Shortly before the Chiefs’ Wild Card Game began on Saturday, Justin Houston gathered his teammates on the field for a pregame pep talk.
This is a customary event for the Chiefs right after pregame warmups, a duty Houston and safety Eric Berry have shared in the past.
But on this day, in this moment, the stage was all Houston’s ― and he was particularly animated, as he paced and screamed and pumped his fists to fire up the 40-plus men that suddenly surrounded him.
“He’s been fired up this whole past week, we’ve been trying to tell him to settle down because he was about to blow a gasket,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said with a laugh. “He’s been out for five weeks, so he’s been like a lion in the cage, ready to go.”
Never miss a local story.
Houston, who had missed the Chiefs’ previous five games with a hyperextended knee, doesn’t remember what he said ― “I was just speaking from the heart,” he’d later say ― but outside linebacker Dee Ford summed it up nicely.
“(The message was) it’s time to roll ... that’s it,” Ford said. “He’s just ready to play. You’re talking about a guy who’s down for five weeks. The team is playing well, and this is a moment he’d been working toward for five weeks, man. So he was happy to be back. That’s all that was.”
Maybe so, but the moment did reveal how much the game ― a convincing 30-0 Chiefs victory that snapped the franchise’s eight-game playoff losing streak ― meant to the Chiefs’ veterans.
Outside of receiver Jeremy Maclin and Pro Bowl rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, all the Chiefs’ best active players ― Houston, Johnson, outside linebacker Tamba Hali, safety Eric Berry, tight end Travis Kelce, nose tackle Dontari Poe and quarterback Alex Smith ― have been with the team for at least three seasons, and experienced their fair share of heartbreak along the way.
“We’re on a mission,” Houston said. “We had the same goal since day one. A lot of people gave up on us, and we still focused.”
That goal, a Super Bowl title, is one that is easier said than done. The road to a championship is always littered with pitfalls, and the Chiefs know this as well as anyone.
Take, for instance, the season-ending ACL injury to Jamaal Charles in a 18-17 loss to the Chicago Bears in week five. The Chiefs ended up blowing a 14-point lead in that game, the latest in a string of crushing losses under coach Andy Reid that came after a significant injury.
Take, for instance, their 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round in 2014. The Chiefs suffered a rash of injuries in that game, and ended up blowing a 28-point lead.
And in their season-opening 26-10 loss to what turned out to be a two-win Tennessee Titans in 2014, the Chiefs seemed to go into the tank after Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito were each lost for the season with Achilles injuries in the second quarter.
So, when Maclin was carted off the field with an ankle injury in the third quarter on Saturday ― with the Chiefs holding a tenuous 13-0 lead, no less ― it was fair to wonder how the Chiefs might respond.
These Chiefs, however, stayed mentally tough, as they promptly put the finishing touches on an 11-play, 94-yard scoring march that gave them a commanding lead and proved this team has learned from its past heartbreaks.
“A lot of guys that are in the locker room now were in the locker room two years ago,” left guard Jeff Allen said, referring to the Indianapolis loss. “So as much as we didn’t want to talk about it, I know I personally had that in the back of my head. That was a learning experience for us, and I think we knew we had to keep our foot on the pedal.”
Smith noted that no one even had to say as much in the huddle following Maclin’s injury, either.
“It just comes through doing it, it comes from through playing through the injuries,” Smith said. “When you lose Jamaal (Charles) early in the year and you overcome it, all that stuff stays with you. I think you get confidence from doing it.”
Hali, who has been with the Chiefs since 2006, agreed.
“We’ve been through it,” Hali said. “We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes.”
Which is why the Chiefs, who have now won a franchise-record 11 straight games, have rallied around their collective “win now” mantra.
“You don’t want to sound overconfident, but we understand what’s at stake,” Hali said. “We want to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. These are steps we have to take and we’re taking them. You have to enjoy it in the moment.”
There’s little doubt the Chiefs’ veterans, after finally collecting their playoff win together, did that on Saturday, though all noted that they aren’t satisfied with just ending the club’s 22-year drought without a playoff win.
“That’s the past, this is the future,” Houston said. “And we’re trying to make history.”