The Chiefs’ showdown against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday had all the makings of a disappointing home loss — early on.
It was cold and rainy, much like the Chiefs’ road loss to Oakland a year ago. And a number of key Chiefs — including outside linebacker Justin Houston (knee), left tackle Eric Fisher (head and neck) and center Mitch Morse (concussion) — left the game with injuries, much like their losses to Tennessee a year ago and Chicago in October.
Throw in the fact the Bills jumped to 10-point lead (the Chiefs had not won a game all year where they trailed by that amount) and there were more than a few harbingers of doom.
But these Chiefs, who have bounced back from a 1-5 start , are slowly showing that they should never be counted out. When their backs hit the wall Sunday, they finally got their deep passing game going, finally stiffened on defense and made enough plays late to beat the Bills 30-22 before an announced crowd of 72,493 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Afterward, multiple players noted that all the adversity they have been through not only this year, but the last 2 1/2 years, prepared them to combat the myriad issues they faced Sunday.
“We have gone through adversity, especially in the beginning of the year,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “Guys have been out, we have had the injury thing and dealt with it before. I think having been through that does help you, for sure.”
The Chiefs learned the value of mental toughness in their 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in a 2014 Wild Card Game, a 28-point collapse that was brought on by multiple key injuries. Losses to Tennessee, when Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito suffered season-ending injuries, and Chicago, when Jamaal Charles was lost for the year, reinforced that necessity.
“I think you learn from those experiences,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I said after the Indy game (in 2014), we didn’t handle that well.”
So when the Chiefs came out sluggish Sunday and found themselves trailing by 10 without Houston, who was accidentally leg-whipped by safety Ron Parker and had to leave the game, it wasn’t hard to see where this game might be headed, especially with the way Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor was playing.
Taylor, a sixth-round pick 2011, was playing good football entering the game; he’d completed 67 percent of his passes with a solid 11-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in six starts. But it was hard to imagine him doing what he did to the Chiefs in the first half, when he teamed with receiver Sammy Watkins to torment the Chiefs.
On Buffalo’s first touchdown drive, Taylor offered a sign of things to come on a third-and-10 near midfield, when he patiently sat in the pocket and lofted a gorgeous 14-yard touch throw to Watkins near the sideline for a first down. A few plays later, he lofted another touch throw Watkins’ way, this one for a 28-yard touchdown up the left sideline over cornerback Sean Smith that put Buffalo ahead 10-0.
But after the Chiefs’ defense came up with a third-down stop at the Chiefs’ 44, the offense finally woke up. And Spencer Ware, who got the start at running back for an injured Charcandrick West, supplied the juice.
Ware’s first carry of the ensuing drive went for 16 yards, and his second went for 12. His third went for 4, and with the Bills committed to the run, quarterback Alex Smith spotted Jeremy Maclin running side-by-side with his man in single coverage with no safety help. He lofted a deep ball that died in the air toward the end, but was still hauled in by a sliding Maclin for a 37-yard gain.
The play set up a 3-yard touchdown plunge by Ware, and the Chiefs pulled to within 10-7 midway through the second quarter. Buffalo responded, however, as Watkins continued to torment the Chiefs. He caught a 33-yard pass over Parker, which set up Watkins’ second touchdown of the game, courtesy of another 21-yard jump ball over Sean Smith.
By that point, Watkins had six catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns. But the Chiefs adjusted their coverage — Buffalo coach Rex Ryan said a safety started playing deep over the top — and Watkins did not catch another pass the rest of the day.
“I mean, Watkins is one of the best in the business at the deep ball — they went at us early in the first half,” Johnson said. “Best thing about it, I think we responded. It’s one of those things where you say, ‘Aw man, they’re killing us on the pass right now,’ but it didn’t stay that way. Hats off to the defense and defensive coordinator for scheming up.”
Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ offense would no longer be stuck in neutral, either. After Alex Smith completed a 14-yard pass to Maclin, a 25-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Nickell Robey set up the Chiefs’ second touchdown, another deep throw up the right sideline to Maclin — this one for 41 yards — that cut the Chiefs’ deficit to 16-14 at halftime.
The Chiefs built on that momentum in the second half, as Alex Smith continued to push the ball downfield.
He found Maclin, who finished with nine catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns, for a 32-yard completion on their opening drive, and a few plays later, he spotted tight end Travis Kelce, who finished four catches for 69 yards, in single coverage over the middle and found him for a 15-yard touchdown that gave the Chiefs their first lead of the game, 21-16.
“The first couple of drives we were just noticing, like I said, how aggressive they were with us — free safeties, the entire secondary — and really just giving us one-on-one matchups on the outside,” said Smith, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
The Chiefs’ defense seized on the momentum swing too, as outside linebacker Tamba Hali sped off the right edge — from the spot Houston typically mans — and strip-sacked Taylor. The ball was recovered by Dontari Poe in Bills territory, which led to a 49-yard Cairo Santos field goal that extended the Chiefs’ lead to eight.
The Chiefs seemed primed to keep rolling, too, at least until Demetrius Harris’ fourth-down neutral-zone infraction on the Bills’ next drive. The penalty extended the drive, and the Bills took advantage, as LeSean McCoy scored on a 10-yard touchdown reception to cut the deficit to 24-22, as the two-point conversion attempt failed.
That was the score heading into the fourth quarter. Santos added a pair of field goals to give the Chiefs a 30-22 lead, although the Bills still had a chance to tie the game following Santos’ final field goal, which came with a little over three minutes left in the game.
But Taylor was stopped short of the marker on a fourth-down scramble on the ensuing drive — Dezman Moses, who was in the game due to injuries to Houston and Dee Ford, ran him out of bounds — and the Chiefs ran out the clock to clinch the victory.
Taylor finished the game 21 of 38 for 291 yards and three touchdowns, but he only completed 7 of 12 passes for 55 yards after the break, when the Chiefs started ramping up the pressure on him.
“We knew he could use his legs, throw the ball, but we didn’t want to dance outside, just watching him standing in the pocket,” Hali said. “So at times we had to put pressure on him. He made some plays, but we made some as well.”
The Chiefs improved to 6-5, while Buffalo dropped to 5-6. If the season ended this week, they would be in the playoffs. But with five games left, they know there’s plenty more work to do — especially with a road test against AFC West rival Oakland, 5-6, looming.
“That was a big win,” Johnson said. “This team is very tough, tough minded. Even when we were down 10-0, guys, we know what is at stake. It was an AFC win, and everything is for the marbles right now, so we need to win.”