The visitors’ locker room here at Gillette Stadium is one of the saddest places in sports. This is where dreams die, where grown men believe they’re walking out into one of the great moments of their professional lives and then walk back in defeated, quiet, often angry, but virtually always defeated.
Professional athletes have cried in this room. They’ve cursed. They’ve shaken their heads. They’ve wanted plays back, or decisions, sometimes believing they were just a play or two away, but this concrete, characterless, sterile room almost always welcomes back losers.
One-hundred and five times before, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a lead going into the fourth quarter here, and he had never lost. The Chiefs made themselves the exception, somehow, not just beating the Patriots 42-27 in the NFL’s standalone season opener on Thursday but obliterating the conventional wisdom that it takes a perfect game to win here.
“(Expletive), we won,” cornerback Marcus Peters said. “What else am I supposed to say?”
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It’s as good a description as any, really. Two hundred and fifty-five games remain in this NFL season, but one night in the Chiefs already have the league’s signature win. No AFC team had ever won a regular-season game here in which Brady played all four quarters since 2007. No team had scored this many points on the Patriots since 1993, and no team had done it here since 1984 — that’s 18 years before this stadium opened.
The Chiefs often talk about themselves as Super Bowl contenders, and that’s true enough for them to say it, but shaky enough for others to roll their eyes. The franchise hasn’t even been to an AFC Championship game since January 1994, and has won just one playoff game since — and Brian Hoyer was the other team’s quarterback.
Inside that concrete, characterless room, Derrick Johnson is asked if this is the best regular-season win in his 13 years with the Chiefs.
“I think so,” he said. “I don’t want to put too much sauce on it, because it’s game one. But it is against the Patriots, so it holds a lot of weight.”
Considering the moment and context and opponent, it’s one of the best days the Chiefs have had in decades, even surpassing the blowout win against the Patriots three years ago on a Monday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
Alex Smith was damn near perfect (28-for-35, 368 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions), Kareem Hunt was historic (most yards from scrimmage in a debut ever), Tyreek Hill was a star (133 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown) and the defense had every moment it needed (most prominently two fourth-down stops).
But this was spectacular in part for what the Chiefs did wrong, too. Hunt fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, and the Chiefs never took a turnover from the Patriots. They were penalized 15 times — that’s only the penalties enforced, not called — and spent most of the first half no closer to Tom Brady than you’d allow your toddler to sit from the TV. They trailed by seven, then by 10, and were behind at the start of the fourth quarter.
Nobody wins here like that. The Chiefs just did.
“It ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish,” linebacker Justin Houston said. “I started in the slums, and I’m still working to get out. That’s all our mind-set.”
There is a resilience that must be recognized here. Rosters change, players move on, but this core group has proven itself tough if nothing else. They went from 2-14 in 2012 to the playoffs in 2013. Houston, Johnson, and Jamaal Charles are among the stars to suffer major injuries.
Eric Berry beat cancer, for goodness’ sake. Andy Reid, their coach, has suffered through unthinkable personal tragedy.
A year ago, they made the greatest comeback in franchise history in the season opener. And now, they did something even more impressive.
“When you’re able to do that a couple of times as a team, you just build that confidence that anything is possible,” guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said. “I feel like everywhere we have that depth and stability, that we haven’t had in the three years I’ve been here.”
The Chiefs did not turn this locker room into a party. Athletes and fans live these moments in fundamental ways, so while much of the audience back in Kansas City freaked out, Houston paced the sideline, head nodding, voice booming.
WE GOOD, WE GOOD, WE GOOD!
So when it was all over, with the outside football world mostly shocked, this room had the feel of a good day at work. There was laughter, some jokes. But no blaring music, no loud boasts about what they’d just done, no real effort to point out all who’d been proven wrong.
Their mood was not unlike any other winning locker room, save their playoff win in Houston two seasons ago. This could’ve been the win at Jacksonville in 2013, or the Saints at home last fall. There may’ve been more energy after the comeback against the Chargers last season. The day they benched Peyton Manning in Denver in 2015 was louder than this.
“Mr. Schwartz,” center Mitch Morse said to tackle Mitchell Schwartz before leaving the locker room. “This was a good day.”
Maybe some of that was intentional. Fifteen more games, after all, plus the playoffs if they get there. Patriots or not, this is not a group eager to plant the flag on one game. Their goals are much bigger than that.
“Long season,” a club official said when congratulated. “But thanks.”
Maybe some of it was their friend. Berry, as much the heart of this team as any man, left in the fourth quarter on a cart. Reid called it a potential tear of the Achilles’ tendon, which would almost certainly end Berry’s season. It would be a massive setback, both psychologically and strategically.
Berry came into the locker room after it was mostly cleared out. His left foot was in a soft case wrapped in a tan bandage, and two black crutches leaned against his locker. Teammates came over to offer a word. This is a cruel sport, and a brutal business.
“I’m sorer than a (expletive) already,” Houston said.
He laughed when those words came out. The pain is dulled after wins, and the Chiefs will have three extra days to rest for their next game. This feels good. Better than almost any football day they could remember. But the next judgment will come soon, then another the week after, and another the week after that, over and over until the real judgments come in the postseason.
This locker room doesn’t see many smiles. But even on this night, the happiness only lasts so long before the work starts over again.