Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters stood over Julian Edelman with his shoulders slumped, an exasperated look on his face.
Derrick Johnson, who was standing right next to him, immediately assumed the same position, while Alex Smith tilted his head back with disgust and placed his hands on his hips on the sideline.
This was Saturday evening, the closing moments of the Chiefs’ 27-20 AFC Divisional playoff loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, and these were fair reactions considering the way their magical season was about to come to an end; a wacky first-down completion that bounced off outside linebacker Tamba Hali’s heavily-bandaged right hand and directly to Julian Edelman.
In previous weeks, that ball might have bounced their way. Or, more specifically, into the hands of NFL interception king Marcus Peters, who was standing a few yards behind Edelman and positioned to make the pick. At the very least, it might have bounced incomplete, giving the Chiefs — who trailed by seven with about a minute left — the opportunity to get the ball back with one more stop on third and 12.
But instead, Edelman’s catch gave the defending Super Bowl champions the first down they needed to run out the clock. And just like that, what seemed like a team of destiny — one that somehow rallied back from a 1-5 start to win a franchise-record 11 straight games and win their first playoff game in 22 years — instead became a very good one whose season ends with a sour taste in its mouth and a clear objective for 2016.
Win it all.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Hali said. “We have a core of guys here that we know we can win with. Moving forward, we have to just get prepared for these types of game when you get in the playoffs.”
The Patriots showed them how — by playing physical, precise, mistake-free free football. In a game where the Chiefs actually outgained the Patriots (378-340), had superior third-down percentages (60 percent to 50 percent) and dominated the time-of-possession battle (37:51 to 22:09), It was the little things that made the difference.
Like turnovers, of which the Chiefs had one and the Patriots had zero. And execution, as the Chiefs had some on-field breakdowns and clock management issues. And even injuries, as the Patriots’ injured stars — including Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski — outshined the Chiefs’. While Edelman and Gronkowski combined for 17 catches and 183 yards, Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin caught two passes for 23 yards while playing through a high-ankle sprain.
But from the get-go Saturday, it was clear that the Patriots were not the same team that blew a chance at home-field advantage with a 20-10 loss to Miami in the regular-season finale. While they kept the ball on the ground in that game, running with marginal success, star quarterback Tom Brady came out slinging against the Chiefs, completing 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns.
“The last couple of games they had run the ball quite a little bit, and this one here, they came out and threw almost every down in the first half,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
On the Patriots’ very first drive of the game, Brady lined up in the shotgun and threw on 11 straight plays during an 80-yard scoring march that was capped by a 8-yard touchdown to Gronkowski.
The resilient Chiefs, who overcame a season-ending injury to Jamaal Charles in week five and set the franchise record for consecutive victories in a season, responded with a scoring march of their own, one that spanned 17 plays and lasted 8 minutes, 31 seconds and ended with a 34-yard Cairo Santos field goal.
But the Patriots responded again, this time with an 11-play, 98-yard march that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Brady that gave the Patriots a 14-3 lead the Chiefs began chipping away at on their next drive.
After a 17-yard run by Charcandrick West, a 26-yard catch by Jason Avant and a 6-yard catch by Travis Kelce set up third and 2 at the Patriots’ 12 with 40 seconds left, Reid called his third and final timeout — they used the other two on their first-quarter scoring drive — to dial up the right play and discuss strategy.
The Chiefs settled on a shotgun handoff to West, who got the first down. And after a spiked ball, an incompletion to tight end Travis Kelce and a delay-of-game penalty, they found themselves in a third-and-goal situation at the 14. But Smith’s third-down pass for Chris Conley sailed far off the mark, and the Chiefs were forced to settle for a 32-yard field goal that cut the halftime deficit to 14-6.
But while the Chiefs were outplayed in the first half, they still had an opportunity to work their way back into the game. They received the ball to open the third quarter and put together a nine-play drive, advancing to the Patriots’ 40-yard line when running back Knile Davis — who played in place of an injured Spencer Ware — fumbled.
