“All I need is a miracle.”
— Mike and the Mechanics
The Chiefs are hoping for something close to a miracle on Sunday.
To qualify for the NFL playoffs, the Chiefs, behind backup quarterback Chase Daniel, need to beat the San Diego Chargers in their regular-season finale at noon at Arrowhead Stadium, and …
They need 9 1/2-point underdog Jacksonville to win at Houston, and 10-point underdog Cleveland to win at Baltimore.
The oddsmakers give the Chiefs, 8-7, a 2 percent chance for all three results to occur in Kansas City’s favor, and that was before quarterback Alex Smith was diagnosed with a lacerated spleen.
But as former Chiefs deep snapper Kendall Gammon recalled, “crazier things have happened.”
Such as in 2006.
That’s when the Chiefs, also 8-7, entered the regular-season finale having to beat Jacksonville at Arrowhead Stadium and needing three other teams to lose home games to reach the postseason in Herm Edwards’ first year as head coach.
The Chiefs, in a wildly entertaining game, took care of business by beating Jacksonville 35-30 on a blustery day of rain mixed with snow.
But would Cincinnati lose to Pittsburgh? Could Tennessee lose to New England? And how could Denver possibly lose at home to San Francisco?
“I didn’t scoreboard-watch because I didn’t think it was possible,” said Gammon, now the Chiefs’ sideline reporter.
For the second straight year, Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson directed the scoreboard operator not to flash any scores from Cincinnati or Tennessee during the game, a request that would prove ineffective in today’s smartphone world.
A year earlier, the Chiefs experienced their share of final-week heartache when they won 10 games but missed the playoffs when Pittsburgh hung on and beat Detroit in the season finale. So the Chiefs realized this was a real long shot.
“We knew nothing could happen for us if we didn’t the game,” Gammon said, “so that’s all we concentrated on.”
It had been a melancholy December for the 2006 Chiefs. After beating Denver 19-10 at Arrowhead Stadium in the NFL’s first prime-time Thanksgiving night game — an event owner Lamar Hunt had championed for years — the Chiefs stood 7-3.
But Hunt was conspicuously absent that night, as he was in the latter stages of his battle with cancer. Hunt died on Dec. 13 at age 74, and a crestfallen team lost its first three games of the month before beating the team Hunt enjoyed defeating the most, the Oakland Raiders, on Dec. 23.
The Dec. 31 Jacksonville game would be the first home game since Hunt had passed. Before the game and at halftime, the club paid tribute to Hunt on the video board, including Ida McBeth singing “Amazing Grace.” Clips from Hunt’s 47 years of ownership were shown to the soggy crowd of about 60,000.
“It was a little bit of an emotional roller coaster,” Clark Hunt said that day, “in part because the organization was honoring my father. We’d be watching the game and look up and there’d be something on the (video) board, which brought back memories of him and how unusual it was to be here cheering the Chiefs on without him.”
During the week, Edwards and offensive coordinator Mike Solari junked their conservative, power-running attack featuring Larry Johnson and decided to take the wraps off against a Jacksonville defense that was among the best in the league.
“We opened it up,” said quarterback Trent Green. “We had a flea-flicker, we had a couple of double-pump moves on the outside. We opened up the game plan and had a lot of fun with it, and the guys responded and performed well offensively.”
Johnson, who would carry the ball for an NFL-season-record 416 times for a club-record 1,789 yards in 2006, ran for three touchdowns in the game — and he also threw a halfback pass. Green hit Eddie Kennison with a 35-yard-touchdown pass off the flea-flicker that gave the Chiefs a 21-10 lead at halftime.
Moments after Green took a knee from the victory formation on the final play of the game, Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham missed a 39-yard field goal wide right with eight seconds left in regulation. Pittsburgh wasted little time eliminating the Bengals on Ben Roethlisberger’s 67-yard pass to Santonio Holmes on the third play of overtime.
Then, as if on cue, the Titans lost to New England 40-23. That left one more domino to fall … the late game in Denver between the Broncos and 49ers.
“After the game, Herm told us what time we were going to meet on Monday,” Green said. “Whether it’s to start the week of practice or have our exit meetings before the offseason, we were left up in the air what the meeting was going to be about.”
The chances of the Chiefs reaching the playoffs were so remote, Peterson took off on a plane for a bowl game and was flying over Denver when the pilot told him the Broncos’ game had gone to overtime.
Edwards refused to watch the Denver-San Francisco game and spent the evening playing games on the floor with his daughter Gabrielle. Clark Hunt and most of the players hung around the locker room watching the finish of the Denver game, and others went to a teammate’s home for a New Year’s Eve gathering.
Smith, the first overall pick by San Francisco in the 2005 NFL Draft, was intercepted by Denver’s Champ Bailey, who returned it 70 yards for a touchdown, giving the Broncos a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter.
But the 49ers, who came into the game 6-9, got on the scoreboard on Joe Nedney’s 46-yard field goal with four seconds left in the half, and Smith made it a 13-10 game with a pass to fullback Moran Norris, who threaded his way 32 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter.
“I remember it was cold — a snow game,” Smith recalled last week. “We were eliminated at that point, but we were such a young team. Two years prior, that team had only won two games. This was a chance for us to get a pretty big win against a playoff team that was playing with everything on the line.”
Eventually, the game went deep into overtime. And even a tie would have been good enough for Denver, 9-6, to claim the second wild-card spot ahead of the Chiefs. But Nedney made a 36-yard field goal with 1 minute, 56 seconds left in overtime that gave San Francisco a 26-23 win and send the Chiefs to the playoffs.
“I knew we were spoiling Denver,” Smith said last week, “but I didn’t know who we put in …”
Clark Hunt wondered whether outside forces were at work.
“I’ve had some people in the locker room suggest that maybe my father had a hand in that,” he said beaming after all the results were in.
Instead of cleaning out their lockers the next day, the Chiefs were packing for a playoff game at Indianapolis.
Edwards had a fresh message for his players when they arrived Monday morning.
“Herm said to us that we won the games we had to win to get in,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who was the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 2006. “People said we sneaked in. We didn’t sneak in. We won our game. What happened for us, happened.”
Hali, now one of the elder statesmen on the team, said that’s the approach the Chiefs have taken this week.
“It’s the same type of mentality,” he said. “We have to win a game and hope for the best.”
Green, an analyst for CBS Sports now, said the Chiefs, who have lost four of their last five, should play free and easy and let loose on Sunday against the Chargers, 9-7, who need to win in order to clinch the playoff spot.
“They should just go out and have fun,” Green said. “You don’t have the pressures of what’s gone on the last four or five weeks. There’s no reason to hold anything back now. Unfortunately, the way the games have unfolded the last month or so, it hasn’t gone the way they wanted …
“We always thought it was important to have a winning season. You lose this game, you finish .500. You win this game, you finish 9-7 and it gives you something good to feed off in the offseason.”
All three games in question kick off at noon Sunday, so the teams involved won’t have to wait until after dark to know their fates.
“We still have life,” Smith said. “I couldn’t imagine the what-if scenarios … But if they do play out, and we don’t take care of our business …. For us, we’re still alive, and that’s all that matters.”