The Chiefs played their biggest game in 50 years to conclude the 2018 season, and then they made it easy to wipe the occasion from our collective memory bank.
That overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium was such an emotional ride that ended in heartbreak, revisiting it seems cruel.
But let’s do it for a couple of reasons.
First, to recognize the historic nature of the game. Kansas City was playing host to a conference championship showdown for the first time. World Series games — including two Game 7s — Final Fours and major college football games had been played in KC, but this was a first.
A case can be made that the Chiefs-Patriots game of Jan. 20, 2019 was the biggest sporting event in Kansas City’s history. For a city that won’t land a Super Bowl, an NFL semifinal is as nationally substantial as it gets. Some 54 million people tuned in, the second-most viewers to the Super Bowl in 2019 for a sports TV audience.
A game of that stature no matter the outcome deserves a full accounting, more than collection of head-shaking snapshots, like Dee Ford lining up offsides or the Chiefs’ offense gaining no traction in the first half.
The Chiefs had broken a playoff curse a week earlier with a convincing victory over the Colts, and had their best chance yet to claim the trophy named for their founder.
Instead, the Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC title, an award presented to the Patriots so many times that Bill Belichick has treated it like a paperweight, went to New England again.
In the moment after Rex Burkhead plowed in for the walk-off touchdown, CBS cameras quickly cut to a celebrating Tom Brady, then to a dejected Breeland Speaks and a stunned Arrowhead Stadium. New England was off to the Super Bowl, while Kansas City almost immediately started a makeover with the firing of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton two days later.
Here’s the other reason to remember: The Chiefs did some amazing things that night after falling behind by two touchdowns and nearly rallying their way to the Super Bowl.
Maybe time hasn’t healed the wounds, and only an AFC-title season will make it OK for fans to look back at what happened that night.
But the players have already turned the page. Not long after the crushing disappointment they began to understand what was almost accomplished.
“When I got into the depth of the offseason and OTAs, I realized how much of a learning experience that was,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “We found a way to fight, found a way to get back into a game against a team that’s known for closing those games out pretty quickly.”
Every point mattered
We’ll start with this. The Chiefs franchise has played 900 regular-season games and 29 more in the playoffs. The AFC title game was the first time the Chiefs had scored as many as 24 points in the fourth quarter.
They needed every one of them. The final three came on Harrison Butker’s 39-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining.
How often has a missed field goal in the playoffs, including one by Butker the previous year against the Titans, haunted the Chiefs?
This time, the kick was perfect. Given the importance of the game and when the kick occurred — in crunch time — it has to be remembered as the most clutch field goal in franchise history.
Holder Dustin Colquitt said nobody was thinking about that in the moment.
“I remember just feeling like it was a pregame warm-up kick” Colquitt said. “It’s the same kick he’s made a thousand times in practice. I thought after he made it how unbelievable it was going to be if we could take this city to the Super Bowl.”
To get to Butker’s attempt, an unlikely scoring drive would be required. How unlikely? The Chiefs started that drive on their own 31 with 39 seconds remaining. Only once last season did the Chiefs — starting on their side of the field — score in a shorter amount of time, a first-play, 75-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill in New England.
This time, the drive went four plays, 48 yards in 31 seconds. And Hill or Travis Kelce or Sammy Watkins or Damien Williams — the Chiefs’ prime targets — weren’t involved.
Mahomes scrambled, running back Spencer Ware made an adjustment, and a 21-yard completion got the Chiefs to midfield.
On the next play, Mahomes found Demarcus Robinson for a 27-yard gain, giving the Chiefs the needed field position for Butker.
It was an incredible sequence, two big strikes against a New England defense that would hold the high-flying Rams without a touchdown two weeks later in the Super Bowl.
“We found a way to be in it — even after we got the offsides, we found a way to get back in and kick the field goal to force overtime,” Mahomes said.
Williams, a sudden TD machine
As for Damien Williams, in one quarter, he became one of the Chiefs’ most productive playoff players ever.
Williams scored all three of the Chiefs’ touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He became the first Kansas City player to score three touchdowns in a postseason game and he became the only guy not named Priest Holmes to score three touchdowns in a quarter. Holmes did it three times.
Two of those touchdowns came on receptions. Never had a Chiefs player caught two scoring passes in a postseason game.
With his score against the Colts the previous week, Williams had four postseason touchdowns, the most by a player in franchise history.
“It’s one of the best games I had since being in the NFL,” said Williams, who had spent his first four seasons with the Dolphins before joining the Chiefs last season. “It was an honor to be able to play like that in game that important.”
Williams finished with 30 rushing yards but added 66 yards receiving. The Chiefs’ offense didn’t get started until the second half, but once it did, four touchdowns and a field goal came from seven possessions.
“It was one of those games, when you looked at the film, we left everything on the field,” Williams said. “We came up just short.”
No parade, but foundation laid
With a Chiefs victory that night, barrels of ink would have been devoted to Williams, the game-tying drive, Butker’s field goal, Mahomes’ second-half poise or the fact that the Chiefs intercepted Tom Brady twice. He had thrown 237 passes in the postseason without a pick when Reggie Ragland intercepted him in the end zone.
A Super Bowl celebration would have been underway. Preparations for a downtown parade would have been firmed up. It likely would have happened on Wednesday had the Chiefs won on Super Sunday.
Instead, the Chiefs got a two-week jump on the following season, and it’s natural to wonder what might have happened to Sutton or players like Ford, Justin Houston and Berry if, say, the Chiefs had won the coin toss and scored a touchdown on their opening overtime possession to win the game.
“The reality of it is, it’s our job regardless,” general manager Brett Veach said. “We have to be real about how we perform on that (defensive) side of the football, what we need to do, and maximize our resources and efforts into getting better in any way we can.”
So, it’s likely that winning the Super Bowl wouldn’t have changed the Chiefs’ offseason approach.
“We started the process of free agency in November, trying to gauge the landscape of what we’d have access to and what we could potentially do, knowing that the draft would follow that.
“As a season goes on, we’re evaluating our team and putting plans together. You can’t have discussions and talk to teams. But I remember thinking in November and December, watching guys like Frank Clark, and thinking, ‘We have a chance, and this can help us get better.’”
An already bold offseason with the overhaul in coaching personnel and acquisition of players like Clark, the pass rushing defensive end from the Seahawks, safety Tyrann Mathieu and several others, would have been amplified if those moves were made coming off a Super Bowl.
There’s no doubting the Chiefs’ sense of purpose now — a sense of purpose that can really only be shared by one other franchise. The New Orleans Saints also dropped their conference championship game at home in overtime.
“With the pieces that are here and what we brought it, I think we have a great opportunity to get back into that position … and finish it off right,” Williams said.
Mahomes called the AFC tile game the ultimate learning experience. The Chiefs spotted the NFL’s best franchise two touchdowns, fought back to take the lead, lost it, then forced overtime.
His biggest takeaway?
“Learning how to start better and find a way to be better consistently throughout the game,” he said.
If that happens and the Chiefs reach Super Bowl LIV, last season’s AFC Championship Game would have served a purpose, and might be remembered for something other than bitter disappointment.