The game the Chiefs had been waiting for for nearly nine months was barely five minutes old, and already they were flirting with being blown out — and the defending-champion New England Patriots knew it.
That’s why, with 9 minutes and 34 seconds left in the first quarter of the NFL’s season opener on Thursday, the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick — who had just been gift-wrapped a Kareem Hunt fumble and led 7-0 at that point — decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs’ 10-yard line.
The crowd at Gillette Stadium rose to its feet, hopeful the champs — who had just raised their fifth Super Bowl banner — could potentially deliver another lethal strike that could put the Chiefs on their heels in front of a nationally-televised audience.
But here’s the thing about talented, battle-tested teams like the Chiefs: Where other teams falter, they often find a way to steady. Where other teams break, they simply bend.
So when the Chiefs proceeded to snuff out the Patriots’ ensuing running play well short of the marker and give the ball back to their offense, energy in the stadium sapped. It served as an early reminder that this 12-4 team a year ago remains mentally tough – tough enough to pull off a 42-27 victory.
“Anytime someone tries to go for it on fourth-and-1, you should feel disrespected,” Chiefs defensive end Allen Bailey said. “They had the momentum going, and they felt like they could crush our will for going for it on fourth-and-1.”
The offense, suddenly energized by the stop, went on a 12-play, 90-yard scoring drive that featured some hard, darting runs by Hunt, and some efficient, precise passes by quarterback Alex Smith, who executed Andy Reid’s play calls — which featured lots of personnel groupings and plenty of wrinkles — to perfection. The drive culminated in a short touchdown pass to tight end Demetrius Harris that knotted the game up at 7-7.
And while the Patriots would follow with a field goal on their next drive, it might as well have counted as a win for the Chiefs. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs’ 8, the Patriots — instead of going for it this time — opted for the easy three points.
It was, perhaps, the clearest sign that the Chiefs would not be outclassed in this one. The Chiefs were in Foxborough to win, and they would not go down quietly.
This again proved to be the case when, late in the second quarter, the Chiefs — who trailed 17-7 — forced a rare Patriots’ three-and-out and proceeded to use a short-to-intermediate passing game to mount an impressive 12-play, 92-yard scoring drive in only 2 minutes, 34 seconds that not only cut the halftime deficit to three, but also proved to be an indicator the Patriots team that was not quite on its game, overall.
“It was 17-7 with two minutes to go in the half and we give up a 90-yard touchdown drive,” Belichick said. “I mean, look, there was problems all over the place.”
The Chiefs kept chugging along early in the third quarter when Smith, who is known for his risk-averse nature, quieted his critics with a gorgeously-thrown deep ball to his new No. 1 threat, second-year speedster Tyreek Hill, who tracked the ball with ease and scored with gobs of yards between him and the closest defender. The score gave the Chiefs a 21-17 lead midway through the quarter, and was only the third pass of Smith’s 13 year career that went for more than 75 yards.
“I think we knew there were potentially some opportunities (downfield) that may present themselves — not just how (the Patriots) played us, but how they played everybody,” Smith said.
The lead would not prove to be safe — the Patriots quickly retook the lead with a scoring drive, and extended it with a field goal that put them ahead 27-21 entering the fourth quarter. But again, there was no quit in the Chiefs.
And Smith — the quarterback who has compiled a 41-20 starting record from 2013 to 2016 but has often found himself criticized for a lack of downfield efficiency — was the main reason why. On the Chiefs’ very next drive, Smith uncorked another gorgeous deep ball, this time to Hunt, for a 78-yard touchdown pass over the middle that stunned the Gillette Stadium crowd and gave the Chiefs a 28-27 lead with 14 minutes left in the game.
Smith, who had thrown for 312 yards and four touchdowns by that point, wasn’t done yet, as he proceeded to guide two more scoring drives, capped by the hard-charging running of Hunt — who rushed 17 times for 148 yards and caught five passes for 98 yards on a record-breaking night — a run by fellow running back Charcandrick West, whose touchdown at the four-minute mark caused scores of the 65,878 fans in attendance to start streaming toward the exits.
By the end of the game, Smith’s statline was sterling — 28 of 35 for 368 yards and four touchdowns, to go along with a 148.6 passer rating.
It was reflective of the flashes of dynamism that — in addition to the mental toughness shown by a defense that came up big early and firmed up to limit Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady to a middling 16-for-36, 267-yard, zero-touchdown performance — were perhaps the most encouraging signs for Chiefs fans hoping to see their team finally reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1969, despite a few lowpoints (including Eric Berry’s Achilles injury and a penalty tally of 15 for 139 yards).
“I was telling the young guys — you just don’t come here to New England and win,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “To come in here and win against the defending Super Bowl champs ... that lets you know we are a pretty good team right here.”