It has taken six years, plenty of heartbreak and lots of growth since coach Andy Reid’s arrival in Kansas City. But on Sunday, the Chiefs finally won the AFC West again.
Turns out it took a convincing 37-27 win over the San Diego Chargers, not to mention the Oakland Raiders’ surprising loss to the Denver Broncos — which was played at the exact same time.
So, the Chiefs had the benefit of going into the game blind, knowing they needed to focus on playing well and nothing else. And for the most part, that’s what happened. The Chiefs improved to 12-4 before an announced crowd of 54,915 at Qualcomm Stadium and finished the regular season with a perfect 6-0 mark in the division.
And afterward, the Chiefs celebrated that way, as what could be the Chargers’ last game in San Diego turned into a Chiefs celebration, complete with thousands of red-and-gold clad fans – who took up most of the seats behind the Chiefs’ bench – tomahawk-chopping and yelling and waving to the grinning players as they sprinted off the field, hands in the air, and into the tunnel.
“It felt like a home game,” tight end Travis Kelce said.
Both teams opened the game with field goals, though the Chiefs’ first offensive drive was interesting because they went 53 yards without Kelce, who spent the entirety of their 10-play, game-opening scoring drive on the sideline. A team spokesman declined to comment about Kelce’s absence.
Kelce returned on the Chiefs’ next drive and played a key role. After the Chargers took a 10-3 lead with a touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates, quarterback Alex Smith scored on a 5-yard run courtesy of a block thrown by Kelce on a zone read.
The Chiefs are among the league leaders in takeaways, and their opportunistic defense — thanks to their most-opportunistic defensive player — laid the groundwork for their next score. Cornerback Marcus Peters jumped a Rivers pass for his first pick in more than two months, and a few plays later Reid dialed up a nice play-action boot that led to Smith tossing a 4-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Charcandrick West.
The Chargers’ next drive, which advanced to the Chiefs’ red zone, was thwarted when safety Daniel Sorensen — who pressured Rivers on the play that led to Peters’ interception — sprinted over the top of the defense and hauled in an end-zone interception. The Chiefs’ ensuing drive ended with a Santos field goal, and the Chiefs took a 20-10 lead into the break.
The Chiefs opened the third quarter with what appeared to be another scoring drive until safety Jahleel Addae sprinted under a deflected pass and returned it 90 yards, all while ducking and dodging between would-be tacklers for a touchdown that cut the Chargers’ deficit to three.
But the Chiefs, as they have done all season, responded to their latest bit of adversity. The offense put together a 12-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by another play-action pass from Smith to West, this time from 2 yards out, to put the Chiefs ahead 27-17.
“That was big,” Reid said. “It kind of showed what this team is about. Nobody flinched.”
Later in the quarter Tyreek Hill essentially finished the Chargers off when he fielded a punt, deftly avoided two would-be tacklers, broke into the open and tiptoed down the sideline — all while somehow avoiding a teammate who tripped in front of him — to cruise into the end zone for a 95-yard punt return that gave the Chiefs a 17-point lead.
“Once you get through the first wave, you know you are gone because you have blockers ahead of you,” Hill said.
The score was the longest punt return in club history, topping Dexter McCluster’s mark of 94 yards. It was also Hill’s 12th touchdown, tying Abner Haynes’ 56-year-old mark for the club’s rookie record for touchdowns.
The Chiefs, who logged a season-high in points, were led offensively by Smith, who completed 21 of 28 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Most importantly, he also seemed to find a groove with his scrambling again, rushing six times for 21 yards and a touchdown. West, who was filling in for an injured Spencer Ware, chipped in by catching two touchdown passes and rushing 16 times for 58 yards.
The defense did its part by intercepting Rivers — who went 22 of 38 for 269 yards — twice. The Chargers rushed for a decent-enough 129 yards, but they simply couldn’t overcome their red-zone issues.
With the win, the Chiefs not only earned the distinction of winning the AFC West for the first time since 2010, they also clinched a first-round bye for the first time since 2003. That year, they went 13-3 and lost the “no-punt” game to Indianapolis in the divisional round.
This year, the Chiefs will play host to the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers barring a first-round upset against Miami. If the Dolphins win, the Chiefs will host the winner of the showdown between fourth-seeded Houston and fifth-seeded Oakland. The Chiefs’ next game, which will be played on Sunday, Jan. 15, at 12:05 p.m., will be the Chiefs’ first playoff home contest since 2010 – and the opponent, they say, does not matter.
“Whoever comes on the schedule, we’ve got to continue to do what we do here — go out and dominate in three stages,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali, a 11-year veteran who added this is the best team he’s played on, to date.
In many ways, Sunday’s crowning moment is the culmination of a long climb toward the top of the AFC West for the Chiefs, who lost five straight to the Broncos — who had won the last five AFC West crowns — following Reid’s arrival in 2013.
Along the way, there were plenty of tough losses to swallow, particularly against Denver. The Jamaal Charles fumble … all those games where the defense couldn’t stop pick plays … year after year, the Broncos seemed to always do enough to leave the Chiefs wanting.
“Those losses, yeah, that’s what makes this sweet,” Reid said. “You’ve had to work at it, you’ve had to earn it.”
Ironically, on Sunday it was the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos — who have lost their last three contests to the Chiefs — who gave their nemesis the best gift possible, courtesy of their 24-6 upset win over a Derek Carr-less Oakland team playing for a No. 2 seed and first-round bye.
“Denver, we appreciate them, by the way — thanks for helping us out,” Reid said.
It was, to be sure, the most pleasant of all surprises on an afternoon during which the Chiefs took care of business, got a little help and can now, finally, say the West has been won — in convincing fashion, no less.
“It’s crazy to sweep the division,” Smith said with a grin. “It’s not something you anticipate doing … this year, to finally get over that hump, it’s still sinking in right now.”