Tyvon Branch watched the ball flutter through the air and into his grasp. And as he fell onto the slick, muddy turf at O.co Coliseum, he heard teammate Marcus Peters — who was standing nearby — yelling at him.
“Marcus was telling me go down,” said Branch, a former Raider. “And I’m like ‘Nah, I’ve got to live out my dreams.’ ”
So Branch, a safety who signed with the Chiefs in March after spending the first seven years of his career in Oakland, rose to his feet and sprinted to daylight. He ran with urgency and grace — a flash of the athleticism that helped make him a standout in this stadium before injuries sabotaged his career — and went untouched into the end zone.
In a wacky game filled with missed kicks, fumbles, interceptions and momentum swings, the theme of redemption reigned supreme Sunday.
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And while Peters wrote a similar script filled with peaks and valleys during his emotional return to his hometown, it was Branch’s pick-six that solidified the surging Chiefs’ 34-20 win over the Raiders — their sixth straight victory — in front of a crowd of 55,010.
“Anytime you get cut in this league,” said Branch, a multiyear starter in Oakland before his release, “you take it personal a little bit.”
It was as close as Branch, whose interception extended the Chiefs’ lead from six to 14 late in the fourth quarter, came to admitting vindication. All week, he kept his cards close to the vest, even to teammates.
“It was crazy, because Ty didn’t say much about it all week,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “But we knew deep down inside, this was a game that he definitely wanted to win … to see him get that pick and seal the deal for us was big. It was a big play for him and a big play for us.”
But this was a game filled with lots of big plays. The Chiefs and Raiders have had some wild contests over the years, so it’s fitting that this one — in what might be the last game played between the two teams in Oakland — was of that ilk.
“I feel like we’re the most dramatic team in the NFL,” Smith said. “We can never just win easy. It’s always going to be something that happens in the third quarter or a turnover here or things of that nature. But one thing about us, we always fight, and we definitely have learned how to finish.”
The Raiders, who dropped to 5-7, were fighting for their playoff lives, with a loss meaning they would have to win out to finish above .500. And they played with that kind of desperation, not wasting any time getting off to a good start.
After the Raiders received the opening kickoff, quarterback Derek Carr led his team on a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown plunge by running back Latavius Murray. But the Chiefs responded with a touchdown drive of their own, and quarterback Alex Smith scrambled in from 3 yards out to knot the score at 7-7.
It was at that point the Chiefs, who had done a good job protecting the football over the last two months, began shooting themselves in the foot. Receiver Jeremy Maclin committed the Chiefs’ first turnover since a 16-10 loss to Minnesota on Oct.18 on a second-quarter fumble, but the Raiders failed to take advantage, even when their ensuing punt was bobbled by Frankie Hammond, who recovered his own fumble.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the same could not be said later in the second quarter when Raiders safety Charles Woodson stripped Travis Kelce at the tail end of a 16-yard reception in Oakland territory and returned it 38 yards.
“I gotta get out of bounds, I have to understand the situation, know that it’s two-minute, and get myself out of bounds,” Kelce said. “Unacceptable to put the team in that position. I can’t do that.”
The Raiders, who suddenly had the ball at the Chiefs’ 36 with 40 seconds left, took advantage. Carr threw a 25-yard dart over the middle to Michael Crabtree — who held on after absorbing a vicious blow from safety Eric Berry — for a touchdown that gave the Raiders a 14-7 lead right before halftime.
But the resilient Chiefs, who were whistled for 11 penalties compared to the Raiders’ four, didn’t waste any time knotting things back up. Spencer Ware, who split time with Charcandrick West, ran through multiple defenders for a 10-yard touchdown run to open the third quarter.
The Raiders answered with a methodical scoring drive in which they were aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty on inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. The scoring play came on a 5-yard throw from Carr to tight end Lee Smith, who leaked free into the flat past linebacker Dee Ford and walked into the end zone.
The Chiefs’ problems compounded after the play, when a fired-up Peters was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct because he pushed Crabtree while the two were jawing at each other after the play. The penalty was enforced on the kickoff, leading to an eventual touchback, but the Raiders missed the ensuing extra point.
Afterward, a handful of Peters’ teammates helped him calm down on the sideline. His temper led to his dismissal from the University of Washington last season, and after the game, one of the first things he said was he knows he needs to do a better job controlling his emotions. He also thanked his teammates for being there for him.
“It was a whole lot more (emotional) than I expected,” Peters said. “It was hard. I can’t lie. It was really hard. It was hard to focus. My nerves were jumping early in the game. My emotions were just everywhere. Coach and the other leaders on the team brought me back. I made some silly mistakes, but they reeled me in.”
But on the Raiders’ next drive, Peters’ struggles continued. He was beaten one-and-one for a 23-yard gain by Amari Cooper, and was beaten again out of a bunch concept, only to be saved when Carr overshot Crabtree, who was streaking free on a drive route.
The Raiders had the momentum, but they wouldn’t for long. On the next play, Carr spent a handful of seconds avoiding rushers and trying to buy time in the pocket, only to be pressured by Ford.
The ball fluttered out of Carr’s hand, and inside linebacker Josh Mauga — who dropped an easy interception in Oakland a year ago — plucked it out of the air. He sprinted all the way to the Raiders’ 2-yard line before he was hauled down.
“I just happened to be right there at the right spot, and the ball just fell into my hands, and the only thing on my mind was to just try to get as close to the goal line or even score,” Mauga said. “I was hoping I could score, but I ran out of gas (laughs). I definitely ran out of gas about 20 yards out.”
Two plays later, the Chiefs scored on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Maclin to tie the game at 20-20. The score remained that way, however, when the Chiefs failed to get the extra point off successfully.
On the Raiders’ next drive, Peters got his revenge — and his redemption. Carr had a miscommunication with Cooper, and Peters broke off from his coverage and hauled in an interception. He returned it to the Oakland 13-yard line, setting up another touchdown pass to Maclin.
The Chiefs’ special-teams struggles continued when kicker Cairo Santos missed the extra point, but the Raiders didn’t fare any better, with Sebastian Janikowski missing a 49-yard field goal on Oakland’s next possession.
The miss gave the Chiefs, who led 26-20, the ball back at their 39 with 5:36 left in the game. And though they would eventually be forced to punt, it was Branch’s time to write his dream ending.
On Oakland’s next drive, Carr attempted to find Cooper again deep over the middle. The ball glanced off Cooper’s hands, and Branch’s 38-yard interception return gave the Chiefs a 34-20 lead they would not relinquish.
The locker room was boisterous and happy afterward, and with good reason. With the win, the Chiefs improved to 7-5 and currently have the fifth seed in the AFC playoff race, with three of their last four games at home.
The team’s overall success, many players said afterward, is what matters most, and Branch — who deflected questions about his Oakland homecoming all week — echoed those words.
But his actions afterward — when he smiled, pounded his chest and waved, sincerely, to the Raiders fans who lingered near the tunnel to show him love as he walked off the field — reinforced the fact that sometimes, it’s okay for a win to also mean a little more for a player.
“Raider Nation showed me a lot of love when I was out here,” said Branch, who plans on having the football he corralled for the interception mounted. “To come out here and make a play like that, it was good.”