Travis Kelce, dressed and ready, turns away from his locker and sees two dozen or so TV cameras and notebooks. His eyes go past them, over them. Charcandrick West, his friend and Chiefs teammate, stands on a chair to see over the crowd, waving a hand to ensure he has the star tight end’s attention.
“Hey!” West said.
West pokes the side of his head with his index finger.
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West: “Be smart.”
West is a good teammate. Smart, committed to the cause. The coaches will be happy to hear what he did, though it means fans probably did not hear what Kelce truly felt in that moment after the Chiefs’ 19-17 loss to the Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
The Chiefs blew this game. They scored the first two touchdowns, at home, and still led by seven points in the fourth quarter. Then, nothing. You could make a list of at least five plays the Chiefs could’ve made to clinch this one, from Alex Smith’s interception in the end zone to a pair of third-and-2s on their last two possessions.
The Chiefs made none of those plays, and for the third straight week, the offense produced zero touchdowns and zero field goals after halftime. Someone asked Kelce what changed, and here is where he bit his tongue — but not too hard.
“Other than play-calling, I couldn’t really tell you,” he said. “I’m not blaming it on play-calling. We gotta go out there and execute, but I feel like we got a little conservative. I don’t know if it was the weather or what. I just ... I don’t know. I have to look at the film, see what happened.”
I have to look at the film is football’s universal code for, “I’m done talking about this,” and Kelce probably pulled the chute at the right time. The Chiefs are 10-4. They remain in position to possibly win the AFC West and secure a home playoff game after a first-round bye. At worst, they are likely to have a wild-card spot.
But this season has never been about a wild-card spot, or even one more playoff win. This is the best Chiefs team in more than a decade, and from the very beginning they’ve made it clear they want to be judged on a Super Bowl standard.
And this is why Chiefs fans have been so nervous, sometimes even paranoid, about a team that did not lose a game between Oct. 2 and Nov. 20 and remains in a strong position for a playoff spot.
Safety Eric Berry bailed them out in Atlanta. The defense was too good for the Raiders last week. But here, against a team the Chiefs could see in a wild-card game (on the road), it wasn’t good enough. No points after halftime for three straight weeks.
“That’s my first time hearing that,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. “They’re all different. Frustrating. A lot of plays to be made there, throughout the game.”
Being a Chiefs fan has never been easy, and these are the moments that bring back every blasted memory of playoff games with no punts, blown 28-point leads, missed field goals ... and those are just their playoff losses to the Colts.
Forget the Super Bowl. Fans here haven’t seen their team even a game away from the Super Bowl since January 1994. That’s so long ago that receiver Tyreek Hill was not yet alive. Andy Reid was a quality control coach for the Packers.
NFL games are often won on a razor’s edge, and few team have been better than the Chiefs this year at navigating the danger. They could’ve won this one, too, and that’s with or without better play on their own.
Titans kicker — or, if you prefer, former Chiefs kicker — Ryan Succop missed his initial game-winning attempt from 53 yards. The ball must’ve been like a frozen rock, and it was short by a few yards, but Reid called timeout just before the snap. With another try, Succop forced it through. This was far from a sure thing.
“You could give me 10 kicks from there, and I don’t know if I can make one,” Succop said.
But this is no time for could’ve. There are a hundred things to pick apart here. Reid’s play-calling and reluctance to challenge what may have been a touchdown run by De’Anthony Thomas. Kelce and Tyreek Hill were targeted a total of three times in the second half, for a grand total of one catch and nine yards. The offensive line couldn’t convert two runs from inside the 1.
Smith’s interception was awful, made worse because his value is supposed to be in avoiding awful interceptions like that. This is the second time he’s thrown an interception in the end zone in a game the Chiefs lost 19-17 at home.
“It’s across the board,” Smith said. “There’s no one thing. It would be hard to point to one thing.”
Asked why they sometimes go nervous, or even paranoid, Chiefs fans might say the same thing.
It’s across the board. This team is Hill’s talents, or a few lucky breaks, from being 7-6.
There’s no one thing. This team has been outgained, unable to put away wins in the second half, and generally seems to go white-knuckles with a lead.
It would be hard to point to one thing. Men have worn this same uniform and lost early in the playoffs before, many times, enough that by now the feeling is shared between parents and their grown children.
This team is better than that. At least it should be. I still believe that, and I bet many of you will, too, after the disappointment of Sunday settles. They are still a decent bet for the No. 2 seed and have a fighter’s chance to be in the Super Bowl, at least in part because there are no teams without flaws.
But, man. When the Chiefs show their flaws, it sure does make the cynicism collected over the decades and stashed in the closet easy to find.