Sam Mellinger

A familiar failure: Chiefs use playoff script in haunting regular-season loss

Chiefs Andy Reid on teams 29-28 Thursday night loss to the Chargers

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid referred to penalties on both sides of the ball, that were either right or wrong, as a key to the teams 29-28 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night December 13, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid referred to penalties on both sides of the ball, that were either right or wrong, as a key to the teams 29-28 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night December 13, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.

Oh, hello old Chiefs. Almost forgot what you looked like.

The reminder came in cruel form, a nationally televised failure with every brutally familiar characteristic of what is by now a trademark playoff choke: blown lead, weird calls, an offense that stalls and a defense that turns into a wet paper bag.

The Chiefs lost 29-28 to the Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday in what was basically a checklist of past postseason flops. This one came in the regular season, so it’s not as bad, but for Chiefs fans around before the curly-haired rocket showed up it feels a little like ominous foreshadowing.

“As long as we learn from it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “That’s the important thing right now.”

That’s fine to say, but not even a small comfort against a deep-seated and earned distrust that Chiefs fans have with virtually any level of success.

This was, basically, a troll job on every insecurity Chiefs fans have. This was Eric Berry’s long-awaited return, and he was standing on the sideline in a stocking cap for the entire second half, when the Chargers scored three touchdowns and the winning two-point conversion in four possessions and this next point deserves its own paragraph.

The Chiefs blew a 14-point lead in 5 minutes, based on a wicked conspiracy of soft defense and an offense that shrunk in the biggest moment.

The initial criticisms will be thrown at the defense, and don’t let this column keep you from doing that. The defense still cannot even pretend to stop the run, and even accounting for a phantom call or two, has a proven knack for giving up big plays in the worst spots. Antonio Gates, 38 years old and as shifty as a semi truck, tied a season high with five catches that included a juke stolen straight out of his prime in the mid 2000s.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on the teams 29-28 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on a last second touchdown and two-point conversion on Thursday night, December 13, 2018 at Arrowhead Stadium.

A stop on either of the Chargers’ last two possessions, or the two-point conversion, and the Chiefs could have clinched another AFC West title and all but clinched homefield advantage until the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got to finish,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said.

“Mentally, it’s very tough,” lineman Chris Jones said.

But the context of this team means accepting an inconvenient truth — this particular loss is more on the offense than defense.

The Chiefs have a head coach who spends much of the defense’s snaps on the bench with his quarterback, a freak-show talent who has already broken franchise and NFL records before his first full season as a starter. They have a top five receiver, and the league’s best tight end. They entered the week leading the league in points.

This team has always been about offense, its future as bright or disappointing as that group will make it.

They had it all in front of them, several times, and could not close the win. The most egregious was after the Chargers closed the lead to seven points, and the Chiefs took the ball with 3:49 left.

They ran twice for a net gain of two yards, then took a penalty and a sack. Including a penalty on the kickoff, they went backwards 15 yards, and took just 62 seconds off the clock.

That is simply not good enough.

“You understand the game,” running back Damien Williams said. “Keep the ball, you win the game. End of story. We just have to find a way.”

Whatever your level of anger toward the defense is justified. But if this was a playoff loss there would also be room to wonder why the offense can’t get a first down when it needs one and, for that matter, why the head coach decides to punt on 4th and 3 in the opponent’s territory.

That’s a decision that takes the league’s best offense off the field and replaces it with one of the league’s worst defenses.

This team’s strengths and weaknesses are clear. The Chiefs must play to them.

Weird thing. For decades, this franchise has basically done nothing but lift fan hope and then crush it like a cigarette butt. This is what the Chiefs do, or at least what they have done. This team feels — still, once the light of day hits — different so maybe this was like a dry run emergency training: OK, if the Chiefs are up two scores in the fourth quarter and start to wobble, form a single file line and head to your nearest exit.

This doesn’t have to be the way it goes, of course. That’s easy to forget now, because a franchise has trained its fans to expect the worst and just offered an unnecessary reminder of what that looks like.

But the Chiefs are still the objective envy of the AFC: win at Seattle (difficult) and against the Raiders at home (not as difficult) and homefield advantage is still theirs.

The game in Seattle is a test, but it’s worth noting that the Chargers and Rams each won there this year.

The Chiefs don’t have to be as bad as their playoff history. They can still be as good as they believe. But their margin for error is gone. Their most important work begins now.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.