The wind chill dipped to 6 degrees, and yet, the fans didn’t leave.
With the score illuminated on the thin ribbon of videoboard ringing the interior of their stadium, they stood in stunned silence. The season’s time of death glowed in the dark night: 10:08, QTR 5. The score flanked the frozen time.
Patriots 37, Chiefs 31.
“We wanted to bring the Hunt Trophy home here,” coach Andy Reid said. “I think all our players did and all the coaches and that’s a tough thing. Somebody gets, the fact that they get to do it right here is real tough.
“But we’re going to get that son-of-a-gun. We’ll bear down this offseason and make sure we get better.”
Their team wasn’t going to the Super Bowl, but Chiefs fans weren’t ready to let go of this season, the one that saw the birth of a star and the emergence of an offense that began laying the foundation for what could blossom into a dynasty.
They lingered in their seats, watching in disbelief as the Patriots flooded the field following Rex Burkhead’s game-winning touchdown run. Their breath hung in the air and the tears all but froze on their cheeks.
They’d experienced playoff heartbreak before, but none quite like this. The pain never feels the same, after all.
Just minutes earlier, they watched as the Chiefs defense took the field for one more shot, one more chance to get a stop and put the ball in the hands of Patrick Mahomes, their quarterbacking whiz kid.
But they couldn’t do it.
For all the improvement the defense showed in the final three games of the season, it faltered when the team needed it most.
The Chiefs needed pressure and couldn’t get it. Practically stationary in the pocket, Tom Brady fired off a pass to Julian Edelman. Just like that, a third-and-long turned into a 20-yard gain.
Three plays later, the pair found the same connection, this time for 15 yards.
The Patriots were just 30 yards from ending the Chiefs’ season in heartbreaking fashion.
Then another third-and-10. Another conversion, this one to Rob Gronkowski for 15 yards.
And then: Burkhead’s three straight runs inside the 15, ending the drive and the Chiefs’ season as he crossed into the end zone.
“We put ourselves in a position to win the game,” Reid said. “That’s what makes this so tough. If it was a rout, you sit here and go, well all right, we’ll chalk that one up to experience.
“But this one here, where you’re in it to win it right there, that’s a tough deal. We gave ourselves every opportunity to do it. And they got us in overtime.”
Before we got here, to this place of overtime pain, there was almost a miracle with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter.
An undrafted rookie making the play to send the Chiefs to the franchise’s first Super Bowl since winning the whole thing after the 1969 season.
And then a hush fell over Arrowhead as the more than 80,000 crammed into the seats noticed a lone yellow flag laying on the far sideline.
A would-be interception erased by an offside call whistled against Dee Ford, a defensive player closing out the best season of his career but lining up where he wasn’t supposed to.
“They said I was in the neutral zone,” Ford said. “I’ve gotta see the ball, especially at the time of that and what was at stake. I have to see the ball.”
And then, it felt inevitable.
Seconds later, the Patriots, who were trailing 28-24 when Charvarius Ward grabbed the would-be game-sealing interception, found the end zone on a bruising run by Burkhead.
With 39 seconds left in the Chiefs’ season, the Patriots were ahead 31-28 and the season that saw the emergence of the boy-wonder quarterback seemed to be almost over.
There was a breath of hope in the frigid night air. With Mahomes, of course, there’s always hope.
He completed a 21-yard pass to Spencer Ware and a 27-yard pass to Demarcus Robinson. Two receivers who hadn’t had a catch all night were the keys to sustaining the season.
And then there were just 16 seconds left. And no timeouts.
But kicker Harrison Butker nailed a 39-yard field goal that sent the game to overtime.
To get to this point, the Chiefs had to overcome a dismal first half.
Under duress from New England’s pass rush, Mahomes ran frequently backwards to escape the pressure in the first half, simultaneously backpedaling into the Chiefs’ playoff woes of the past.
The offensive line, one of the team’s strengths throughout the regular season, was a sieve, allowing the Patriots pass rush led by Kyle Van Noy to terrorize the quarterback. A unit that finished tied for second-to-last in the NFL in regular-season sacks finished with four Sunday night.
Trailing 14-0 at halftime, the Chiefs had just 32 yards of offense and three first downs to the Patriots’ 245 and 16. Mahomes had completed just 4 of 8 attempts for 65 yards while Brady was 12 of 17 for 146.
“First half, we struggled,” said Mahomes, who finished 16-of-31 passing for 295 yards and three touchdowns. “We couldn’t make anything happen. The second half, I feel like our guys took the challenge and they were doing the same thing. We were just winning. You have to do that. You have to find ways to win against one on one matchups. And we found ways in the second half.”
There were, of course, first-half moments that made the crowd gasp and remember they had the soon-to-be anointed MVP. The third-down pass to Sammy Watkins. The 42-yard pass to Tyreek Hill on the next play. Reggie Ragland’s interception of Brady in the end zone.
But the ones that will haunt the fans at Arrowhead Stadium for its first AFC Championship Game were far more prevalent.
The Patriots’ three first-half sacks. The would-be touchdown pass to Damien Williams that Mahomes sailed too deep in the end zone. The 28-yard run by James White in the second quarter.
But even as dismally as the first half went for the Chiefs, they weren’t out of it, at least not according to the scoreboard. Trailing by two touchdowns at halftime seemed a minor miracle given the utter discombobulation of the Chiefs’ offense and the inability of the defense to make a tackle.
Starting with the ball to open the third quarter, the Chiefs needed to strike fast. They needed to make a point and establish the offensive rhythm that eluded them in the first half. The first two plays didn’t inspire much hope. Two runs by Williams that didn’t gain much ground or seem to go in the right direction.
And then, the throw. The one Mahomes seems to make when hope is almost lost. This time, a 54-yard strike down the middle as he hopped through the throw, connecting with Watkins to put the Chiefs in the best position they’d been in all night. A play later, a 12-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce — Mahomes’ first postseason touchdown throw.
It was enough to breathe life back into the Chiefs, pulling the home team within a score with plenty of time remaining to make up the rest of the difference.
The defense even did its job on the next drive as Chris Jones batted a third-down pass.
But a block in the back by Frank Zombo on the punt return backed up the Chiefs to their own 3. Aided by Andrew Wylie’s shove, Williams put together a massive 10-yard run. But back-to-back mistakes ended the drive as Cam Erving was called for a false start and Kelce dropped a perfectly placed throw on an run-pass option up the middle.
Just like that, Dustin Colquitt was punting. The defense, though, continued to rebound from its first-half performance and kept the Patriots to just a field goal as Stephen Gostkowski split the uprights from 47 yards out to give the Patriots a 17-7 lead with 4:02 to go in the third.
And then Williams (five receptions, 66 yards) went to work, scoring three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull the Chiefs all the way back in it and take the lead. Twice.
But even after all that, it just wasn’t enough.
“It’s going to hurt, which I can obviously see,” Reid said. “That’s important. That’s how you get better. This team has done that throughout the season. When the chips were down, we fought back and did a little bit in this game here. Came up a little short.
“Let it drive you through the offseason. And have this feeling. That hurt. And let that carry you through so you don’t experience it again.”