The Chiefs’ blueprint for success in 2013 was a simple one.
Take care of the football. Take the ball away. Make big plays on special teams. Stay healthy. Capitalize on a favorable schedule.
But all that went right during the Chiefs’ charmed 11-5 season of a year ago turned on them in a stunning 26-10 loss to the improved Tennessee Titans on Sunday in front of 73,569 disbelieving fans at Arrowhead Stadium.
“We did some things that weren’t very characteristic of us,” said cornerback Sean Smith.
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*A year ago, the Chiefs ranked second in the league with a plus-18 turnover differential. They took the ball away 36 times, second only to Seattle’s 39; and gave the ball away just 18 times, tied for second in the league.
But on Sunday, quarterback Alex Smith, who threw only seven interceptions last year, was picked off three times, and two led to Tennessee field goals by former Chief Ryan Succop. And the Chiefs didn’t force a turnover by the Titans, and their fourth-year quarterback Jake Locker.
“Losing the turnover battle … all those things we did last year to win, yeah, we didn’t do them today,” Alex Smith said. “Anytime you lose the turnover battle like that, three-zip, you’re not going to win many of those.”
*A year ago, the Chiefs could count on their special teams to deliver big plays. They set an NFL record by averaging 29.9 yards per kickoff return, and the club returned two kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns, plus they recovered a muffed punt against Tennessee for a score.
But in the Sunday’s opener, the special teams — missing punt returner De’Anthony Thomas, who was out with a hamstring injury — produced precious little. Kicker Cairo Santos missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt that banged off the left upright after he barely made a 35-yarder that caromed off the right upright. The Chiefs even came up short on a fake punt when Cyrus Gray took a direct snap and gained 4 yards when he needed 5 .
*A year ago, the Chiefs went virtually injury free. Other than an elbow injury that sidelined outside linebacker Justin Houston for the last five games of last season, the Chiefs suffered no other long-term injuries to any key players.
But on Sunday, they lost Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and steady defensive end Mike DeVito to ruptured Achilles’ in a span of eight plays. Achilles’ injuries are usually season-ending, and the club already has starting linebacker Joe Mays (wrist) on injured reserve with a designation to return in six weeks.
*A year ago, the Chiefs faced a favorable schedule that included the underperforming NFC East (28-36 as a division) and woeful AFC South (24-40). They also faced a run of unremarkable quarterbacks, including Tennessee’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, Oakland’s Terrell Pryor, Houston’s Case Keenum, Cleveland’s Jason Campbell and Buffalo’s Jeff Tuel, none of whom are on those team’s active rosters this year.
Now the Chiefs, who have lost seven of their last nine dating to last year’s 9-0 start, face the powerful NFC West that includes Super Bowl champion Seattle, and the formidable AFC East. And the next five games are at Denver, at Miami, against New England, at San Francisco and at San Diego, all of whom have standout quarterbacks.
“We recognize that our schedule is tougher as far as teams and their records last year,” Alex Smith said, “but at this point, we’re focused on Denver and ourselves.”
Smith, playing in his first game since signing a four-year, $68 million contract extension, completed just 19 passes for 202 yards, a late touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano. Smith, clearly missing suspended starting wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, posted a 45.2 passer rating, his second-worst as a Chief — dating to a 41.3 rating in the final regular-season home game last year against Indianapolis.
It was the eighth time in Smith’s career he has thrown three or more interceptions, and his teams are 0-8 in those games.
The first interception really hurt. Tennessee punter Brett Kern pinned the Chiefs at their 2 with a 56-yard punt with 38 seconds left in the first half.
Smith tried to go deep to Avery — they hit a similar play against the Titans for 41 yards last season — but his pass was intercepted by cornerback Jason McCourty at the Kansas City 42. The Titans turned that into the first of four field goals by former Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop, giving Tennessee at 10-3 halftime lead.
“We got what we were looking for,” Smith said of the play. “It was a miscommunication between me and Donnie as far as where he was going and what I was thinking. It cost us three points right before the half.”
It also gave the Titans plenty of momentum. On the first play of the second half, Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter beat Chiefs nickel back Chris Owens for 39 yards, setting up a touchdown pass from Locker to Kendall Wright for a 17-3 lead.
“We didn’t come out in the second half with the energy we needed to,” said Sean Smith. “We were only down by seven, but on the defensive side of the ball, we need to have a whole another level of intensity I know we can reach.”