Late in the fourth quarter of their showdown against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, the Chiefs found themselves in a familiar position: with a tenuous lead, and needing only a first down to secure the win.
While the Chiefs were able to do just that against the Raiders last week — when they grinded out three straight running plays to acquire a coveted first down — they failed to replicate that success against the Titans, who stuffed a third-and-2 run, got the ball back with a minute left and promptly connected on a field goal as time expired to deal the Chiefs a 19-17 defeat before an announced crowd 68,084 at Arrowhead Stadium.
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“Everybody getting to the line of scrimmage I think was like, ‘All right, we have the memory from Oakland, let’s do the same thing, let’s win the game, let’s go home, let’s get into the playoff,” right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said. “But it didn’t happen.”
What happened instead — a third-down stuff on an option run fell just short — resulted in a loss that not only snapped the Chiefs’ three-game winning streak and dropped them to 10-4, but also prevented them from clinching a playoff berth.
“It sucks,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “It sucks.”
The Chiefs’ inability to close out the Titans on Sunday with a first down, something they did against Oakland and Atlanta, also shined a spotlight on the offense’s ongoing, and maddening, inconsistency.
The Chiefs have not scored a second-half touchdown in three weeks, and it finally caught up to them against the Titans. Their offensive struggles also extended to the red-zone (1 for 4) and on third-down (4 of 14), which — when combined with some coaching decisions by Andy Reid that backfired — was enough to help the AFC South-leading Titans (8-6) overcome a 3-1 turnover deficit.
“I thought we were awful on third down, I thought we didn’t capitalize in the red zone,” wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “We could have put that game away much earlier, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
The bitter ending also led to some concern about the Chiefs’ offensive playcalling. Tight end Travis Kelce said he thought they got conservative, though he quickly added in the same breath that it wasn’t the reason they lost, which quarterback Alex Smith downplayed.
“Yeah, it’s easy to say when things don’t go well — certainly, we were not in a rhythm at all,” Smith said. “We did not get anything going. We were pretty stagnant in the second half.”
That is interesting because the Chiefs’ offense certainly wasn’t stagnant in the first quarter, when they jumped ahead 14-0 thanks to a well-designed, well-executed handoff to Tyreek Hill, who exploded up the numbers, untouched, for a 68-yard touchdown and a 10-yard touchdown scramble by Smith.
The Titans turned to a little trickery in the second quarter with a 44-yard pass on a flea-flicker and their ground game to cut the deficit, as running back Derrick Henry soon scored on a 4-yard plunge.
The Chiefs wasted a golden opportunity to add to their lead when two consecutive running plays from the Titans’ 1, which were set up by a sack-strip of quarterback Marcus Mariota for the Titans’ second turnover of the day, yielded 0 yards and resulted in a turnover on downs.
“It was all set up for us to do the right thing, and it didn’t work out,” said coach Andy Reid, who said he also declined to review a potential touchdown run by De’Anthony Thomas a few plays earlier because he was told by his coaches he did not score.
Still, the Chiefs’ defense — which surrendered 148 rushing yards but stuck to its bend-but-don’t-break style — held firm, and got the offense the ball back with enough time for Cairo Santos to connect on a 34-yard field goal that put the Chiefs ahead 17-7 at halftime.
The third quarter as largely uneventful, aside from an impressive one-handed interception by safety Ron Parker — the Titans’ third turnover of the game — and a poor red-zone interception by Smith, who appeared to stare down Maclin on the ensuing play.
But that failed red-zone opportunity ended up costing the Chiefs. The Titans netted an early fourth-quarter field goal to cut the lead to 17-10, and with the Chiefs’ offense mired in a second-half funk, Tennessee quickly got the ball back with an opportunity to tie.
The Titans put themselves in position to do just that with a six-play, 87-yard scoring drive that was capped by a 1-yard run by Henry but keyed by 82 passing yards by Mariota — who finished 19 of 33 for 241 yards and two turnovers but came alive late — including a clutch fourth-and-5 completion to DeMarco Murray at the Chiefs’ 16.
That’s when coach Mike Mularkey took a gamble that did not work out for the Titans when the ensuing two-point conversion attempt — a sprint-out pass — was sniffed out and stopped.
At that point, the Chiefs only needed a first down to run out the clock on the Titans, who were out of timeouts. But Smith’s option keeper was stuffed on third-and-2, which gave the Titans the ball back with one minute remaining and left the Chiefs’ linemen grumbling.
“It’s our job to get the first down and win the game,” center Mitch Morse said. “Whatever we have to do to fix that, we’ll get it figured out.”
The Titans, meanwhile, took advantage. Six plays and 40 yards later, former Chief Ryan Succop drilled a 53-yard field goal — after he’d missed from the same distance just moments earlier only to be saved by Reid’s attempt to ice the kicker — to deal the Chiefs their first loss in a month.
Now the Chiefs also need help to win the AFC West and secure a first-round bye, which they could have secured on their own had they won out. The loss means they need Oakland, 11-3, to lose against the Colts or Broncos the final two weeks to keep those hopes alive.
But Reid — and several players, including Maclin and Smith — stressed that this is no time to panic, despite the fact that the loss shined a spotlight on some troublesome areas.
“You sit here and point fingers and do all that stuff that bad teams do, or you fix the problems,” Reid said. “So we’ve got to make sure we do that. We’re still in a good position.”