This is where it was supposed to go wrong. This is where the Chiefs’ bid to play host to their first AFC Championship Game would start to slip away.
Receiver Sammy Watkins, playing in his first game in nearly two months, caught his sixth pass of the day with a minute left in the third quarter. On his way down, though, Watkins lost the ball as Colts linebacker Darius Leonard knocked it loose and then snatched it out from under Watkins.
Down just three scores Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, the Colts were now on the 20-yard line. The collapse could’ve been starting.
But this is another year and another time.
This time, things broke the Chiefs’ way in their 31-13 win over the Colts. It was like decades of karma finally came back around and helped the Chiefs break the cycle of sadness that’s plagued them for the better part of 25 years.
The Colts had the ball for all of two plays before Chiefs linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford combined to write their own history and break from the tradition of the past.
Ford sacked Luck at the 20, freeing the ball in the process, and Houston recovered it.
Chiefs’ ball, Chiefs’ game.
There was still another quarter to play, 15 more minutes for the worst to happen. But it didn’t.
Now, an AFC Championship Game — and a chance to avenge one of their four losses — against the winner of Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers game awaits the Chiefs next week.
“We’re such a different team,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said when asked about the previously doomed playoff history of the franchise. “We have such young players that we have so much confidence going in that we’re going to win every single game.
“We want to play at this stadium. We want to win at Arrowhead Stadium. We get the opportunity to play here again next week.”
Surrounded by more than 76,000 souls teeming with nervous energy, the Chiefs came out calm and collected from the opening coin toss. With snow flurries swirling over Arrowhead and piles of the white stuff piled against the retaining walls surrounding the field, the Chiefs executed a game plan that’s worked since early in the season.
Like they did the first nine weeks of the season, Chiefs won the coin toss and deferred. And like many of those times, the defense got off the field quickly, forcing the Colts into the first of four consecutive three-and-outs.
It was the first time since a regular-season game against Tennessee in 2013 that the Chiefs’ defense forced four consecutive three-and-outs.
With Andrew Luck and Colts offense off the field, the Chiefs offense went to work. Mahomes (27 of 41, 278 yards) orchestrated three straight scoring drives to give the Chiefs a 17-0 lead with 12:13 to go in the second.
Mahomes, a Texas native, said it was the first time he had played a game in the snow.
“I actually thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “I thought I was spinning it well.”
Running back Damien Williams capped the first three-minute drive with a 10-yard scoring run, and he came up big in the next one, too. He converted the first of four fourth-down attempts by Reid to set up for Tyreek Hill’s 36-yard touchdown.
Williams (24 carries, 125 yards, 1 TD) was Reid’s short-yardage weapon of choice again on the following drive, converting on another fourth down that eventually led to Harrison Butker’s 39-yard field goal.
Then, a moment late in the second qurater that might’ve started a collapse any other season.
Dustin Colquitt, punting for the first time all game, had his punt blocked — his first blocked punt since 2013 and just his fifth ever — for a touchdown to cut the Chiefs’ lead to 10. It was the kind of play that could swing the momentum of the game away from the Chiefs — the kind that has before.
But this team isn’t living or playing in the past. With Mahomes, the Chiefs are a team with a future.
“People talk about the history, but you re-write history, man,” Chiefs lineman Cam Erving said. “You can’t focus on the past. You have to continue moving forward. And we got the right guys to continue doing it.”
The Chiefs didn’t crumple under their misfortune. Instead, Mahomes responded with a four-yard touchdown run to cap a 4 minute, 16 second drive in the waning minutes of the first half to give his team a 24-7 lead with just less than two minutes to play.
Luck tried to orchestrate an uptempo, less-than-two minute drive. With back-to-back throws, he finally helped his team pick up its first first down of the half. He completed two more first-down passes in the drive to put the Colts inside the Chiefs’ 10-yard-line. With time running out and Luck unable to find someone in the end zone, Indy brought out Adam Vinatieri, usually such an automatic weapon, to kick a field goal with time expiring.
But then the Colts suffered their own special teams miscue as Vinatieri missed a 23-yard field goal — his shortest field-goal miss ever. Before that, he was a perfect 97-of-97 on attempts of 23 yards or shorter.
With that, the Chiefs went into halftime with a 24-7 lead and the ball to start the second half.
The Chiefs wouldn’t score immediately after halftime, but they opened with a six-minute drive to chew up clock and keep Luck off the field.
With Chiefs’ the offense stagnating, the defense came out and matched the intensity it had in the first half and forced the Colts off the field after a handful of plays. It was a statement game for the maligned defense.
“We’re a family,” Houston said. “We’re going to stick together no matter what people are saying.”
The Colts had another chance to claw back in the game when Hill muffed the Colts’ ensuing punt. With the Colts swarming the loose ball, rookie Tremon Smith dove and recovered it. Another potential momentum-swinging play erased.
The Chiefs’ defense, which has given up just nine points in the last two games, continued to hold the Colts at bay in the second half. Indianapolis picked up just 263 yards of offense. The Chiefs also kept the Colts from converting any of their nine third-down opportunities. Luck completed 19 of 36 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, the Chiefs couldn’t escape all the late-game drama on Saturday. The Colts scored a touchdown with 5:37 left on a 29-yard strike from Luck to T.Y. Hilton, but Vinatieri missed the extra point. With the kicker’s compounded struggles, the Chiefs maintained an 11-point lead instead of a seven-point one.
Then, rookie Darrel Williams sealed the door shut on the Colts, muscling his way into the end zone for his second career touchdown with 2:23 left. Any last shred of tension in the stands evaporated. The crowd hooted and hollered and threw snowballs in celebration and started hitting the exits.
After all, there wasn’t a need to linger for a long goodbye. They’d be back next week.