The Patriots recovered and made the Chiefs pay. Brady again came out firing, completing passes of 18, 11, 14, 10 and 16 yards, with the latter being a touchdown strike to Gronkowski, who was matched up in single coverage against safety Eric Berry and eventually found himself wide open in the end zone when Berry bit on the fake.
Suddenly, the Chiefs found themselves trailing 21-6 against one of the league’s best defenses, led by one of the league’s elite defensive minds in Belichick. Yet, the Chiefs did get something going on their next drive, as Smith pulled off a little bit of magic on one play by ducking under and around a few tacklers and unleashing a deep ball to Avant, who made a contested catch over the cornerback for a 26-yard gain.
Later in the drive, the Chiefs found themselves facing fourth and 3 at the Patriots’ 15-yard line. Reid opted to go for it, and Smith’s fourth-down pass was complete to Avant, who made another contested catch for a first down.
On the very next play, Smith — who finished 29 of 50 for 246 yards and a touchdown — continued to will the Chiefs back into it, as he threw a gorgeous low ball to receiver Albert Wilson, who made a diving 10-yard catch near the sideline for a touchdown that cut the deficit to 21-13 with 2 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Chiefs were officially back in the game at that point, but the Patriots’ offense, led by the super-efficient Brady, kept them at bay. Their next drive spanned 57 yards and ended with a 40-yard field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and they followed that up with a 32-yard field goal that was set up by a 22-yard Danny Amendola punt return.
The field goals put the Chiefs in a 27-13 hole. They cut into the deficit, courtesy of a 16-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Charcandrick West. But the drive was marked by questionable time management.
They got the ball down to the Patriots’ 1 with nearly 3 three minutes left and still needed approximately 1 1/2 minutes of game time to punch it in — despite the fact Reid had three timeouts in his pocket he didn’t use.
West lost a yard on a first-down run at the Patriots’ 1 with about 2 minutes, 20 seconds left. Instead of calling a timeout, the Chiefs tried to run a play, but didn’t even come close to getting it the play called in time. They didn’t even break the huddle before the 2-minute warning.
“Yeah, we wanted to get a play off — we had 20 seconds,” Reid explained. “It was 2:20 on the clock. We wanted to make sure we got our best personnel in for that play and we didn’t get that done.”
The Chiefs still had three timeouts when the Patriots got the ball back with about 1:13 left. But after the wacky completion to Edeman, the Patriots ran out the clockand ended the season of a Chiefs team that took a step forward in year three of the Andy Reid-John Dorsey regime, though that’s likely very little consolation for a group that wanted to bring home the franchise’s first Super Bowl trophy since the 1969 season.
“You just wish we had a better outcome because this is one of those years where all the teams are kind of even,” Avant said. “Usually, there’s a team that’s so much better than everybody else, but this year it’s all even.”
Still, the Chiefs’ 30-0 win over the Houston Texans in the wild-card round — their first playoff win in 22 years — is something they can build on.
“We’ll learn from our mistakes and how you go about your business if you want to continue to play in the postseason, but I’m proud of my guys,” Reid said. “They battled like crazy this year and came up a little short, so we’ll be a better team for it next year.”
They also have some key players under contract next season, though several key defensive players — including Hali, Berry, Sean Smith, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, safety Eric Berry, and nose tackle Jaye Howard — are set to hit free agency.
There will also be some turnover on the coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Doug Pederson will reportedly become the next head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. It remains to be seen whether any members of Reid’s current staff will go with him.
But on Saturday, no one was worried about any of that. After the Chiefs trudged into the locker room, Reid addressed his team and told them to keep their heads up. Players will do just that as they stay focused on a Super Bowl dream that has been deferred for yet another year in Kansas City.
“A lot of teams might have quit 10 weeks ago, but I’m proud of the fact we call ourselves family,” Hali said. “It’s unfortunate it ended this way, but it’s been a season that you can remember.”