Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston broke the franchise record for sacks in a single season. But he was downcast and admittedly heartbroken.
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel won his first start of a six-year NFL career. But he was visibly disappointed.
The Chiefs finished the regular season with a 19-7 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, but there would be no miracles at the end of the day.
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The victory by the Chiefs, 9-7, eliminated the Chargers, 9-7, from playoff contention, but Kansas City failed to get the help it needed to return to the postseason. The Chiefs needed Baltimore and Houston to lose their games, but each won, and the Ravens, 10-6, clinched the second wild card in the AFC.
The Chiefs will look back at games they lost, like the stunning season-opening upset at home against Tennessee … the loss at Oakland to a then 0-10 Raiders team … and even last week’s 20-12 loss at Pittsburgh when all the Chiefs needed to do was win their final two games to clinch a wild-card berth.
“I feel like every game we lost, we gave it away, we weren’t just beat,” said Houston, who finished with a career-best four sacks in the game and 22 for the season, shattering Derrick Thomas’ franchise record and coming within a half-sack of Michael Strahan’s league-record 22 1/2 .
“When you look back on a season like that, and think about the games you should have won and are supposed to win, I think it hurt more than anything.”
After an 0-2 start, the Chiefs won seven of eight and stood 7-3 before the loss at Oakland sent them spiraling into a three-game losing streak from which they did not recover. The Chiefs lost four of their last six and squandered a chance at back-to-back playoff seasons for the first time since 1994-95.
“I wouldn’t say it was a wasted opportunity,” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said. “I would say it was a missed opportunity. We had a chance two-thirds of the way through the season to really lock down a playoff spot, and we didn’t get that done.
“We put ourselves in position where we had to win (Sunday) and get help from other teams. We took care of our business, but we didn’t get the help we needed. That’s something we we’ll have to carry into the offseason. Hopefully it will be a motivator for everybody to come back better next year.”
The season sweep of the Chargers gave the Chiefs consecutive winning seasons for the first time since Dick Vermeil’s last season in 2005 and Herm Edwards’ first in 2006.
But seldom did a team feel so lousy after winning a game as this one did.
“It’s a tough feeling,” offensive tackle Ryan Harris said. “We worked so hard this entire season to go to the playoffs and … we were one win short, and you could look at any of our losses and say, ‘A play here or a play there’ would have guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.
“In the NFL, you’ve got to win big games, and you’ve got to win the not-so-big games, and we let one too many slip away from us.
While the Chiefs, behind Houston’s sacks and kicker Cairo Santos’ four field goals were beating San Diego, both Baltimore and Houston were losing at the start of the fourth quarter in their games. But the Chiefs weren’t scoreboard watching.
“Nobody knew,” said Daniel, who completed 16 of 27 passes in place of Alex Smith, who was diagnosed with a lacerated spleen late last week. “No one wanted to know. We were focused at the game at hand … and handle what we can control … how we play against a potential playoff team and let the rest take care of itself.”
When it was over, the Chiefs could have played the ‘What if’ game. But it hurt too much for a team that pounded New England and defeated defending Super Bowl champion Seattle to think about the lost lead in the third quarter at San Francisco … the lost halftime lead at Arizona … the inability to beat Denver.
“You can’t do that,” Harris said, the wounds still fresh from the day’s events. “It just adds to the disappointment. This is such a talented group. Every single player in here thought we could win the Super Bowl up until about three minutes ago.
“Anytime you have players like Tamba Hali and Justin Houston and Jamaal Charles and Alex Smith, you have a great team, not just a good team, but a great team. We showed that in spurts during the season, and if we got one more win, you’d have seen a good run in the playoffs.”
The Chiefs were hoping to repeat the finish of 2006, when they made the playoffs by winning the regular-season finale while three other teams lost. Outside linebacker Hali, a rookie on that team, realized how long the odds were of history repeating.
“You can’t rely on other people dying to get in this,” Hali said. “You’ve got to win the games you have to. We won this game, but it kind of burned a little bit. In the years coming up, we have to make sure we win the games we have to.”
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @randycovitz.