The history of Chiefs place-kickers in the postseason has not been kind. In fact, it has been downright cruel.
Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, may be remembered as much for the three field goals he missed in the double-overtime playoff loss to Miami on Christmas Day 1971 as for his three field goals that staked the Chiefs to a 9-0 lead on the way to victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.
Nick Lowery, a member of the Chiefs Hall of Fame, delivered a 32-yarder in overtime that beat Pittsburgh in the 1993 playoffs, but he also came up just short on a last-second 52-yarder that could have won a wild-card game at Miami in 1990.
And Lin Elliott needs no introduction, having missed three field goals in the bitter cold of a 10-7 home loss to Indianapolis in 1995.
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Now second-year Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos enters the crosshairs of heroism or heartbreak.
“Being a kicker, you sign up for all of that,” Santos said while preparing for Saturday’s AFC Wild Card Game at Houston. “You dream of the glory of being an (Adam) Vinatieri kicking game-winning field goals in the Super Bowl. But you’ve seen what happens to other guys, too. It’s all very humbling. You can’t be scared of it. You can’t not want the opportunity.
“Those opportunities are what make you great. I welcome every opportunity, because I want to be the best and help this team be the best.”
Santos, who joined the Chiefs in 2014 as an undrafted free agent from Tulane, where he won the Lou Groza Award, is coming off his second solid season. He made 30 of 37 field-goal attempts this year, tying Stenerud for the second-most in a season in franchise history. Santos made four from 50 yards and beyond.
But he knows the playoffs can be an entirely different experience.
“I always say I’m worried about the next kick. That’s my mindset,” said Santos, thought to be the first Brazilian-born player to make an NFL opening-day roster. “I hear people say it’s a faster game, it’s a playoff game, win or go home. I just worry about what I do, be myself. … We go out in practice and hit good balls and carry that visualization out to Sundays.”
Veteran punter/holder Dustin Colquitt is aware of the Chiefs’ star-crossed history for kickers in the playoffs, but he thinks Santos is taking the right approach to the postseason.
“He’s looking at it just as another game,” said Colquitt. “The first preseason game is just as important as a Super Bowl for us. You can’t hide a bad punt or a bad field goal or a bad snap. Our job depends on consistency and staying in there and doing our job.
“For us, obviously, the stakes are higher because of the potential to win a ring, but really it’s the same job.”
Though Santos hasn’t been called on to kick a dramatic, last-second, game-winning field goal since he made a 48-yarder that beat San Diego 23-20 in 2014, he has had a major impact in several games this season.
That included five field goals in the Chiefs’ 29-13 win at Denver on Nov. 15; three field goals in the 30-22 win over Buffalo on Nov. 29; and a 40-yarder with 2 seconds left in the first half that made it 10-0 in a 10-3 win over San Diego on Dec. 13. He also set a franchise record with seven field goals (tied for second most in NFL history) and accounted for all of the Chiefs’ points in a 36-21 loss at Cincinnati on Oct. 4.
“I’ve made big kicks to help us in situations in games we won or were behind,” said Santos, who made field goals of 27 and 48 yards while missing from the 51 in the Chiefs’ season-opening 27-20 win at Houston. “I feel like I’m in a good position. The coaches trust me if they need to line me up to win a game at the end or a long field goal.”
Santos has been relatively unaffected by the NFL pushing extra-point attempts from the 3 to the 15-yard line, creating 33-yard conversions as opposed to automatic 20-yarders. Santos, who made 39 of 41 extra points, realizes how precious those points can be in a playoff game.
“That first rep in a game is always the one you’re thinking about the most,” he said. “If you hit a good ball on the extra point and make it, it builds that confidence when you go out for a longer field goal.”
Santos also has been effective with kickoffs. He’s planted 77 of his 90 kickoffs into the end zone, with 40 going for touchbacks. Sometimes the Chiefs ask him to place the kickoff in the corner of the field, short of the end zone, so the coverage unit can pin the return man inside the 20. Consequently, Santos’ kickoffs and Colquitt’s punts have led to the Chiefs ranking third in the NFL in opponents’ average starting position at the 24.6-yard line.
“He’s been consistent,” Chiefs special-teams coach Dave Toub said. “Second year out, he’s been good throughout the year. I feel good about him as well as Colquitt.
“Everything rises up in the playoffs. We’ve talked about how everybody has to focus better and handle the pressure. There’s going to be pressure. Pressure on coaches, pressure on players — that’s just the way it is during playoff time.”
Randy Covitz: @randycovitz