The football game is over, which means the other game has just begun. The Chiefs’ locker room sounds like brothers on Christmas morning dividing up the toys.
“Can I get that half?” Justin Houston says.
“That's my half,” Allen Bailey responds.
A share of one of the NFL's great records hangs in the balance. Sacks represent something strong, something full of speed and testosterone and effort. That's as true now as ever before, with the NFL doing everything short of outlawing tackling to protect quarterbacks and points. Sacks are the NFL's best and in some ways last measurement of ferocity.
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Depending on whom you believe, the world's second-best pass rusher did not know or did not care that he was as close as the statistic allows to the NFL record for sacks in a season. Houston has always talked team first, and the day of his greatest professional accomplishment would be no different.
All that matters is that the Chiefs beat the Chargers 19-7 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, and that because of their own missed opportunities earlier this season and two results in other cities going against them on Sunday, they will not be in the playoffs.
“I'm more disappointed we're going home,” he says.
That half-sack would help dull the pain, though.
There is reason to believe that Houston did not know or did not care that he finished his breakout season with 22 sacks, just a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan's record set in 2001.
As it stands, Houston just finished the kind of season that makes him a peer of some of the NFL's best pass rushers – now or ever. He broke Derrick Thomas' team record of 20 sacks, set in 1990, the year after Houston was born.
The comparisons are too obvious to ignore, and Houston is actually a more complete player than Thomas. That sounds like amnesia, because Thomas is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. But it's true. He plays the run better, particularly in setting the edge and funneling backs into tacklers. He's also more versatile, with the skills to drop into coverage.
That's a very different thing than saying Houston is better than Thomas, because he isn't. Thomas was like a factory of the spectacular, and even 15 years after his last game it's easy to remember his moments — strip-sacking Steve Young and John Elway, getting Dave Krieg seven times when he needed the eighth.
Houston doesn't have that. Not yet, anyway. But he's not yet even 26 years old, and is just the 10th man with 20 or more sacks in a season since the stat became official in 1982. Five of the nine others are in the Hall of Fame. Three others are still playing, and may get there someday.
He has more sacks (48 1/2) in his first four seasons than all but seven men, and this is an incredible list: Reggie White, Thomas, J.J. Watt, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Richard Dent and Von Miller (who got his 49th on Sunday).
Houston's agent spent the offseason making the case to Chiefs management that Houston deserved a contract equal or greater than the $35 million guarantee that Tamba Hali got three years ago. Houston spent the season making it obvious that Hali's contract is now just a starting point. He's worth something much closer to Robert Quinn's $41.2 million guarantee or even J.J. Watt's $51.8 million.
Houston has now completed his rookie contract, one that paid him $1.4 million this year. The Chiefs and his agent will continue to talk about a long-term deal, but at least at the moment, it seems more likely that Houston will get the one-year franchise tag that would pay him something more than $13 million next year.
Whatever he makes, in NFL terms he will be worth every cent. He is a rare talent and worker at a premier position who gives the Chiefs an advantage over every team but the Texans.
“If everybody played the same way as Houston, we wouldn't have none of this talk (about falling short of the playoffs),” receiver Dwayne Bowe says.
This is the attitude that teammates and coaches and executives have fallen in love with. Houston keeps his mouth shut, and his eyes and ears open.
At various times during Houston's rise from third-round pick to legitimate NFL star, he has won a weekly or monthly award and been asked to say something to the team. Each time, without exception, he has used all of his words to thank his coaches and teammates.
Away from the bright lights and TV cameras of games, he is one of the Chiefs' hardest workers, almost always staying after practices to work on footwork or to perfect the way he uses his hands to knock a lineman off balance.
“He's not just a phenomenal pass rusher, he's not just a phenomenal football player,” says Dee Ford, Houston's rookie teammate. “Yes. Every person can't say that. So that contributes to his success.”
Houston's 22nd sack came late in the fourth quarter. He already had three sacks, a nightmare day for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in which he completed 20 passes and was sacked seven times.
On this play, Rivers drifted out of the pocket, to his right, running as if his cleats were made of concrete. Houston beat his man and sprinted after Rivers, running as if his cleats were made with jet packs.
Houston knocked Rivers to the ground, then did his tribute to his friend and teammate Eric Berry, then joined his palms in prayer. Chiefs fans have seen this routine so many times now.
The Chargers had a few more plays left, all of them in obvious passing downs, and the way Houston was going this was a bit like giving a slugger batting-practice fastballs.
But Houston made no more attempts at Rivers, either dropping back in coverage or otherwise staying behind the line of scrimmage.
“The last couple of plays that Coach called were for me to drop,” he says. “It's a team game.”
So after the game, if he didn't know already, Houston saw that he was just a half-sack from tying Strahan's record – which, of course, was set dubiously when Brett Favre essentially laid down at Strahan's feet.
There was a play in the third quarter, a first-down snap when Bailey — who just completed a career year of his own — beat his man and dragged Rivers down for a sack. Houston was there, too, and likely would've sacked Rivers if Bailey didn't get there first. It was that kind of day for Rivers.
With the context of the franchise and possible NFL record, there was at least a brief consideration of whether Houston would be given credit for a half-sack on the play.
After the game, a stat sheet in his hand, Houston half-jokes to a Chiefs staffer about getting the play changed to split the sack with Bailey. Locker rooms are tight spaces. Bailey doesn't have to eavesdrop to hear.
“I'd throw you a half if I could, bruh,” Bailey says. “I'll call the league and tell them, 'Give him half of mine, just because.' ”
Bailey says all of this with a smile he can't hide. He'll play along with the game, even joking that Houston would need to make it worth his while to get that half.
Then, at some point, the smile disappears. Just for a second. It happens when he's asked, records aside, if the entire sack should be his.
“Yeah,” he says. “C'mon, now. You saw it, too. You saw the whole thing.”
It seems that last half-sack is one of the few things Houston won't get from a season that will make him wealthy, and forever change the way he's remembered no matter what else happens in a promising career that's only now four years old.