When the Chiefs met the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 4, chairman Clark Hunt briefly caught up with his former general manager, Scott Pioli, and issued a light-hearted prediction.
“I told him ‘Looking forward to seeing you in Houston,’ and I said that knowing that he never goes to the Super Bowl unless the team he’s with is in the game, so I felt they had a chance and I was hoping we were going to be on the other side of the bracket for him,” Hunt said this week at the Super Bowl. “We’ve texted a couple of times over the last month or so and I congratulated him on making it.”
The Chiefs, of course, went 12-4 and won the AFC West for the first time since 2010, but fell at home in the divisional round in an 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh. It was a dispiriting loss for the Chiefs, who hoped to advance further than they did last year, and the fact the Falcons now find themselves in the Super Bowl — where they will face New England on Sunday — doesn’t really help.
In fact, this marks the third straight year a team that lost to the Chiefs went on to use it as a rallying point and make the Super Bowl. The Patriots did it in 2014, following a 41-14 blowout loss to the Chiefs on “Monday Night Football,” and the Broncos did the same a year ago following another blowout, a 29-13 home defeat in which Peyton Manning was intercepted five times.
The Chiefs didn’t blow out the Falcons in their 29-28 victory in December, but numerous Falcons admitted this week that the way they lost — courtesy of Eric Berry’s momentum-turning “pick-2” interception — left a lasting impact on them.
“The way we lost and how we lost, it stuck with us,” Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “It was a bad feeling we had, and we just didn’t want to feel that way anymore, and we did all we could to make sure we won every Sunday from then on.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon noted that the Falcons, who were 7-5 after that loss, needed the wake-up call.
“On tape, I didn’t see that grittiness or competitive fire that we go out there and play with,” Weatherspoon said. “After that, we talked about going out and being some (bad dudes), basically, no more Mr. Nice Guy stuff. That’s what you’ve seen from our defense. We’re competing so much better.”
Falcons edge rusher Brooks Reed agreed.
“We were feeling pretty good at that point in the season, like we were on the rise,” Reed said. “And after that, it was pretty humbling. (We saw) it’s just not going to happen, you’ve got to put the right work and focus in every week (because) the other team gets paid too. From then on, it kind of seems like a switch came on, just another level of focus.”
Reed added that Falcons coach Dan Quinn challenged the Falcons to prove what they were made of.
“(His message) was somewhere along the lines of, there’s gonna be points along the season where you’re gonna struggle and all that matters is how you react and persevere and how hard you play the next game,” Reed said. “Everyone is going to lose in the NFL, it’s only a matter of time; it’s just how you react to a loss and whether you come back strong the next week.”
The Falcons certainly did that, winning their next six games to reach Super Bowl LI … where some Falcons, at least for a while, thought they might see the Chiefs.
“I honestly thought (we would) see them again,” Babineaux said. “I would have thought they would have made it to the AFC Championship, at least.”
Offensive tackle Tom Compton — who half-jokingly recalled chasing Berry during the pick-2 — said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Chiefs were to make it to the big game in the future.
“The Chiefs, they’re really good,” Compton said. “It’s hard to say how stuff will turn out, but you can always count on them to at least be in the dance. With the setup they have, they’ll be successful … it’s just a matter of getting hot at the right time.”
Like the Falcons, who now find themselves one win away from football immortality. A win would also do some good for Pioli’s legacy, especially after a failed tenure in Kansas City in which the club went 23-41 from 2009 to 2012.
And while Hunt hasn’t forgotten about those dark days, he obviously wishes Pioli the best.
“I don’t know that you ever make you peace with it,” Hunt said. “It’s a long time in the rearview mirror and we’ve moved on and become successful in our own right. I’m still disappointed, though, that we weren’t better during Scott’s time here because I do think he’s a talented personnel executive.”