The scenario was precarious enough after a bungling, listless offensive first half for the Chiefs. And it instantly seemed considerably more bleak in the first burst of the second half.
Here was Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller skedaddling 61 yards on the first play from scrimmage with the Bills already leading 10-3. And then suddenly it was first and goal at the 1 after a pass interference penalty.
The Chiefs hadn’t lagged by more than seven points all season. And any notion that they could rally from a two-score deficit seemed ridiculous, later reiterated by the fact they managed 210 yards and nary an offensive touchdown all game.
But it all proved mere staging and prologue for an absolute reversal of the trajectory of the game, as unleashed by cornerback Sean Smith a week after he had struggled against Cleveland.
Smith intercepted Jeff Tuel’s pass and zoomed 100 yards for a touchdown on a play the Chiefs appeared to blow a coverage.
“It was like Christmas,” Smith said. “You go out there as a little kid, and there’s like a big box right there? That’s how I felt. He threw it right to me. (And) I knew once I caught it no one was catching me.”
In the most essential moment of what became a 23-13 Chiefs victory, Smith high-stepped the last 10 yards hoisting the ball up, a la Deion Sanders, to punctuate the turnaround that at once tied the game, reinvigorated them and punctured the Bills.
“That was a game-changer, changed the whole game,” cornerback counterpart Brandon Flowers said. “The team just had new life.”
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith called the play “crippling” to the Bills, adding that such plays can “haunt” a quarterback.
“Those are so hard to overcome,” he said, “if you’re on the other side of that.”
And on the other side of that was Bills coach Doug Marrone, who was particularly incredulous over that “swing” of the game since Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson had broken open in the end zone.
But some sort of sixth sense seemed to steer Smith toward the primary target, T. J. Graham.
“The guy comes off of Stevie Johnson, just comes off of him and doesn’t cover him. ,” Marrone lamented. “Even (the Chiefs) knew exactly what we were doing, or it was just unbelievable.”
Probably a little bit of both, which is to say it’s the kind of crucial play at the most pivotal moment that has typified the Chiefs’ 9-0 season.
It’s the kind of play that makes doubters scoff more at their supposed vulnerability and believers more convinced they’re a team of destiny.
Neither stance matters much to the Chiefs, who have demonstrated a remarkable tunnel vision that has enabled them to tune out proponents and detractors and just burrow in.
And nowhere more than on defense.
“The thing about this defense is, we kind of love those situations,” Smith said. “On the outside looking in, it’s like, ‘Oh, oh, God, here it comes.’ Some guys may back down from those situations.
“But we embrace it because we know someone’s going to make a play.”
So as Buffalo prepared to administer the knockout blow on Sunday, Smith thought that to himself: “Make the play. Somebody has to make the play.”
His sense of trying to seize the moment might have been enhanced by being burned a few times last week, a point he acknowledged with a smile and by noting the necessity for a short memory to play such a high-stakes position.
His short-term memory was thriving after the game, though, as he described how the urgent play unfolded.
“It’s pretty much a double team with me and an inside defender,” he said. “Once my guy (Johnson) goes in, I pass him to that defender and my job is to get my eyes (on) the quarterback and help out the guy on the outside.”
Told that Johnson had come loose, Smith seemed surprised.
“Was he open?” he said, smiling. “Somebody definitely blew a coverage then. Because somebody was supposed to pick him up.”
Nearby, safety Eric Berry heard the explanation and started coughing, seemingly to tease Smith about some detail of the play.
“No, I’m really coughing,” Berry said.
Whatever the case, Tuel didn’t pick up on Johnson breaking open, or couldn’t adjust fast enough. Instead, he stayed fixated on Graham as Smith closed.
“One-hundred percent my fault; something I’ve got to see,” said Tuel, who was making his first NFL start. “I’ve got to see that. I can’t do that.”
Then Smith saw nothing but end zone as soon as he caught the ball.
Well, almost nothing but end zone.
“Daylight and end zone. And about four D-linemen in front of me,” he said. “When you see something like that, you’re not worried about (anything).
“I had a great angle with a police escort in front of me.”
He also may have been fueled by an ongoing argument among Chiefs defensive backs.
At 6-foot-3, he’s the tallest of the Chiefs’ DBs and evidently has thus been labeled its slowest member.
“He was, like, he should be the fourth leg (in a relay) and bring it home in a 4 x 1 in the defensive back room,” Berry said. “It was pretty funny that he got the interception and took it to the crib the day after we had that argument.”
Said Smith: “I’m willing to race anybody we’ve got in the secondary to prove this I definitely should be the anchor.”
No doubt he anchored the victory on Sunday, albeit with the dollop of fortune that the Chiefs keep availing themselves to.
“It was one of those plays that you always wish happened to you when you’re watching TV: ‘I wish I’d get one of those plays,’ ” he said, adding, “That was the easiest touchdown I could ever have.”
Even if he was practically wheezing at the end and needed an oxygen boost before returning to the field after the kickoff.
“Oh my God, you know how long 100 yards is? In the cold?” he said.
Answer in this case: Instantaneous for the Chiefs, endless for the Bills.