Sam Mellinger

New Chiefs, same postseason result: ‘You have to take in the hurt’

The image that sticks about the Chiefs who almost changed it all is Patrick Mahomes, handcuffed to the sideline by the toss of a coin, watching his first season as a starting quarterback dissolve into one more Tom Brady comeback.

He stood by himself Sunday night in an oversized winter parka, in front of a heater, because there was still a chance, right until the very end, and it’s best to keep the merchandise warm. At one point, with the smoke from Brady’s breath infiltrating the red zone, Mahomes dropped the coat and walked toward the field, waving his arms at the Arrowhead Stadium crowd.

At that point, it’s all he could do.

The Patriots scored, because of course they did. The touchdown gave them a 37-31 overtime win in the AFC Championship Game. Patriots players laid on the field and screamed. Chiefs players kneeled and stared, stunned. Brady will play in his ninth Super Bowl. Mahomes, the Chiefs’ young star quarterback, will have to wait for his first.

“You have to take in the hurt,” Mahomes said. “You have to accept it. This hurts. It’s supposed to hurt.”

The Chiefs have never had anything like Mahomes, the presumptive MVP, so maybe the Chiefs-est way to lose another playoff game was with him being brilliant in a second-half comeback and then not even having a chance in overtime.

There is so much to digest. So much pain, so many could’ves, so many unpredictable and unstoppable moments that kept Kansas City from having one of the greatest parties in her history.

Mahomes missed Damien Williams wide-open in the first half, and afterward, when he said the poor start would eat at him the rest of his career, he might’ve been thinking of that throw more than anything else. Hit it, and the score is tied. He missed it, and the Chiefs trailed by 14 at halftime.

Safety Eric Berry was beaten by Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski in man coverage — twice — in moments that changed everything. First a fade down the left sideline that set up the Patriots’ last touchdown in regulation, and then on a slant on 3rd and 10 that set up the golden score in overtime.

The Chiefs waited all season for Berry to get healthy. They were patient, even when it was hard, allowing him to dictate terms of his return with the faith of a postseason payoff that never arrived. Gronkowski beat Berry when it mattered most in the playoffs, same as he beat Josh Shaw when it mattered most in Week 6.

Dee Ford lined up offsides on one of a handful of single plays that tipped the outcome. That’s all. Just lined up offsides. He had a breakout season, and will justifiably become wealthy soon, but he had no impact on a third-and-long with a minute left other than being whistled for a basic penalty on a play that would’ve otherwise been a game-sealing, AFC Championship-winning interception by Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward.

“They said I was in the neutral zone,” Ford said. “I gotta see the ball. I gotta see the ball. Especially the time of that game, and what was at stake, you just have to see the ball.”

Then the coin toss. The freaking coin toss. The Chiefs went into November without losing a coin toss, and won each of their first two coin tosses in the postseason. Whatever it was — is there no limit to Mahomes’ greatness?!? — ended as a setup for an unnecessarily Chiefsy moment:

Losing the one coin toss they had to have, the one that meant their struggling and worn-out defense had to stop the best postseason quarterback in football history, instead of sending their own unicorn quarterback who’d scored 31 points in the second half back onto the field.

“It’s how the coin tosses, I guess you would say,” Mahomes said.

You can twist this around as a positive, if you want. The Chiefs had — literally — a coin toss’s chance of playing in the Super Bowl with a first-year starting quarterback and mostly rotten defense.

Sports, like life, offer no guarantees. But the Chiefs do appear to be a franchise on the rise, their generational quarterback still on his rookie contract and surrounded by enough talent.

But even setting aside the uncertainty as to when or whether the Chiefs will have an opportunity like this again — No. 1 seed, AFC title game at home, healthiest roster of the year — fundamental flaws need to be fixed.

The defense is the most obvious. Ward and Jordan Lucas provided a tangible improvement late in the season, but Berry clearly cannot be trusted and linebacker Justin Houston just turned 30. Ford has a troubling history with injuries, and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton whiffed with an entire season to figure out how to defend the run and passes to running backs. The Chiefs have three picks in the first two rounds of this spring’s NFL Draft, and they will probably use all of them on defense.

But the offense isn’t perfect, either. For all the points and yards and highlights, they could be inconsistent, a weakness that showed itself in the worst way in the first half. The offensive line struggled to pick up the Patriots’ stunts, and the receivers couldn’t beat the Pats’ aggressive man coverage.

But mostly, this team will have an offseason to stew on its struggle to win close games — twice against the Patriots, plus three points against the Rams, and on the last play against the Chargers.

There is a lot to like about this team’s future, but also a lot to fix. The gravitational pull of both the sport and league’s roster rules means the next chance is never certain and the last one hurts a little bit more.

So much went right for the Chiefs. Mahomes was better than anyone could’ve imagined. They were healthy in the playoffs. Had the top seed, in a situation that even the Patriots had lost more often than not. They still let it slip, a stadium full of believers groaning one last time together, a future filled with more questions:

Remember that time the Chiefs lost in the playoffs because a guy lined up offsides, and they lost the dang coin flip?

The answer, always: Yes.

Yes, we remember that time.

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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.