Frank Zombo sprinted to daylight, the announced crowd of 73,319 at Arrowhead Stadium cheering and yelling behind him. He thought, for a split-second, that he might be a hero.
This was Saturday, the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 22-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Wild Card playoff game, and the Chiefs had just surrendered a lead that at one juncture stretched to 18 points. A dynamic 22-yard touchdown throw from Marcus Mariota to Eric Decker put the Titans ahead for the first time.
The Arrowhead Stadium crowd, by now well-accustomed to brutal playoff losses, slunk in its seats after the throw, realizing they might be witnessing yet another gut-punch game. Every break, every call, every gotta-have-it moment seemed to have gone against the Chiefs to that point, so there was little wonder when — on the ensuing two-point conversion — everyone rose with joy at the sight of Daniel Sorensen’s sack of Mariota. The ball squirted free, and it looked like Zombo’s ensuing 58-yard return for a safety would give the Chiefs the lead again.
“It kind of reminded me of the Eric Berry situation last year in Atlanta, you know?” Zombo said, referring to Berry’s scoop and score in a regular-season win over the Falcons last season. “We were down by one at that point, all of a sudden we score two points, we’re up by one and then we get the ball back. It’s great.”
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Alas, postseason redemption never seems to happen for Chiefs fans. For the second time in the game, referee Jeff Triplette promptly waved off a potentially game-changing play in the Chiefs’ favor by saying Mariota was down before the fumble due to forward progress.
“I don’t really have anything good to say there, so I’m just gonna stay away from any comments on those guys," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, when asked about the calls. “It’s not worth it.”
Reid, when pushed further, said to ask the referees about it. Triplette stood behind the calls, including the one that negated Zombo’s go-ahead safety.
“He turned him around once, he turned him around a second time and he kept driving him back,” said Triplette, who added that the whistle came before the fumble. “You just rule forward progress at that point. (At that point), play’s over.”
Even though the Chiefs trailed just 22-21 with six minutes left in the game, the crowd was already in full-fledged terror mode. Sure enough, the Chiefs never recovered, or got the break they needed, to spare Kansas City another brutal postseason loss.
Reid didn’t even try to rationalize it.
“It should have never happened, it should have never happened the way it did,” Reid said. “You’ve got to learn how to win games like that, put your foot down.
“The fans were unbelievable and deserved more than what we gave them. That’s my responsibility as the head coach of the football team.”
Saturday’s outcome extended the Chiefs’ home playoff drought another year. Since their 27-24 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round on Jan. 8, 1994, the Chiefs have gone 0-6 in home playoff games.
And while this one will most likely be remembered for iffy calls by the officials, it incorporated elements of other Chiefs playoff defeats over the years, too, like a missed field goal (the Lin Elliott Game in 1996), multiple injuries (their 45-44 loss to the Colts in 2014), and poor run defense (their 18-16 loss to the Steelers last January), for example.
Earlier in the game, the Chiefs showed no signs of delivering another miserable playoff exit, as they looked well-rested after coach Andy Reid sat most of his starters in last week’s regular-season finale at Denver.
Quarterback Alex Smith connected on passes of 14, 45 and 27 yards against the Titans’ iffy pass defense, and the Chiefs’ second drive ended with points when running back Kareem Hunt — who finished with 42 yards on just 11 carries against the Titans’ strong defensive front — plunged in from a yard out to give the home team a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
The Titans’ offense, meanwhile, appeared hapless. And on the Chiefs’ next drive, Smith came out gunning again, completing passes of 26 and 18 yards before finding tight end Travis Kelce for a 13-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 entering the second quarter.
Arrowhead Stadium was rocking at that point.
And the Titans kept blowing chances. Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters intercepted Mariota to snuff a second-quarter trip to the red zone, and Tennessee managed only a field goal before halftime.
It was debatable whether the Titans should have gotten that field goal at all. One play before former Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop connected from 49 yards, Mariota was sacked by inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who appeared to force a fumble that was recovered by the Chiefs ... only to have the fumble overturned by Triplette.
He ruled the ball dead due to forward progress, even though Mariota never appeared to move forward on the play.
“The ruling was forward progress, so therefore it’s not reviewable in that situation — the defender hit him, driving him back,” said Triplette, who explained that the quarterback doesn’t have to be moving forward to make the call.
