When Cairo Santos kicked a 47-yard field goal 3 minutes into the opening game, the Chiefs were off and running.
But the San Diego Chargers got into the end zone on their first, second and third series. The Chiefs spent the entire afternoon playing from behind before prevailing in overtime.
The next week, the Chiefs never led the Houston Texans and lost. The two games presented different circumstances and strategies, but a common thread was the first-half playing surface for the Chiefs.
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“It changes the dynamic,” quarterback Alex Smith said.
Yes, it does. Trailing by double digits at halftime and notching only a field goal in the first half of both games, the Chiefs found themselves in near-insurmountable situations. It took the greatest comeback in team history — down 21 points in the third quarter — to overcome the Chargers 33-27. Against Houston, the Chiefs could only shave the halftime deficit by a field goal in a 19-12 defeat.
The statistics define the slow starts. In the two games, the Chiefs had 12 first-half possessions. Seven ended with a punt, three with a turnover (all fumbles at Houston) and two resulted in field goals.
The Chiefs have gained 12 first downs and averaged 19 yards per possession in the first halves. They are three for 13 on first-down conversions.
Smith has completed 17 of 31 passes for 147 yards in the first halves, while San Diego’s Philip Rivers and the Texans’ Brock Osweiler were a combined 28 for 42 for 306 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Falling behind in different ways makes the problem more confounding.
Against the Chargers, the Chiefs were simply stopped. After the field goal, none of the final four first-half possessions produced more than two first downs and all ended with punts. The Chiefs simply were unable to solve the Chargers’ defense.
That occurred in the final 1 1/2 quarters and overtime, when the Chiefs outscored the Chargers 30-3.
The first half at Houston was theater of the bizarre.
“We went through a stretch there of 10 weird things happening in a row,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
This included the rare snap over Smith’s head by center Mitch Morse, the even-rarer lost fumble by running back Spencer Ware, penalties and dropped passes, uncharacteristic wackiness for a Reid-coached team.
“We started so many drives with first- and second-down penalties,” wide receiver Chris Conley said. “No offense wants to runs plays out of third-and-20. It’s really hard to call plays for those situations.”
Against the Texans, the Chiefs were faced with three third-down situations longer than 10 yards and converted one. That drive, their last of the first half, ended with a sack of Smith and a lost fumble.
Halftime deficits so large leave little margin for error.
“You get into the second half and you know your possessions are limited,” Smith said. “Not to say you’re never going to be in those situations. But we’d like to get in a rhythm early and get some points on the board to help our defense out.”
The Chiefs were front-runners last season, never trailing in six of their 10 straight victories to end the regular season. They won their first playoff game in more than two decades in a shutout.
Returning to that habit becomes the objective Sunday when the New York Jets arrive at Arrowhead Stadium for a 3:25 p.m. kickoff. The Chiefs might not have a choice here. The Jets own the NFL’s fourth-most productive offense, averaging 416.5 yards per game, and sixth-best scoring offense at 29.5 points.
Unlike the Chiefs, the Jets have gotten off to good starts, a touchdown on their first possession in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and a touchdown on their first drive in a victory over the Buffalo Bills. The Jets have scored 36 points in the first half.
The Chiefs believe they can get there.
“It’s just getting in a groove,” Conley said. “We’ve got to find ourselves earlier in the game.”