The Chiefs’ playoff chances might have come down to two turnovers and two controversial calls in the desert.
The Arizona Cardinals took advantage of both and handed the Chiefs a painful 17-14 defeat on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Chiefs, 7-6, lost their third straight game and fell behind San Diego, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Miami in the AFC wild-card scramble. Arizona, 10-3, remained atop the NFC playoff picture after snapping a two-game skid.
Tight ends Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano were at the center of both dubious calls.
With the Chiefs trailing 17-14 and 5 minutes, 31 seconds to play, quarterback Alex Smith hit Kelce for 19 yards to the Arizona 22, but as Kelce was being tackled, Cardinal safety Deone Bucannon poked the ball free, and teammate Justin Bethel recovered.
The ruling on the field was down by contact, but Arizona coach Bruce Arians, upon advice from his assistants in the press box, threw out the red challenge flag, claiming Kelce had fumbled, and the call was reversed by referee Craig Wrolstad.
Kelce thought he had regained control of the ball.
“Shocked,” he said of the reversal. “Either way, it was a huge play in the game. It’s my job not to even give doubt or put the team in that position.”
The Chiefs were getting ready to run their next play when Arians tossed the flag.
“I had no idea the ball had even come out or anything,” Smith said. “Pretty surprised and shocked. I felt like they whistled it, which was tough once they whistle it … you’re not trying to recover it or anything.”
Running back Jamaal Charles was just as surprised.
“I thought they were trying to challenge it as an incomplete pass,” Charles said. “He was down on the ground, on his back. I don't know how you fumble the ball when you're down.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid might not have agreed and bit his lip when asked his view of the play.
“You’ve got to keep the ball high and tight in that area, and we have to make sure …” Reid said of Kelce’s possessing the ball. “Go on to something else besides the officials. I don’t have anything good to say.”
That applied to an apparent 19-yard touchdown pass to Fasano that was wiped out by an offensive-interference call against him.
The Chiefs were leading 14-9 with 5:47 left in the third quarter when Smith scrambled and found Fasano all by himself in the end zone. Fasano was called for the penalty, though replays showed he barely grazed linebacker Larry Foote, who flopped to the ground like a basketball player trying to sell a charge.
Fasano angrily threw the football toward the sidelines after the call.
“It’s just an emotional part of the game, a pivotal part,” Fasano said. “Whenever a touchdown is taken away in a key situation is pretty emotional.”
Again, the Cardinals saw it differently than the Chiefs.
“The (offensive pass interference) was obvious,” Arians said. “He shoved him, and everyone in the stadium I think saw it.”
The penalty turned out to be a 15-point swing. Facing third and 20 at the Cardinals 29 after the penalty, Smith found himself under intense pressure from defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, and his pass intended for Albert Wilson was intercepted by linebacker Alex Okafor.
Okafor returned it 26 yards to the Chiefs’ 42. The Cardinals went on to score a touchdown for the first time in 35 offensive drives when Drew Stanton lofted a 26-yard pass on third and 20 to Jaron Brown, who had a step on Chiefs safety Ron Parker.
The touchdown — the Cardinals’ first in 35 offensive possessions — gave Arizona a 15-14 lead, prompting the decision to go for two. Stanton fired a pass to Carlson, who barely got over the goal line despite Josh Mauga’s tackle, for the eventual 17-14 win.
The Chiefs had a final chance to at least tie the game after Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a field goal in the final minute, but they failed to mount a threat.
In the despondent Chiefs’ locker room, most of the conversation centered on the two missed calls.
“The reason we lost I feel like the refs didn't go our way,” said Charles, who scored the Chiefs two touchdowns on a 63-yard run and an 18-yard reception. “The refs called two plays I think was just crazy. The Kelce play and the push off. It just didn’t go our way today … We lost, we have to suck it up, and we have to move on.”
The Chiefs now face the prospect of winning their final three games — against the Raiders, at Pittsburgh and against San Diego if they have any hope of reaching the postseason for the second straight season.
“It starts with a win,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get a win next week. We’ve got to rebound from this. I don’t know all the scenarios and really don’t care. That stuff is out of our control.
“We do control this next week and who we’re playing and how we go play and how we prepare. We really need to focus on that.”
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @randycovitz.