That would play a role later, even if the Chiefs still didn’t understand the call.
The Chiefs, not content to take a 14-3 lead into the break, proceeded to run an efficient two-minute offense. Smith completed seven straight passes, the final one a 15-yarder to DeMarcus Robinson with around 20 seconds left in the half.
Instead of calling timeout as the seconds ticked off the clock, however, the Chiefs rushed to the Titans’ 14-yard line and snapped the ball. Smith again found Robinson, who dodged a defender near the goal line for another touchdown.
The Chiefs held a 21-3 halftime lead, but all was not well. They absorbed what turned out to be a massive blow on that last drive, when tight end Travis Kelce was knocked from the game on a helmet-to-helmet hit. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and did not return.
It took only one play from scrimmage in the second half for the bad juju to begin. Defensive tackle Chris Jones, arguably the Chiefs’ most disruptive lineman, limped out of the game with a knee injury.
The loss of Jones severely hurt the depth of a defensive line already missing key reserve Rakeem Nunez-Roches. And with Kelce out, too, memories crept in of the Chiefs’ Wild Card defeat at Indianapolis in January 2014. Injuries to key players spelled the Chiefs’ undoing that day as well, as did freaky plays — such as Colts quarterback Andrew Luck recovering a fumble by his running back and scoring a critical touchdown.
Freaky plays had a role in Saturday’s loss, too. At the end of the Titans’ opening drive of the second half, Mariota attempted a pass on third-and-goal from the Chiefs’ 6-yard line. The ball was deflected by Chiefs safety Darrelle Revis, only to be caught by Mariota, who ran in for a score.
That’s right. The man caught his own pass for a touchdown.
“I got really lucky there,” Mariota said.
The Chiefs still led 21-10 at that point, but the offense had gone cold. The bad breaks continued, as an unnecessary-roughness penalty on Ukeme Eligwe negated what should have been a drive-extending roughing-the-kicker penalty.
The Chiefs seemed to retake the momentum when Tennessee’s Adoree’ Jackson fumbled the ensuing punt and KC recovered, but three fruitless plays later, rookie kicker Harrison Butker doinked a 48-yard attempt off the left upright — evoking shades of Elliott, who missed a game-winning kick in the waning seconds of a 10-7 loss to Indianapolis in a Jan. 7, 1996 divisional-round game.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Titans running back Derrick Henry broke free for a 35-yard touchdown run. The Titans failed to convert the two-point conversion, but momentum was firmly on their side. The Chiefs’ offense, which went limp without Kelce, was forced to punt again after tight end Orson Charles dropped a potential third-down conversion.
With the weight of the Chiefs’ past playoff failures now looming large, the Titans again took advantage. Mariota — who finished 19 of 31 for 205 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another score — capped an 80-yard march with a 22-yard bullet between two defenders to receiver Eric Decker, a touchdown that gave Tennessee its 22-21 lead.
With nearly six minutes left in the game, the Chiefs still had an opportunity. But their offense failed to do the job.
Three first downs brought the Chiefs to the Titans’ 44-yard line, but Smith’s fourth-and-9 pass over the middle bounced off receiver Albert Wilson’s fingertips — a final stain on a strong statistical performance in which he completed 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 116.2.
“We had a good chance,” Smith said, “and it’s gone, it’s over.”
The Titans retook possession with a little over two minutes remaining. The Chiefs needed a break, and seemed to get it when Peters stripped the ball from Henry; Johnson recovered the ball and ran it back 56 yards.
But Henry, who bruised the Chiefs for 156 yards on 23 carries, was ruled down before the fumble. Tennessee — which racked up 202 rushing yards, 31 more than the Steelers did in their divisional-round win over Kansas City in January — was able to run out the clock, sending a number of angry fans to the exits.
The ones who didn’t leave before the clock struck zero booed. And who could blame them? Their favorite team had delivered them another heartbreaking playoff failure, this one courtesy of a complete inability to make a play when it mattered.
Or, perhaps, simply catch a break.
“I’ve been to the final game, and sometimes you just need the ball to bounce your way,” said Zombo, who won a Super Bowl with the Packers in 2010. “And in the second half, the ball didn’t bounce our way.”
Emblematic of that, for sure, will be the strip-sacks that weren’t.
The Forward Progress Game.
“I still don’t understand,” Zombo said, shaking his head, “how that wasn’t a fumble.”