It wasn’t that long ago that many were wondering about the direction of the Chiefs.
Just three weeks ago, they’d lost six of their previous seven games. The offensive line was leaky at best (particularly in the running game) and the quarterback wasn’t covering for its mistakes. On defense, the front seven struggled to stop the run and the secondary wasn’t making game-changing plays.
But on Sunday afternoon, none of that was on the minds of the faithful fans among the announced crowd of 65,325 who braved 20-degree weather at kickoff to witness history at Arrowhead Stadium.
For their patience, they got to watch their favorite football team complete a late-season turnaround courtesy of a 29-13 Chiefs victory over the Miami Dolphins that clinched a franchise first: the club’s second straight AFC West title.
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To celebrate the significance of the moment –– and to have a little fun with it –– Chiefs coach Andy Reid broke the team down in the locker room after the game and held his postgame press conference in a Santa suit, complete with the beard.
“One of Santa’s helpers helped me with this, with the suggestion,” joked Reid, who was then asked if the win was a gift to the Hunt family. “Well, all of the gifts he’s given us in the city of Kansas City, yes, I’d say so.”
Reid then turned serious in his presser, mentioning how proud he was of his players and coaches for staying tough through the season’s rough patch through October and November, displaying a mental toughness that was not lost on quarterback Alex Smith.
“To stick together and have that resiliency as a group, the entire building, too, I think it says a lot about the character we have,” Smith said. “Guys sticking in and staying together.”
Given the franchise’s inability to reach the AFC Championship Game since 1994, however, Smith and his teammates will ultimately be judged on their ability to deliver at least two playoff wins. And the good news is that during the course of Sunday’s contest, the Chiefs showed some legitimately positive signs on the way to winning their third straight game and improving to 9-6.
▪ Quarterback Alex Smith made a number of big plays, including some gorgeous throws to acrobatic receiver Tyreek Hill on the way to a 25-for-39, 304-yard day. Smith also surpassed 4,000 yards passing this season for the first time in his career.
▪ The offensive line asserted its will — enough, at least — against a front that included one of the game’s nastiest linemen, Ndamukong Suh. Running back Kareem Hunt clawed for 91 yards and a touchdown in 29 carries.
▪ The defense held the Dolphins’ running game and breakout star back Kenyan Drake to 59 yards in 16 carries.
▪ And while Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler threw for 286 yards and a touchdown, cornerback Marcus Peters forced a fumble and recovered another fumble, two crucial plays that swung momentum at various points of the game.
It didn’t take long for evidence of the last point to come to fruition, as the ball started bouncing the Chiefs’ way early. Literally.
On the Dolphins’ first drive, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson delivered a blow to receiver Jarvis Landry that caused the ball to pop out. Peters, who was standing a few feet away, let the ball fall right into his arms near the sideline to give the Chiefs possession.
“He made a good hit,” Landry said. “It was a hell of a hit, honestly. He hit the ball perfectly.”
The Chiefs only got a field goal out of that, but it set the tone for the day. The Dolphins, who fell to 6-9, responded with a field goal, but the Chiefs capitalized on their next drive, which included a gorgeous 52-yard deep ball from Smith to Hill and four third-down conversions — the last of which resulted in a 9-yard touchdown strike from Smith to tight end Travis Kelce (four catches, 47 yards) that gave the Chiefs 10-3 lead.
The Dolphins responded with another field goal, but the Chiefs rode Hunt to another scoring drive. Hunt carried the ball seven times for 58 yards on a nine-play, 68-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard run by Hunt that put the Chiefs ahead 17-6 midway through the second quarter.
“We got beat by a couple of guys who we talked about stopping,” Miami coach Adam Gase said, likely referring to Kelce and Hunt. “That’s what really hurt us.”
At that point, it appeared the Chiefs might be on their way to an easy victory. But poor tackling came back to bite them as Dolphins receiver Jakeem Grant — a 4.3 speedster who is listed at 5 feet 7 and 168 pounds — broke at least three tackles on a 65-yard screen.
The Chiefs still led 17-13, however, and the offense didn’t let the Dolphins build on the momentum from that score. After the teams exchanged punts, a defensive-holding penalty on the Dolphins extended the Chiefs’ final drive in the half. And after an impressive 33-yard strike from Smith to Hill, who tracked the ball near the sideline and hauled it in, kicker Harrison Butker — who finished with five field goals Sunday — made his second field goal to give the Chiefs a 20-13 halftime advantage.
From there, the Chiefs’ defense pitched a shutout. Dolphins kicker Cody Parkey missed a field goal, and the Chiefs’ offense got the ball in range for Butker, who drilled three more field goals in the second half to not only surpass Nick Lowery for the most single-season field goals in team history (36), but solidify a history-making victory.
“That’s a big deal –– we talked about it all week,” Johnson, a 13-year veteran, said of winning back-to-back division titles. “This is a pretty special moment.”
The win also assures the Chiefs their fourth playoff appearance in coach Andy Reid’s five-year tenure with the team. It will be a home game in the Wild Card round, regardless of what happens in their regular-season finale against the Broncos next week in Denver.
In the past, Reid has opted to rest most of his starters in the season finale in similar situations. And given the way the team has bounced back from a miserable two-month stretch, one could argue this year’s players have earned the same treatment.
“I feel we are playing better now than we were at the beginning of the season when we started 5-0,” team chairman Clark Hunt said. “I think both the offense and defense are playing at a very high level, and that gives us a chance.”