By the time the clock struck zero, and the mass of players congregated in the center of the field, most of the fans still left at NRG Stadium were wearing red, and many of them already were gathered in the stands behind the Chiefs’ bench.
And really, who could blame them? After 22 years and multiple playoff losses — including several of the gut-wrenching variety — their beloved Chiefs had finally ended their postseason misery in dominant fashion, courtesy of a 30-0 AFC wild-card win over the Houston Texans.
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Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was among the players who could not help but see how many fans remained, looking to celebrate.
“At the end of the game, you saw that red sea really surround the field,” Kelce said. “I felt them, man, they were right on my back. I went right behind the bench and just worked my way to the tunnel, gave everybody high-fives.”
Several Chiefs later noted that this win — which not only sends Kansas City to the divisional round for the first time since 2003, but also snaps their NFL-record eight-game playoff losing streak — was for the fans, who have been through it all over the last 22 years.
Before the Chiefs’ win, only the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals had gone longer without winning a playoff game. And along the way, some of the losses were doozies, including Lin Elliott missing three field goals against the Colts in 1995, Elvis Grbac choking in the final minutes against Denver in 1997 and Andrew Luck leading the Colts to the second-greatest comeback in NFL history in 2013.
But on Saturday, the Chiefs took advantage of five Texans turnovers — including four in the first half — to chase those playoff ghosts away and set the team record for largest margin of victory in the postseason in the city which also happened to be the last place the organization won a playoff game in 1994.
The Chiefs didn’t waste any time setting the tone against the Texans. After going the entire regular-season without a single special-teams touchdown, Knile Davis fielded the opening kickoff in the end zone and sprinted untouched for a 106-yard TD that doubled as the longest kickoff return in AFC wild-card game history.
“It was good to set the tempo in my hometown,” Davis said.
The play immediately silenced the crowd of 71,800 at NRG Stadium, something the home team did a nice job of doing, too. Quarterback Brian Hoyer struggled through a four-interception, one-fumble day.
Hoyer didn’t waste much time putting the Chiefs back in business. He threw a pass to safety Eric Berry, who made a diving interception and gave the Chiefs the ball at the Texans’ 33.
Fortunately for Houston, Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith was also feeling charitable — at least briefly. Two plays later, Smith fired an intermediate pass over the middle to Jeremy Maclin, who was tightly covered. The ball bounced off Maclin’s hands and fluttered into the hands of inside linebacker Brian Cushing, giving Houston the ball back at its own 17.
The Texans, having seemingly seized momentum, mounted a drive that stretched into Chiefs territory. But the erratic Hoyer again cost his team, fumbling in the process of attempting a pass — he wasn’t even touched on his upper body — and the ball was recovered by nose tackle Dontari Poe.
It was the second turnover of the game for Hoyer, who only had one game all season in which he committed multiple turnovers. That game was against the Chiefs in week one, and much like that game, when a fumble and interception by Hoyer led to Chiefs points, this contest played out the same way. The Chiefs followed with a 49-yard field by Cairo Santos — a club playoff record — and took a 10-0 lead with 12:50 left in the first half.
It was a good omen for the Chiefs, who are 11-2 this season when leading by at least 10. The Texans are 1-7 when trailing by the same margin.
When Santos added another 49-yard field goal a few minutes later, Houston found itself in a 13-0 hole midway through the second quarter. That’s when the Texans, who rushed for 125 yards or more in six of their previous seven games, started leaning on their running game to get going. A 49-yard run by running back Albert Blue gave the Texans the ball at the Chiefs’ 13.
But five plays later, disaster again struck for the Texans. Hoyer threw his second interception of the day, this time to inside linebacker Josh Mauga, who started breaking on Hoyer’s short pass to Blue before the ball even came out of of Hoyer’s hand.
The Chiefs didn’t score on that ensuing drive, but Hoyer would give them another opportunity. A deep-ball overthrow to receiver Nate Washington led to Hoyer’s third interception of the day, this time by Pro Bowl rookie cornerback Marcus Peters.
Once again, however, the Chiefs’ offense failed to come away with points. While they went into halftime with a 13-0 lead, their scoring only three points off the Texans’ four turnovers made it easy to feel as though the Chiefs had blown an opportunity to put the Texans away early, something that, given KC’s playoff history, was cause for concern.
The Chiefs’ mental toughness would soon be tested, too. On their first drive of the third quarter, Maclin landed awkwardly on his right knee while hauling in a 7-yard pass. He needed assistance getting to the sideline, and an emotional Maclin, who tore his ACL in the same knee in 2006 and 2013, was later carted off. He did not return to the game.
Despite the loss of one of their leaders, someone who was chosen one of the team’s six postseason captains, the resilient Chiefs kept on trucking. They continued a 94-yard march to the end zone with a 11-play drive that was capped by a 9-yard touchdown strike from Smith to Maclin’s replacement, third-round pick Chris Conley, who hauled in a bullet over the middle in the back of the end zone between a handful of defenders to give the Chiefs a 20-0 lead.
And with Houston’s offense still stuck in neutral — Hoyer was 15 of 34 for a mere 136 yards, and the Texans finished with only 226 total yards — the Chiefs’ next scoring drive, an eight-play, 71-yard march capped by a 5-yard touchdown run by Spencer Ware early in the fourth quarter, was all she wrote for the Texans, and the crowd started thinning out some shortly thereafter.
It was the second disappointing loss a Kansas City team had dealt a Houston team in the last three months. In October, in the very same city, the Royals rallied from a four-run deficit against the Astros in Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series and staved off elimination. The Royals, of course, went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1985 after losing in the World Series the year before.
“After the Royals went on their little run, we have the same attitude they do — coming up short last year for them, that had to be terrible,” left tackle Eric Fisher said. “So to do what they did this year, we’re just trying to follow suit. This has to be awesome for KC, for the town.”
It’s still too early to say whether the Chiefs will capture a crown of their own, which would be their first since the 1969 season. A road test at New England, 12-4, looms in the next round (3:35 p.m. Saturday), and the injury to Maclin, if significant, would be a serious blow to an increasingly explosive offense.
But one thing is for sure; after rebounding from a 1-5 start to win their first playoff game in 22 years, no one can doubt the Chiefs’ resilience, a trait they can proudly say they share with their next-door neighbors.
“I told the guys, it took it me 11 years to get one playoff win, but you know what, it was all worth it,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “I think this team is destined, and there’s something special about us.”
The Chiefs were all too happy to share the moment with a fan base that has been through plenty with them, too.
Addressing his players after the win, Chiefs coach Andy Reid told them to appreciate the road support they received Saturday — there was even a very loud “Chiefs” inserted at the end of the national anthem — and the message was well received.
“All those fans came out to support us,” outside linebacker Tamba Hali said. “It feels good, for our fans, for the team, what we want to get accomplished.”