Andy Reid walks off the field and toward the celebration of the first Chiefs playoff win in 22 years with his arm around his wife. When it was time for the coach to turn right, toward the locker room, they kissed and hugged and laughed. Tammy Reid hung around, though, because when you’re part of something like this, you don’t want to miss a moment.
Knile Davis skipped, literally, to the locker room. Donald Stephenson tomahawk-chopped. Marcus Peters sang rap lyrics. Alex Smith hugged Clark Hunt, who, finally, is the man in charge of a playoff winner.
The Chiefs beat the Texans 30-0 in an AFC Wild Card game Saturday at NRG Stadium, across the parking lot from the abandoned dome where they won their last playoff game. Twenty-two years. Long enough ago that the Internet, for all intents and purposes, did not exist. Neither did this building, nor the team the Chiefs just beat, nor high-definition televisions many watched on.
This was not the same mark of frustration as the Royals’ playoff drought, for a lot of reasons, but it was the third-longest streak in the NFL and had come to define the Chiefs in a way that everyone from Hunt to the groundskeepers have been eager to change.
The easy thing is to say that the 22-year drought does not matter, because the NFL is a year-to-year existence, so how is Peters or Travis Kelce or Eric Berry supposed to feel connected to failures that happened before they hit puberty? But that’s not the truth, or at least it’s not the truth for those most connected to the franchise and Kansas City.
“Yeah it matters,” said Tamba Hali, in his 10th year with the Chiefs. “It matters, for sure. You can’t overlook that. We are part of the organization and the family. We can’t keep repeating it. To be able to overcome losing in the playoffs, that’s huge, for the organization, our fans. And as a player, I’ve been here long enough.”
Hali smiled. I suggested it must feel particularly good washing away those past frustrations this way, squashing them, like a wrecking ball through a brick wall. If the uniforms were reversed, and it were the Chiefs on the other side, losing a home game while the quarterback put on one of the all-time worst performances in playoff history would fit nicely along with a list of other losses that we don’t need to get into here. After all of that, it must feel especially fulfilling being on this side of that.
“I’m not saying that,” he said. “You said that. Not me.”
Well, yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Because this was a blowout, a curb-stomping, an annihilation that was so complete that most of entire sections of seats here were empty by the end of the third quarter. Smith was sharp (at least after the first quarter), Kelce was unstoppable, and even accounting for the way Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer appeared more in the mood for a quiet night on the couch than a playoff game, the Chiefs defense was suffocating.
It was the first playoff shutout since 2005. Not including a kneel-down before halftime, the Texans had 11 possessions: five punts, four interceptions, one lost fumble and one turnover on downs.
The Chiefs have lost playoff wins in every way imaginable. Blowouts, blown leads, blown opportunities and simply not being good enough. Here, they won, and for a hundred different reasons — they had the better quarterback, better coach, more balanced team, better defense, the fortitude to come back from 1-5, the depth and versatility to absorb injuries to their best players, and, maybe, the football gods decided to finally give them a break.
So, sure. There is an enormous chasm between the way football players and football fans digest the thing that connects them. Many of the men who played for the Chiefs here Saturday have probably never heard of Lin Elliott. But that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the common struggle.
“It means a lot for our fans, and that’s important,” Berry said. “They’ve been supporting us, since we were 1-5, and throughout my ups and downs. So if they’re happy, we’re cool.”
So much about this is a testament and flashing neon sign about how far the Chiefs have come. They opened the season here, and even after a win, much of the talk was about Eric Fisher not playing. They lost their next five in a row, of course, along with their star running back.
Now they are the winners of a blowout, on the road, against a team that had won seven of nine. That win streak, coincidence or not, started when Fisher moved to left tackle. On Saturday, he drove J.J. Watt into the ground on a play in which Watt injured his groin.
Fisher said he played this game with “a little chip on my shoulder,” after the week one experience, and unprompted brought up the Royals’ success as a model for perseverance. Let’s pause to review what just happened — a guy many have labeled a bust won his matchup with the league’s strongest individual force, and then referenced the Royals as inspiration.
There are many more differences than similarities between the Royals and Chiefs, but one trait they share is a consistent focus. In the same way the Royals appeared completely unimpressed with themselves in winning more games than anyone else in the American League during the regular season, the Chiefs have been mostly unmoved by a transformation from 1-5 to the postseason that’s only happened once before in league history.
That’s not a Kansas City thing, obviously, so much as it is a winning-team thing. And aside from the joy you would expect, and the references to ending the playoff losing streak, there was no self-congratulations in the Chiefs’ locker room. The Chiefs have shown a remarkable week-to-week focus, one of a dozen characteristics they needed to make this journey and one that makes them a legitimate threat in the AFC.
The Chiefs will play the Patriots next Saturday, and the game will be on the road, without question a tougher matchup than any during their win streak. Jeremy Maclin left the game because of a knee injury, and they do not yet know how serious that is. Maclin may have been the team’s most important player during the regular season, and if he’s unable to go, the Chiefs will have to make another major adjustment.
But they’ve done more, and been through worse. It’s all there for them, everything possible. One of the sport’s longest playoff droughts over, one of the league’s greatest turnarounds complete, one of the franchise’s best teams — still going.