Doubts bordering on jitters consumed Kansas City fans as the first home playoff game in years approached.
This was well-earned angst. Regular-season success was one thing, and that achievement had been celebrated. But would this team take full advantage of its hard-earned opportunity?
The Chiefs hope to on Sunday, when they meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Divisional playoff game.
The Royals certainly did in 2014, kicking off a two-year run of baseball bliss that included two American League pennants and a World Series trophy. Their success unleashed a sports joy in Kansas City not felt in decades.
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Adding to the euphoria was the nature of so many of the Royals’ triumphs, a succession of odds-defying comebacks that endeared the team even more to its loyal fan base.
This is where a cross-pollination between the baseball and football tenants at Truman Sports Complex begins to take shape. When Royals general manager Dayton Moore looks across the parking lot, he sees a team with a familiar quality.
“When you have a passion to win for one another and selflessness becomes a key ingredient, I see that with successful teams,” Moore said.
Asked to pinpoint a reason for the Chiefs’ success — a 12-4 record that’s the franchise’s best since 2003 and their first AFC West crown in six years — quarterback Alex Smith didn’t single out individual players or identify a turning point.
“It’s about all three phases (offense, defense, special teams) being selfless,” Smith said. “You never know how a game is going to unfold, how it’s going to shake out. Good things happen, bad things happen; you have to be able to handle all that stuff equally well.”
Bad things like falling behind the Chargers by 21 points in the third quarter of their season opener before rallying to win.
Or a lifeless beginning to the game at Carolina, where the Chiefs fell behind 17-0 before staging a comeback that included holding the Panthers without a score after a 20-play drive, and perhaps the defensive play of the year when cornerback Marcus Peters stripped receiver Kelvin Benjamin of the ball, leading to Cario Santos’ first walk-off field goal.
If that wasn’t the play of year, it occurred a month later when safety Eric Berry stepped in front of Matt Ryan’s two-point conversion attempt in Atlanta. Instead of giving the Falcons a three-point lead, this one resulted in Berry’s 100-yard interception return for two points, and the Chiefs won 29-28.
Several moments stood out in their 30-27 triumph at Denver, including the Chiefs’ gaining an advantage after a Broncos touchdown. Denver scored on a quick-strike 76-yard pass play from Trevor Siemian to Bennie Fowler, and the Chiefs trailed by eight with three minutes remaining.
But what Denver had really needed to do was kill time off the clock, not score points. Left with enough time to work, Smith capped off a clutch scoring drive with a two-point conversion pass to Demetrius Harris that sent the game to overtime, where the Chiefs won on the second walk-off field goal of Santos’ career.
In three of the four games, all but the Falcons’ victory, the Chiefs faced a less-than 2 percent chance of victory, according to probability analytics. Lose any one of them, and the Chiefs cede the division title to the Raiders, who also finished 12-4 but lost the division tie-breaker after getting swept by the Chiefs.
Any of this sound familiar?
The 2014 American League Wild Card game. Game 4 of the 2015 American League Division Series in Houston, when the Royals were six outs from elimination but rallied to victory. Overcoming deficits in all four World Series victories in 2015 against the Mets, including a 2-0 hole in the ninth inning of Game 5. They were the never-say-die Royals.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Royals became the first Major League Baseball team in history to win three World Series games in which they trailed in the eighth inning or later.
Magical stuff … much like the Chiefs this season.
But a team can’t bank on magical moments, nor does it want to.
“We’re dangerous for any team that plays us,” Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe said. “No matter if we’re behind, ahead or tied, we have the same mindset.”
That’s how a team wants to be known: dangerous, physical, tough-minded. And the Chiefs, like the Royals before them, are every bit of that.
The Royals didn’t exactly feel charmed in the 2014 World Series when Alex Gordon, the potential game-tying runner in Game 7, didn’t score after his sprint to third, or during Salvador Perez’s ninth-inning plate appearance.
Similarly, Andy Reid’s magic touch didn’t look so magic when he called a timeout to ice Titans kicker Ryan Succop in the final seconds against Tennessee. Succop came up short on what amounted to a practice kick, then powered his next try through the uprights. Game over.
But the Chiefs this season, like the Royals the previous two, won with their backs against the wall. And a sense of trust and selflessness seems as reasonable an explanation as any.
“You have no idea what’s going to happen,” Smith said. “I think the one thing, though, that this team has is we stay together. We understand the importance of everybody contributing. You never know whose turn it’s going to be or where it’s going to come from, but I think everybody takes on that accountability and wants it.”
This isn’t analytics. This is a sense that the whole is greater than the parts.
In 2014, the Royals won 89 games when their projected victory total suggested they would win something closer to 84. Had that been case, they would not have reached the wild-card game.
In 2015, when the Royals won 95 games, they had the stats of a 90-victory team, which would’ve cost them home-field advantage in the ALCS.
The Chiefs were outgained on the ground and through the air this season. Spencer Ware fell short of 1,000 yards rushing, and Smith’s 15 touchdown passes were his fewest with the Chiefs. But they led the NFL in less sexy statistics, such as turnover margin, takeaways and non-offensive touchdowns.
Their expected record was 10-6, based on a Pro Football Reference formula.
The Chiefs have their stars, of course; only the Cowboys had more Pro Bowlers (five) than the Chiefs’ quartet of Berry, Peters, tight end Travis Kelce and return specialist Tyreek Hill.
But Berry cites an overall unity as their real x-factor.
“A lot of people don’t account for chemistry on the team,” Berry said. “Some of them deal solely with talent, but I feel the chemistry on this team is pretty good.”
The Royals believed the same thing all the way to a World Series title. And there is another intersection here.
In 2015, after the Royals had defeated the Blue Jays to win the American League pennant, and before the World Series started, several members of the club took in a Chiefs game at Arrowhead. The Chiefs were 1-5 at the time, and their season looked lost. But there stood Perez, Eric Hosmer and others, grinning with the ALCS trophy on the sideline.
The Chiefs’ opponent that day? The Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play because of an injury, and the Chiefs broke their five-game losing streak and started a run of 10 straight wins. Then came their first playoff victory in more than two decades last January at Houston, and now they’ve won the division.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh returns to Arrowhead for the first time since that day. Roethlisberger will play, and the Steelers arrive loaded with talent — best-at-their-position guys like wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
But the Chiefs have talent as well. And perhaps something else.