime.
“It’s just one out of 16,” Reid said. “That first game can be overrated a little bit, right? There’s a lot of hype that goes into the first game of the season. There’s 15 more that are left.”
Reid then paused for a split second.
“But I will tell you,” he said a slight grin, “this doesn’t hurt you, for sure.”