The ball is in the air and with it the hopes and successes and failures of a football team. Forty-eight yards is no gimme, and Cairo Santos is no Jan Stenerud.
The Chiefs need this, for so many reasons, including both what brought them to this point and what might be possible going forward. Alex Smith is still. Stoic. Eyes locked on the ball, end over end, as it tumbles through the goal posts. Football players will tell you this feels more like relief than joy, but there is enough of both to carry through a week.
The Chiefs have a 23-20 win over the Chargers here. They are 3-3, with a tough win on the road, and in the division. They will be favored at home the next two weeks. They are rested after a bye week, and now carry the swagger of a team that just won in the most encouraging, yes-we-can way a team can win – their quarterback leading them down the field in the last two minutes for the winning points.
Smith sticks his right fist in the air, then brings it down with emphasis. He screams something that we can't print here in a family newspaper. Twice. Relief and joy.
“This team is in a good place mentally,” Smith says. “We took this challenge on.”
A two-minute drive may have changed the Chiefs' season.
The Chiefs had every reason to be unsure.
In their last game, they got the ball with 2:12 left, down by five, 80 yards to a win at San Francisco. Smith threw an interception, and the Chiefs lost. Three weeks before that, they got the ball with 3:20 left, down seven, 66 yards to a tie or a chance to go for the win at Denver. Smith's last pass, on a fourth and goal, fell incomplete and the Chiefs lost.
This time, they got the ball with 1:51 left, tie score, 50 yards or so from the kind of field goal attempt they'd feel OK with.
“You're just thinking, 'Every play counts,'” receiver Dwayne Bowe says. “The offensive linemen, they're like, 'We don't get tired! We're going to win this!' I've never seen a huddle so in tune, so in focus.”
Maybe that's the emotion talking. Maybe not. Whatever, the first play of a critical drive to this game and season goes incomplete. To Frankie Hammond. This is not a good start. Smith's second pass of this drive is also incomplete to Hammond, and no matter the result, there is some poetry here in the Chiefs' inability to improve a weak group of receivers being highlighted in an important spot.
Judgments about Smith, or Jamaal Charles, should always lean a bit more positive because of the lack of talent at receiver. This affects everything coach Andy Reid does, from game planning to play calling. This is, undoubtedly, the biggest hole in John Dorsey's first two offseasons as general manager.
But there is no time for any of that now. Not with a game to win. Smith drops back from the Chiefs' 27, breaks the pocket when Dwight Freeney beats Eric Fisher with a spin move. Smith shuffles to his left, plants his feet, and throws against the momentum of his body.
Bowe had run a simple, 15-yard dig route. The coverage left him when Smith started scrambling.
“I just stayed in the middle,” Bowe says. “I clapped for the ball, and he found me.”
Nineteen yards. The Chiefs are close to midfield. Things are looking up. Travis Kelce lines up in the slot on the next play and can see from the Chargers' coverage that he might be getting the ball. He's going to run a quick slant against a linebacker in coverage, and if he plants his outside foot at the right moment can turn his defender around and make a play.
“Alex's pass led me right into the first down,” Kelce says.
Smith's pass was good, but Kelce is being a little humble. He broke the first tackle, then slipped through another, seven yards or so after contact. One more quick pass, also to Kelce, was all they needed. The Chiefs pushed the ball 62 yards in 78 seconds, everything they needed for the kind of (literally) last-minute success that cost them twice already.
All they needed was the kick.
“I felt like he was going to make it,” Reid says.
“You have to trust the guy next to you,” Smith says.
These are the little things that can make seasons.
There are a hundred different things that go into whether a football team can convert an opportunity like this. Most obviously, perhaps, it helped that the Chiefs needed only a field goal and not a touchdown like the two previous failures.
The Chiefs downplayed it last week, but they put a little more emphasis on two-minute situations at practice. Reid would sooner shave his mustache than take credit for something himself, but he complimented offensive coordinator Doug Pederson in particular.
Pederson, Reid says, led the search for improvements to the team's performance in two-minute situations. That included a lot of what teams call self-scouting, which basically means watching video from last year when they were successful at the end of games and figuring out how to get back to that – with personnel, play-calling, everything.
So there's a lot going on here, but this being the NFL, these types of things are mostly blamed on and credited to the quarterback. Smith signed a four-year contract extension that will pay him around $17 million a year, and no matter the realities and context about why the Chiefs were right in doing that deal, it will be looked at as a failure if he can't win more of these than he loses.
That was a frustration of Smith's earlier in this season. He had a chance to win a game at Denver, in front of perhaps the game's best quarterback. He had another chance at San Francisco, in front of the team that dumped him. A third miss would've not only put the Chiefs at 2-4 and muddied their chances at the playoffs, it would've been digested as a major flaw on Smith. You would've heard the term “game manager,” a lot.
That all goes away, at least for now. The Chiefs don't have much margin for error. If they make the playoffs, these are the games they need. For one week, they got it. For one week, their new franchise quarterback with the new contract goes to work knowing he led his team down the field for the winning points in the last minute.
There are a hundred things that go into something like this. Those are two important things to come out of it for the Chiefs.