Sam Mellinger

Twenty-five years of Chiefs failure gone, a team and fans celebrate together

Andy Reid greeted after Chiefs beat Colts

Andy Reid is warmly greeted after Chiefs beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-13 in the AFC Divisional round on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.
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Andy Reid is warmly greeted after Chiefs beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-13 in the AFC Divisional round on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.

The Chiefs new history is a minute old, maybe two, and here comes Andy Reid up the stairs and into the happiest moment of his six years in Kansas City. He catches eyes with his grandson, does a sort of grandpa two-step, then lifts him up for a hug. The old coach has known so much disappointment this time of year. Not now. Finally, not now.

The Chiefs’ new history is three minutes old, maybe four, and here comes Patrick Mahomes up those stairs like a bolt of lightning. He swoops in, smile stretching his face, and gives his headband to a small fan wearing a No. 15 T-shirt. The boy screams, poses for a picture, and yells toward nobody in particular.

“This is Mahomes!”

Even if winning a playoff game at home is a basic sign of competence in a league built for parity, this is a joy that Chiefs fans have not known in 25 years. Their team beat the Colts — the COLTS! — 31-13 in an AFC division-round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday.

For longer than any reasonable person would think is fair, Chiefs fans wore that old playoff heartbreak so hard and so intimately. Twenty-five years without a home playoff win. The drought is old enough to have graduated college, to rent a car, to have a mortgage.

They drove through a blizzard to get here and sat through a pile of abnormally large snowflakes to watch. Jordan Lucas, the Chiefs’ safety, nearly drove his truck off the road. The snow and cold pushed some tailgaters inside their cars, or inside the stadium earlier than they would have liked, but it did nothing to freeze their spirit.

The old building rocked, over and over, from the defense forcing the first punt to Mahomes’ sidearm throws all the way until the clock expired, with the Colts going through the motions of a desperate drive that had long become pointless.

This is an afternoon that changed the Chiefs’ sorry postseason history, and the gift is the franchise’s first AFC Championship Game in a quarter-century next weekend against Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers winner.

The game will be the biggest in Arrowhead Stadium history, and the first AFC Championship Game ever played in Kansas City.

“It’s been a long time coming,” chairman Clark Hunt said.

“So damn good — about time,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said.

“We know we can help the city a lot,” fullback Anthony Sherman said.

A necessary disconnect exists between fans and the players they root for. When the Chiefs blew that 38-10 lead in Indianapolis after the 2013 season, Mahomes was in high school, getting ready for baseball season. The burden of the fan is not the burden of the player, but the two are by definition entwined because one’s success is the other’s.

Over and over and over again, both during the week and after the game, Chiefs players have been asked about the sorry postseason history of the uniform they wear.

Over and over and over again, both during the week and after the game, Chiefs players have told anyone who would listen that they don’t care about any of that. It’s not their focus. Can’t be. Shouldn’t be.

“It’s all these numbers,” said Dustin Colquitt, the punter who’s been with the Chiefs longer than any other player. “You see ‘25 years (since the last home playoff win),’ or ‘never hosted an AFC Championship Game.’ All these things. But we have so many new guys playing, they don’t look at that. They just say, ‘We’re supposed to win at home.’”

That’s true, but even those who haven’t been here long know the pain. Mahomes watched from the sideline as the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead to the Titans in this game last year. Reggie Ragland, in his second year with the Chiefs, said that failure was top of mind.

“The whole time,” he said. “It’s, ‘Finish. Man, finish.’”

That’s where the boundaries start to blur. The emotional backlog against a dam of 25 years will always rush out in force, and so at least in some indirect way the energy of a middle-aged man who picked up a Chiefs habit as a kid can spill out onto the field.

If it didn’t, Jones would never dance on the field during timeouts. If it didn’t, playing at home wouldn’t matter. If it didn’t, the men in that locker room wouldn’t shake their head and giggle when talking about what they heard out there.

“Crazy, awesome, from the very start,” Sherman said.

“They were crazy, we were crazy,” Lucas said.

“You can just feel it,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said.

The details of this game will fade over time when compared to both the meaning of the win and whatever happens next week. That’s too bad, because there was plenty worth remembering.

Bob Sutton’s defense, which all year has been sort of the devil’s bargain for having this offense, played its most impressive game of the season. Andrew Luck had been the league’s hardest quarterback to sack, but the Chiefs brought him down three times, including once with the ball, and hit him five more. They even picked up the offense after Sammy Watkins’ second-half fumble.

The corners covered like never before, in particular Charvarious Ward, who knocked down four passes. Ward was the centerpiece of a major shift the Chiefs made after the Chargers game, and coincidence or not they’ve given up just 16 points total over the last two weeks after surrendering an average of 28 in the first 15 games.

Mahomes and Reid did enough with the ball to make it all stand up, scoring 24 points on their first four possessions, a combination of balletic play calls and cold-blooded improvisation.

Still, if you have followed this team before Mahomes became a national celebrity you could see familiar cracks. Chiefs teams in the past have folded under much less than the Colts’ blocked punt for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Colquitt hadn’t been blocked since the opener of the 2013 season. This one came on what appeared to be a miscommunication of blocking assignments, the kind of simple task the Chiefs have usually done well until the postseason.

This time, instead of folding, Mahomes pushed the Chiefs 75 yards in about 4 minutes for a sort of Daddy’s Home touchdown, scored on a scramble where he pump faked a defensive back and dove for the pylon.

Chiefs teams in the past have turned a play like Watkins’ fumble into a haunting forever memory, like Marcus Mariota’s pass to himself, or Luck’s touchdown on a fumble that bounced off his lineman’s helmet.

But this time, the memory comes two snaps later, when Dee Ford knocked the ball from Luck’s hands and Justin Houston smothered it and then danced off the field.

History doesn’t change easily, so here is what it took: one of the sport’s greatest offensive minds surrounding a generational quarterback with an absurd stack of talent and the best defensive performance of the season.

Once the snow clears — if the snow clears? — the realization will sink in that this win is a necessary moment to help clear the decks of so many horrific memories but will ultimately feel unsatisfying without another win next week.

This is one more spot where the boundaries blur. Right or wrong, fair or not, the burden of the fans becomes the burden of the players. Twenty-five years without a home playoff win is done, dead, weight off the shoulders.

But here comes 49 years without a Super Bowl, and the fact that the Chiefs have never been good enough to win the AFC Championship trophy with their founder’s name on it.

How’s that for some weight?

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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.