If any one of four or five or six or some bigger number of plays went the other way this locker room would be a party. There would be dancing. Yelling. Laughing. Over in the corner, maybe some music coming from Marcus Peters’ locker.
Instead, the isolated sounds of packing and disappointment fill the room as Peters walks out of this place, headphones on his temples, one of the first to the bus.
“What’d he say?” a teammate asked.
“This my town,” Peters responded. “You ain’t gotta worry.”
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It is almost exactly 12 minutes after the last Chiefs player walked into this room after the wildest, most bizarre, and unforgettable game of this NFL season. The Chiefs lost to the Raiders 31-30 on the last play of the game, or last plays of the game, a bonkers finish that included a nullified touchdown, two extra downs with no time on the clock, the final touchdown upheld on review.
If this is an exaggeration, it isn’t by much: It is impossible for an outcome to be less certain, more up to the fates, more a matter of hope and luck.
“That was weird,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
“First time,” defensive back Phil Gaines said.
“We just have to finish,” defensive back Eric Murray said.
Football is a cruel sport, especially at the highest level. Before Sunday, the Chiefs had just two losses in their previous 17 games. Now, they have two in five days.
The NFL’s consensus best team entering the week took the ball with 4 minutes, 15 seconds left and a six-point lead, and blew it all. At that point, the Chiefs merely needed to do one of at least five things to win.
Get one first down, two max. Instead, a three-and-out, Alex Smith sacked on third down before he could set his feet.
The Raiders got the ball with 2:25 left, one timeout, and needing 85 yards for the touchdown. They had scored just one touchdown in their previous seven possessions. The Chiefs didn’t need much. Instead, they allowed Amari Cooper loose down the middle of the field for 39 yards.
They could have stopped the Raiders on a 4th-and-11 around midfield. Instead, tight end Jared Cook got around Eric Murray for the conversion.
They could have stopped the Raiders with 3 seconds left. Instead, a penalty by Ron Parker allowed one more play.
They could have stopped the Raiders on an untimed down. Instead, a penalty by Murray allowed another one more play.
They could have stopped the Raiders on a second untimed down. Instead, Michael Crabtree beat Terrance Mitchell on a hitch route for the touchdown.
That’s at least five plays, depending on how you do the math. The Chiefs didn’t need to make all of them. Just one of them. One more play, and this locker room is a completely different place. One more play, and the messages these guys see as they scroll through their phones are completely different in tone.
One more play, and the Chiefs’ season takes on a completely different look.
“Nobody stepped up and made a play,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said.
The razor’s margin is not a reason for confidence as much as concern. No league legislates parity like the NFL, so outcomes like this are what separate. Last year’s Super Bowl went to overtime, you might remember.
All NFL teams have flaws, and the Chiefs have the kind that can expose themselves with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. On Thursday night, in front of a standalone national TV audience, the Chiefs gave up 505 yards to a team that had been averaging 350. They gave up 31 points to a team that hadn’t scored more than 17 in more than a month. They gave up 210 yards to a receiver that had 146 all season.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has always operated with a bend-but-don’t-break strategy, preferring to limit big plays over most of the field before tightening in the red zone.
Most of the time, that’s been enough. The Chiefs’ record in recent years shows that. The problem is such a small margin for error, because if you don’t get enough turnovers, the difference between giving up 10 points and 31 can feel like a flash.
Everything the Chiefs do defensively is based upon pressuring the quarterback, creating turnovers, and defending the red zone.
Well, on Thursday, they had no sacks, no hurries, no turnovers, and gave up two touchdowns and one field goal in three tries in the red zone.
‘Somebody step up and make a play and get off the field,” Jones said. “That’s what it all comes down to.”
As he said this, the locker room around him was busy with the silent routine of moving an NFL team’s mobile existence into the hallways and outside to the waiting buses. Side conversations between teammates replayed certain moments. Linemen asked for scissors to cut tape. Some sort of machine hummed around the corner, in an adjoining room, mindless white noise to break the silence.
The difference between this and the joy on the other side is aggravatingly small. One play. One official’s judgment. One bounce. All of this team’s same flaws and strengths would be the same, but everything around them would feel a little different.
The important part — the hardest part — is somehow cutting off all those thoughts, of making the work of the next 11 days the same as it would be if they didn’t just lose their first division game in 763 days because they could not win any of at least five plays in the final minutes.
“It’s tough to talk about it,” Smith said. “You just have to go do it.”