Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson surveyed the sadness in the Chiefs locker room and understood the heartbreak.
He was part of what was considered the most painful playoff loss in Chiefs history, the double-overtime defeat against Miami on Christmas Day 1971.
In a colossal collapse, the Chiefs lost 45-44 to the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC first-round playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Chiefs led by as much as 38-10 early in the third quarter, only to see Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck stage the second-greatest comeback in NFL postseason history.
Luck hit wide receiver T.Y. Hilton for a 64-yard touchdown pass with 4:21 to play for the victory. The loss extended the Chiefs’ NFL record for postseason defeats to eight in a row dating to their last playoff win, on Jan. 16, 1994, at Houston. And four of those losses — after the 1995, 2003, 2006 and 2013 seasons — were to the Colts.
But this Chiefs playoff loss was worse than Lin Elliott missing three field goals against the Colts in 1995 or Elvis Grbac choking in the final minutes against Denver in 1997.
And probably more excruciating than the NFL’s Longest Game against Miami.
“For these players,” said Dawson, the Chiefs’ longtime radio analyst, “it should be a reminder for what could have been.
“The team I played on … if we had that kind of lead, we wouldn’t have lost the football game.”
That 1971 team had four Hall of Famers on defense. These Chiefs, 11-6, are in their first year under a new coach in Andy Reid and coming off a 2-14 season.
Still, the Chiefs lost despite rolling up their most points in a postseason game in franchise history — topping the 31 accomplished twice, including a 38-31 loss to Indianapolis in 2003 — without their best player, running back Jamaal Charles, who suffered a concussion when carrying the ball on the sixth play of the game and did not return.
As more key players (wide receiver Donnie Avery, cornerback Brandon Flowers, outside linebacker Justin Houston and Charles’ replacement, Knile Davis) left the game because of injuries, the Chiefs could not hold on.
“To come out and play as good as we played in the first half, and to let it go …” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “We had it in our hands. They didn’t hit us by surprise.”
Only the Buffalo Bills’ 41-38 overtime win over Houston in the 1992 playoffs, in which the Bills overcame a 32-point deficit, was a greater comeback in NFL history.
“It was one for the ages,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said.
The Colts, down 38-10 early in the third quarter, got within 41-38 with 10:38 to play when Luck scored on a 5-yard fumble recovery. Chiefs safety Eric Berry popped the ball from running back Donald Brown at the goal line, the ball caromed off the helmet of guard Samson Satele and into the arms of Luck, who ran it in.
“The ball is shaped weirdly,” Johnson said. “It’s going to bounce their way sometimes. But we were still up. Got to pull it out …”
The Chiefs, with backup wide receivers Junior Hemingway and A.J. Jenkins and running back Cyrus Gray in the lineup, bought some breathing space with a 43-yard field goal by Ryan Succop — his third of the game — for a 44-38 lead with 5:36 to play.
Luck, who already has staged 10 career fourth-quarter or overtime comeback wins in his two-year career, made this one look easy.
It took four plays to do it. Luck converted a third down with an 11-yard pass to tight end Coby Fleener. Then, he arched the pass downfield that broke the Chiefs’ hearts.
The Chiefs still had 4:21 left and a timeout, and quarterback Alex Smith moved the offense into Indianapolis territory for a shot at a game-winning field goal.
But from the Indianapolis 39, Smith was called for intentional grounding when he let go of a pass while getting hit in the pocket, creating a third-and-17. He hit Dexter McCluster on a shallow crossing pattern for 6 yards.
“I was getting rid of the ball … trying to make a play to the left,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to take a sack, but in the end that really hurt us.”
After the 2-minute warning, on fourth-and-11, Smith aimed a pass for Dwayne Bowe along the sidelines, but he could not stay in bounds with the catch.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid wouldn’t use the absence of Charles — who accounts for nearly 40 percent of the team’s offense — as an excuse.
“We didn’t have to change too much,” said Reid, whose team scored five touchdowns and a field goal in its first seven possessions. “You can use that as an excuse, but the guys never did that.
“I thought Alex did a good job of rolling guys around … they didn’t really flinch at that part of it. We started kicking field goals and they started scoring touchdowns. …”
Smith finished the game by completing 30 of 46 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns, all franchise records
But it wasn’t enough.
“When we get these opportunities, you don’t know how often they cone or when the next one is going to be,” Smith said, “and you just try and make the most of it. Unfortunately for us, we did not get it done.”