Midway through the third quarter Saturday at Gillette Stadium, the methodical, numbing Patriots offensive automatons had just cruised 69 yards on five plays for a 15-point lead. For a team that was 65-0 when leading by a touchdown or more at halftime during the Bill Belichick era, that figured to mean curtains for the Chiefs.
But facing third and 7 and a swarm of Patriots rushers on the Chiefs’ next drive, quarterback Alex Smith whirled, wriggled and otherwise willed his way free for what would become a 26-yard gain to a hyper-extending Jason Avant.
That awakened some echoes of the enchanted fall in which the Chiefs began their 11-game winning streak as an encore to the Royals’ World Series win.
“WOW! Alex Smith!!!” none other than Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer wrote on Twitter, then responded to another Tweet by adding, “Hoping they follow our script.”
Nine plays later, Smith hit Albert Wilson for a 10-yard touchdown pass, and suddenly the Chiefs were trailing by eight and owned some persuasive momentum after the simple out pattern.
“Some things work out just how you plan it,” Wilson said.
But the rally proved a fleeting mirage on a day when precious little actually went as designed for the Chiefs, who lost their AFC Divisional Playoff game 27-20 in an effort aptly summarized by Smith.
“You’re left kind of with ‘what ifs?’” he said.
Exasperatingly punctuated by the “what the … what?” of time management near game’s end, where the Chiefs frittered away their best chance for a last-gasp comeback in anything but clockwork fashion.
With 3 minutes left and down 27-13, Smith hit Wilson for 19 yards to the Patriots’ 1. Wilson would later lament not finding a way to barge in: “Can’t get stopped there,” he said.
True. But who knew that in a “hurry-up offense” the Chiefs would somehow get off just one more play before the 2-minute warning, would lumber out of that with a false start by Eric Fisher and not get into the end zone until Charcandrick West’s 1-yard run with 1 minute, 13 seconds left.
Absolutely unbelievably in the middle of all that, the Chiefs actually huddled up to call plays with the clock ticking before and after the 2-minute warning.
“Time was of the essence,” coach Andy Reid would say afterward, though he seemed puzzled by questions about the sequence and added, “I’m not sure exactly what you’re talking about.”
Those words probably sounded worse than they really were. Reid would go on to say there were issues with getting the right personnel into the game. And Smith would correctly note the fine line between hurrying a play and having it set up properly. Meanwhile, the Chiefs also were trying to spackle in for the injured Jeremy Maclin, too.
That said, scoring before the 2-minute warning with three timeouts left might have tilted the scenarios some — perhaps even allowing the Chiefs to kick away in hopes of holding the Patriots.
Then again, there was no evidence the Chiefs were going to be able to stop the Patriots on a day about the only pressure they got on Tom Brady was a late hit as he dissected them for 302 yards and two touchdowns.
So Brady was never sacked, and the Patriots had no turnovers — mighty big whiffs from a Chiefs defense that was third in the league at 17.9 points allowed per game, fifth in takeaways with 29 and fourth in sacks with 47.
Even so, the what ifs lingered: What if Marcus Peters had held on to an early interception opportunity, as was his play-making way all season? And what if Tamba Hali had reeled in Brady’s late pass instead of having it deflect off him and off Rob Gronkowski to Julian Edelman to essentially end the game?
The game, though, was lost long before that, for various reasons.
Both teams had to contend with injuries, of course, but the Chiefs simply lost the battle of recovery. Edelman and Gronkowski returned from injuries to combine for 17 catches as Gronkowski’s two touchdowns vaulted him to the NFL career record for tight end TDs with eight. Meanwhile, Justin Houston (knee) barely could play for a Chiefs defense that sorely needed his ability to pass rush, and Maclin (ankle) was a shadow of himself for an offense that now operates in his shadow.
“I appreciate him for going out there and trying to go,” Smith said. “No one expected it, and pretty gutty of him to go out there and do it.”
Maclin, Smith acknowledged, simply “adds another dimension” that the offense doesn’t have without him.
His ultimate absence after making two catches for 23 yards put into the spotlight one of the Chiefs’ glaring offseason needs: the acquisition or development (Wilson? Chris Conley?) of another receiver of his ilk.
Without Maclin, the Chiefs in some ways were reduced to the more vanilla version of themselves. That left them much less aggressive than they ought to have been against the Patriots, who need to be jarred and knocked off-kilter to be made vulnerable in the playoffs.
Instead, the Chiefs were content early to play their typical cat-and-mouse field-position game, opting, for instance, to punt from the New England 42 and 37 in the second quarter instead of taking some bold initiative.
Those surrenders came after they’d botched a couple ripe opportunities, particularly Frankie Hammond’s 19-yard punt return to the Patriots’ 36 while they trailed just 7-3.
“It would have been big, and we didn’t do anything with it,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be able to take advantage of that when that comes.”
More costly, though, was the 98-yard drive they allowed after Dustin Colquitt’s punt and Danny Amendola’s cheap shot had the Patriots seemingly hemmed in at their own 2.
Winning the starting field-position derby, of course, doesn’t count for much if you allow the other team to prance the length of the field, and that left the Chiefs trailing 14-3 and staring uphill for the duration.
But there were plenty of other self-inflicted issues that would sabotage the climb back.
Using up two timeouts on the first drive of the game cost them a chance to score a touchdown at the end of the half instead of a field goal that made it 14-6.
The Chiefs stormed out for the second half, immediately driving to the New England 40 only for Knile Davis’ fumble to become the only turnover of the game and ignite the way to New England’s 21-6 lead.
Smith briefly revived hope, “just trying to make a play,” when he connected with Avant.
But, finally, that was it for now for the charmed script and for things just somehow working out for a city that had known so little of that for so long until these last few months.
Nothing that happened Saturday really diminishes any of that, of course, but it abruptly punctured a time that will be hard to ever replicate and will be left framed by the what ifs?