With 9 minutes and 33 seconds left in the third quarter Sunday, Chiefs coach Andy Reid leaned over, inspecting his injured star. Behind him, seven players kneeled, clutching their helmets, wishing that was looked to be true, somehow was not.
Running back Jamaal Charles, their beloved teammate, was down. He’d crumpled to the grass turf just moments before, his right knee appearing to give out on him with no contact on his 15th carry of the afternoon. It would be Charles’ last of the day.
The crowd of 75,799 at Arrowhead Stadium began applauding when Charles was hoisted to his feet and carried to the sideline, his arms clinging around the shoulders of head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder and star outside linebacker Justin Houston.
Afterward, Reid said preliminary indications are that Charles likely suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, pending an MRI on Monday. That is a season-ending injury, both for Charles and, perhaps, the Chiefs — especially considering the collapse that soon followed.
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With their season on the line against a struggling Chicago Bears team missing at least five starters because of injury, the Chiefs, who entered the game as nine-point favorites, proceeded to blow a 14-point second-half lead in a devastating 18-17 defeat that dropped them to 1-4 and sent them to their fourth straight loss.
“People saw, the whole time, what was going on,” Reid said, when asked if the injury took the life out of his team. “You’re put in a situation like this and somewhere, you’ve got to make plays. We didn’t do that the second half.”
It marks the second time this season the Chiefs have blown a two-touchdown lead at home. The first came on Sept. 13, when they lost 31-24 to Denver.
And while the Bears needed a 7-yard touchdown throw from Jay Cutler to running back Matt Forte with 18 seconds left to complete the comeback, things swerved off course for the Chiefs long before that, as they were outscored 15-0 from the point of Charles’ injury to the end of the game.
“Offensively, we went into a shell there for a little while, you know, and just didn’t get anything done,” quarterback Alex Smith said.
Indeed, the offense shrank from the occasion without Charles, as the Chiefs were outgained 220 yards to 52 from that point on. The Chiefs still had the ball deep in Bears territory when Charles got hurt, but after two Alex Smith straight incompletions, kicker Cairo Santos’ 27-yard field goal was blocked.
“You can’t come back and have a blocked field goal in that momentum swing,” Reid said. “If it does (happen), for that moment, then you’ve got to change it, and we were never really able to do that.”
Some of that is also on the defense, which held the Bears to 108 first-half yards and scored a first-half touchdown — on a Ramik Wilson fumble recovery — but allowed Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to get hot in the second half.
“You can’t act like this is not a top quarterback,” cornerback Sean Smith. “I know he’s been streaky, but it’s still Jay Cutler. You’ve got to respect the man’s talent. He’s capable of making all the throws.”
After the blocked field goal, Cutler, who finished 26 of 45 for 252 yards and two touchdowns, mounted a scoring drive that ended with a 30-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 17-6 entering the fourth quarter.
And with the Chiefs’ offense essentially playing dead — it went three-and-out on three straight possessions after Charles’ injury — the Bears put together another scoring drive, this one capped by a sensational 22-yard touchdown throw from Cutler to receiver Marquess Wilson, who caught it right between cornerback Marcus Peters and safety Ron Parker on a corner route.
“That was an amazing throw,” Wilson said. “He put it exactly where it needed to be, right on the money. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that. He threw that before I even got out of my break.”
Adding to the Chiefs’ misery was that Peters appeared to come down with an interception on the play before, when Cutler was trying to hit tight end Khari Lee on a deep pass. Peters seemed to come down with the ball with both feet inbounds, but the referee waved it off.
“I was told it wasn’t (an interception) from the people upstairs,” Reid said, when asked why he didn’t challenge the ruling.
It would not be Peters’ last disagreement with the officials Sunday, but after the Bears’ ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed, the Chiefs still had a chance to close out the game. Two runs by Charcandrick West, Charles’ backup, yielded 4 yards, which set up third and 6 at their own 24-yard line with 2:15 left.
Needing a big play, the Chiefs opted to go to receiver Jeremy Maclin, who was isolated alone on the right side of the formation against cornerback Tracy Porter. Smith tried to hit Maclin on a slant, but Porter deflected it away.
“We got the one-on-one over there and didn’t connect,” Smith said. “It’s a big play in the game, changes the game. Got to connect.”
This set up the final drive of the game for the Bears, who got the ball back with a little more than 2 minutes left. After Cutler moved his team to the Chiefs’ 37-yard line, the defense seemed to rise to the occasion, as his deep pass to Wilson on third and 10 landed incomplete.
The Bears, however, were spared by a penalty on Peters, who was whistled for pass interference, which gave the Bears the ball at the Chiefs’ 13-yard line with 57 seconds left.
“I didn’t agree with it, but that’s hindsight, it’s over,” said Reid, who added that he thought Wilson should have been whistled for a pushoff on Peters.
Two plays later, Cutler lofted a gorgeous back-shoulder fade to Forte for a touchdown over safety Husain Abdullah with 18 seconds left.
“They ran a rub route, a pick play,” Abdullah said. “I tried to climb and make the play. I didn’t.”
The Chiefs got the ball back and appeared to set up a 57-yard field goal attempt by Cairo Santos, thanks to two completions to Maclin. But the latter, a 9-yard gain, was ruled incomplete, as the referees said Maclin bobbled the ball.
The Chiefs then attempted what would been an NFL record 66-yard field goal, as Reid said Santos has made kicks from that distance in practice. The kick, however, landed far short of the uprights, completing the shocking loss.
Now the Chiefs, 1-4, have to prepare for a road test against the Minnesota Vikings, 2-2, who will be coming off a bye week. And, if early indications about Charles’ knee are correct, they will have to turn the tide and save their season without one of their most important players.
In 2011, when Charles tore the ACL in his left knee the second week of the season, the Chiefs finished 7-9.
“For me, there are two choices,” Alex Smith said. “You can get sidetracked, you can get distracted, you can make excuses. Or we can look internally, we can stay together and we can fight. We can try to get this thing turned around and focus on next week and not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t need to be looking at anything beyond that.”