Two-and-a-half months ago, the Chiefs were a fledgling 1-5 squad, easily one of the league’s most disappointing teams.
The team chairman, Clark Hunt, was fielding questions about the future of coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, and fans were debating the merits of drafting a quarterback in the first round.
So much for all that.
On Sunday, the Chiefs won their franchise-record 10th straight game — a 23-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the regular-season finale before a crowd of 76,114 at Arrowhead Stadium — to officially maintain their status as the league’s hottest team entering the playoffs.
With the victory, the Chiefs even had a chance to win the AFC West for the first time since 2010 — they only needed the Denver Broncos to lose to the San Diego Chargers. Denver won 27-20, however, so instead, the Chiefs will head to Houston as the No. 5 seed to face the AFC South champion Texans. The game is at 3:35 p.m. Saturday and will be shown on ESPN and ABC (Chs. 2, 9).
But who they play next weekend was less important on Sunday than what they accomplished this week, as the red-hot and resilient Chiefs — who finish the regular season with an 11-5 record and have the league’s longest current winning streak — maintained their momentum with a victory that was just the latest chapter in perhaps the NFL’s most remarkable comeback story of 2015.
“We thought that we had the type of roster put together that we could win them all,” receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “That’s why we were so confident, even sitting at 1-5.”
The Chiefs came away with the win, and the Raiders, 7-9, didn’t make it easy on them. But early on, the Chiefs came out firing, mounting an eight-play, 80-yard scoring drive on their first possession. Quarterback Alex Smith completed four of five passes on the drive, including a 25-yard touchdown strike to Maclin on a quick slant that gave the Chiefs a 7-0 lead.
The Chiefs weren’t done yet, either. On their next drive, the Chiefs faced a fourth and 1 at the Raiders’ 43, and Reid elected to go for it. After lining up in a heavy formation, they switched to a shotgun look pre-play, and ran the option — which Smith kept for a 6-yard gain and the conversion.
It was a great play call by Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, and they continued to show creativity throughout the rest of the drive.
They dusted off the jet sweep handoff to Maclin, which went for 18 yards and hasn’t been seen in months, and followed it up on next play with a call reminiscent of the famous Hank Stram play, 65 toss power trap, that allowed running back Spencer Ware to stride into the end zone untouched for a 3-yard touchdown that gave the Chiefs a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
But the Chiefs’ play-calling magic soon evaporated, as the offense struggled to get anything going on its next several drives. The Raiders eventually got on the board courtesy of a 29-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal, and seemed primed to score again when Smith was intercepted by cornerback T.J. Carrie while attempting a throw over the middle to Albert Wilson.
“A little aggressive there, probably,” Smith said. “I felt good about (the throw) — the guy made a good play, kind of key-dokeying me.”
Smith was bailed out on the ensuing possession by safety Ron Parker, who made a highlight interception of a Derek Carr throw in which he drifted over to Amari Cooper — who was open for several seconds — read the quarterbacks eyes and made a leaping play on the ball in the Chiefs’ end zone.
But the Raiders would not be denied a score. On Smith’s very next throw, he tried to hit Wilson on an out route and instead watched cornerback David Amerson — who saw it the whole way — undercut the throw, haul it in and return it 24 yards for a touchdown that cut the Chiefs’ lead to 14-10 at the break.
“Just film study,” Amerson said later. “I kind of knew it was coming and they ran it. I just to jump on it. I just had to.”
The Chiefs added to their lead early in the third quarter when linebacker D.J. Alexander sped through and blocked a punt by Marquette King that went out of the end zone for a safety that gave the Chiefs a 16-10 lead.
The Chiefs continued to pile on the ensuing drive. A 17-yard throw to Maclin, followed by a personal foul penalty on Khalil Mack, led to another touchdown. It was a 15-yard laser by Smith — who completed 14 of 24 passes for 156 yards — to tight end Demetrius Harris, who caught the first touchdown in his career in spectacular fashion by high-pointing the ball over a defender in the end zone.
“That was a ‘backer, and that’s kind of a mismatch,” Harris said. “I just tried to get a good release and beat him with speed and get my hands up late because he won’t react.”
That gave the Chiefs a 23-10 lead, and it seemed like that was all they needed, because while their rushing attack was churning time off the clock — Smith, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West combined to rush 38 times for 171 yards — the defense was in the midst of throttling the Raiders’ offense.
For one, the Chiefs did a nice job limiting the Raiders’ run game, as Oakland rushed for 48 yards in 16 carries just one week after the Chiefs surrendered 232 rushing yards to Cleveland.
Also, the Chiefs racked up six sacks on Sunday — all by different players — in limiting Carr to only 194 yards on 21 of 33 passing.
The Raiders made things interesting at the end, however. The Chiefs had a 39-yard Cairo Santos field goal wiped off the board due to a penalty on Travis Kelce, and the ensuing try — from 49 yards out — was a failed attempt that ended with a 3-yard completion by Santos to fullback Anthony Sherman that fell 18 yards short of the first down.
“We were going to pooch (punt) it, and the center didn’t get the call,” said Reid, who added that the punt was called at the line. “That’s actually on the holder. It was ridiculous, to say the least. But we’ll get that fixed.”
That gave the Raiders the ball back with 3:15 left, and Oakland capitalized, courtesy of a 31-yard touchdown throw from Carr to receiver Michael Crabtree, who beat cornerback Marcus Peters.
The two have a history — they were verbally sparring throughout the Chiefs’ 34-20 win over the Raiders on Dec. 6 — and Crabtree said afterward that he was happy to score on the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl rookie.
“I was just tired of No. 22 talking noise like he was that great,” Crabtree said. “So, we just went deep on him for six. He was mad after that. He’s a good football player — (it’s) competition.”
But Peters and the Chiefs would ultimately get the last laugh, even after they went three and out on their ensuing possession. This gave the Raiders the ball back with 1:34 left and a shot at a game-winning drive, but a Frank Zombo sack of Carr on first-and-10 at the Oakland 35 drained 18 seconds from the clock and helped the Chiefs hold on for the win.
Now, they’ll prepare for a Houston team they beat 27-20 in the regular-season opener, a game that was not as close as it appeared. However, Reid cautioned against assuming there’s much they can take from that game, given the fact it was played four months ago.
“They’re probably a different team and we’re probably a different team,” Reid said. “We have to prepare ourselves like we always do, and we’ll be fine.”
Still, they’re in a position that no one could have expected only 2 1/2 short months ago — in the playoffs, with their Super Bowl dreams still alive, and that’s something to be grateful for, even if they have bigger plans than just making it to the dance.
“That’s something we can definitely take credit for as an organization,” Maclin said. “But that means nothing if we don’t get in there and achieve what we want to achieve.”