Some four hours earlier they stood in this room, and the low, booming, almost cartoonishly strong voice of Justin Houston banged off the walls.
Thousands of fans awaited them outside the door and down the tunnel. Millions more would watch through a national television broadcast for a game that everyone in the room knew was critical if those Super Bowl plans were anything more than delusion.
Moments like this have a way of turning even mundane words into legend, of somehow transforming cliches into unforgettable speeches, but here the Chiefs’ leader kept his message simple.
“This game is meant to (be) fun,” he said.
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They hadn’t had any of that in weeks, in 22 days, to be exact. That’s how long it had been since that win in Houston, the one with the OJ-In-The-White-Bronco-coverage of J.J. Watt’s injury, and in those 22 days the Chiefs had gone from the undisputed best team in the NFL to something closer to crisis mode.
Two losses in five days will do that, particularly the way the Chiefs lost those games. They couldn’t stop the run against the team that ended their last season, and then they couldn’t stop the pass against a team that hadn’t been doing much in recent weeks.
The rest of the AFC West is mediocre enough that it probably won’t matter, but this Chiefs season has never been about winning the division. It’s been about the playoffs, so with homefield advantage and even a first-round bye slipping out of their control, it had become so easy to focus on what the Chiefs can’t do. And no matter how closely they stuck to the script in public, that feeling had started to exist in this locker room, too.
That’s why Houston said what he said, about having fun, because this game is hard enough on its own. Every play can feel like sports’ closest version to a battle, and every game like a war, if you let it. Two losses in a row, and the most promising Chiefs season in so long began to feel an awful lot like every Chiefs season since 1969.
“You lose two in a row, you know, that third one’s going to be a dagger,” Houston said. “You gotta break that losing streak right then. You gotta break it. If you don’t break it, it’ll wear on you and wear on you fast.”
Well, they broke it, and they broke it with a 29-19 win over the Broncos for a lot of reasons. They broke it because of Marcus Peters’ strip-and-score off former Chiefs star Jamaal Charles, they broke it because Mitchell Schwartz held up remarkably well (again) against Von Miller, they broke it because Travis Kelce was the best player on the field, and, if we’re honest, they broke it because Trevor Siemian was the worst.
But, in ways that mattered, they also broke it because they had fun — again, and finally.
“You see it,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said. “Everybody’s jumping up, crowd is loud, popcorn getting thrown on the field, baby. All the excitement. That’s what we need every game.”
They particularly needed it this game. This was not a must-win, exactly, not even by the shamelessly loose standards with which that phrase is used around sports. A win would not make the Chiefs’ season, but a loss sure would’ve felt like a step toward breaking it.
This wasn’t the Chiefs’ best night. In some ways, it wasn’t even a good night. They gained just 276 yards on offense, and their 4.7 yards per play represents a season low. They rushed for 79 yards on 26 attempts, and gave up 177 on 31. In the last three seasons, 44 teams had rushed for so little and given up so much. Only three had won.
The Chiefs had five takeaways, but really, Peters’ strip was the only one you’d say they truly forced. Siemian threw three interceptions that had little or no chance of being anything other than interceptions, and the Chiefs recovered a fumbled punt.
The Broncos were a perfect opponent for the Chiefs in this moment, but just because you make a layup doesn’t mean you’re a good shooter.
“We played alright, you know what I’m saying?” receiver Tyreek Hill said. “But there are things we can get better at, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Some of that is happening already. Mitch Morse, the center and anchor of the offensive line, played for the first time since mid-September. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the guard who seems to improve every week, should be back soon. Steven Nelson played for the first time this season, and in replacing Phil Gaines as the slot cornerback turned the defense’s most glaring weakness back into a strength.
As long as Kelce, Hill and Kareem Hunt are healthy, the Chiefs have too many playmakers at different levels for opposing defenses to completely smother. And the Broncos’ offense simply isn’t good enough to exploit anyone for big numbers, but you can only play the teams on your schedule.
The Cowboys will be a more difficult test this weekend, especially if star running back Ezekiel Elliott is eligible to play. So this wasn’t definitive, in any way, other than a reminder that the Chiefs aren’t just the team that sent much of its naturally skittish fan base into full freakout mode with two losses in five days.
They’re also the team that won five games before that. Maybe they just needed a game like this to let it eat, so to speak, that attitude Houston talked about personified as always by Kelce.
Kelce has always liked playing the Broncos. They’ve always brought out some of his Kelce-est moments, which sometimes means fines, but on this night meant beating safety Darian Stewart by three steps with an inside jab, catching a wide-open touchdown, and then doing a celebratory dance that at first looked like a strange combination of a reverse running man, the Roger Rabbit, maybe even the Elaine, and finishing off with raising the roof like some middle-aged insurance adjuster 15 minutes before the reception closes.
What the heck was that, anyway? Kelce took a moment to think about the important question.
“Kind of just moving,” he finally said.
Another pause. He wanted to get this right.
“I guess you could say it was The Jerk,” he said.
Someone told him that’s what Twitter speculated.
“Well if Twitter says that, that’s what it is,” he said.
It was also fun. This team needed that. On this night as much as any other this season.