Of course it’s the Colts. Had to be the Colts. Who else would it be?
Who else could it be?
The great American philosopher Ric Flair says to be the man you have to beat the man, and if he was a sports columnist in Kansas City he might say that if you want to escape your ghosts, you have to take your franchise quarterback and beat them in a playoff game.
This is destiny, the way it always should have been, a week of hyper-angst and self-loathing and jokes that you hope are jokes but may actually turn out to be truer than you’re ready for.
Lin Elliott. Just say it out loud. Four syllables: LIN ELL-ee-IT. The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named has a name, and you can either pretend he doesn’t or join us in the real world, where you’re going to hear his name over and over again.
You’re going to hear about The No Punt Game, too, which has a better ring to it than The Priest Holmes Fumble Game. Talk to the men involved in that game, on a beautiful Sunday 15 years ago this week, NFL postseason history because of course they did. Andrew Luck scored a touchdown by fumbling off a lineman’s head. Dwayne Bowe ran the wrong route at the end. The locker room might as well have been blocked off with police tape.
Three epic gut punches, each with the Chiefs on the loser’s end in the Colts’ highlight and now (of course!) the most exciting Chiefs regular season in decades is prologue to one more dance with the arch-nemesis.
The Chiefs have won two playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium in 47 years, and hopefully you’re in the mood for some dark humor: The Colts have won the same number.
“I know with the history and stuff like that, but at the same time, we are a different generation,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
The man who can change it all said those words before he even knew it would be the Colts. Though maybe just maybe he had a hunch. And not just because the Colts had a good matchup against the Texans, who had a 2013 Chiefs stench to them all along — good record but lots of wins over tomato-can quarterbacks.
The Colts are a handful for anyone. Quarterback Andrew Luck just completed the best season of his career, behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and surrounded by impressive playmakers. The defense is stout, disciplined and stingy with big plays. They’ve won 10 of 11.
This would be a difficult matchup in any context, so the Colts being the Chiefs’ historical boogeyman is a gratuitous slap to the face.
The setup means a weeklong roast of Chiefs fans, which means you have two choices:
1. Fetal position, brainstorming all the brutal possibilities.
2. Open arms, choosing logic over narrative, knowing that even if — say it loud, you cowards! — Lindley Franklin Elliott Jr. made all three of those kicks 22 years ago it would not have a lick of impact this week.
The Colts are a convenient foil, but the truth is the Chiefs have failed in the playoffs so often and so hard that some team was bound to be that dude. Law of averages and all.
Because the Chiefs have been the punks over and over this time of year: a poorly timed penalty in Miami, the Elvis Grbac game against the Broncos, football history’s longest 2-minute drill in New England, not giving up a touchdown and still losing to the Steelers, and of course last year’s collapse against the Titans.
Please don’t take these words as insurance against another heartbreak, because that’s what sports are designed to do, but it’s true that the Chiefs have always had the inferior quarterback.
They’ve lost to Dan Marino, Jim Harbaugh, John Elway, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Luck, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. The exception might be last year, when Alex Smith had the season of his professional life and they lost to Marcus Mariota. But the Chiefs also lost Travis Kelce and Chris Jones to injuries in that game, and their defense operated without a clue.
They’ve never had Mahomes, or anyone particularly close. That’s obviously true in terms of talent. Few have been as adept mentally, none have been as athletic, and all have (thankfully) had the good sense not to even attempt some of the throws he makes routinely.
No quarterback in Chiefs history has been as positively oblivious to all of it. Remember last year, when Smith said he was playing with more “(buck) it?” Well, few quarterbacks have ever played with more (buck) it than Mahomes.
You can see it in the no-looks, or on second and 30, or fourth and 9, but those are merely the highlights that prove the point. This is how Mahomes has always operated, at least while playing sports.
Baseball thought so much of him that it offered seven figures. Football thought so little of him that Texas Tech was the only Power 5 school to offer a scholarship. Mahomes chose football anyway, mostly because he found it more challenging and interesting.
One of the biggest disconnects between fans and athletes is perspective. Fans obsess over history; athletes focus on execution. Fans can remember each loss in gory detail; athletes recall specific matchups.
So when Chiefs players and coaches are asked this week about the ghosts of playoff failures past, they will brush off the memories and talk about each year being different. That’s how athletes always approach these things, but even in that context Mahomes might be the perfect man to front the charge.
He knew nothing about the Chiefs’ sorry playoff history until after he was drafted. Once he learned, he talked not of the pressure but of the opportunity to be part of the first group to win the trophy named after the franchise’s founder.
“I want to win Super Bowls here,” he said in an interview for a profile before the season.
Super Bowls, plural?
“That’s the goal,” he said.
Can’t win plural without winning one, and there is no telling how this will go. Life comes without guarantees. Football, too. Maybe Mahomes is different simply because he hasn’t yet been tainted. You can believe that if you want.
But that’s not what we’ve seen so far. Perhaps more than Carl Peterson and Marty Schottenheimer in the 1990s, and even more than Andy Reid after the horrific 2012 season, Mahomes has changed what’s possible for the Chiefs. He’s done that with his arm and his guts and his brain.
He hasn’t been tested the way he will next weekend, and hasn’t faced these kinds of stakes. That’s all true, and history has taught you to expect the worst. But open your eyes and maybe your heart and another truth presents itself.
Mahomes means the Chiefs have never been better equipped to outrun and outscore those old demons.