The end is here, but this is still that awkward gap between final play and first acceptance, so the Chiefs’ locker room is a collection of varying and at times fragile emotions.
One player has tears in his eyes. Another is wondering out loud where the (freak) his (freaking) shirt is. An equipment guy is asked if a teammate has signed his game jersey yet. Two players wonder what time the exit meeting is the next day. The inventory of a season’s end and an offseason’s beginning is here.
The Chiefs have lost their AFC Divisional Playoff game to the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots 27-20 on Saturday at Gillette Stadium in a game that somehow both went down to the last minutes and was not as close as the score indicates. They turned themselves from a disaster in the making to one of the NFL’s best stories with 11 consecutive wins, including their first victory in the playoffs in 22 years, but that’s all over now.
The football world drools at another potential pairing of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game, and the men in this locker room can watch from home.
“It’s crazy how fast it ends, right?” quarterback Alex Smith said. “I mean, it’s over. That’s it. It’s over right now, and it’s just like that.”
Taking inventory of this particular team and this wild season will require time, and context, and nuance. They have graduated from the tire fires of repeated and failed rebuilding pushes, and they are not yet at the championship level to which they aspire. There are a million thoughts running through the minds of these men, and those of the people who root for them.
The team that lost to the Patriots is not the team that won enough games to get here. That’s true in the most obvious sense, with stars like Jeremy Maclin and Justin Houston slow in the beginning and unavailable at the end. Some of the men in this locker room will wonder if the outcome would have been different with their best defensive player and perhaps their best offensive player.
But it’s also true in the micro, with the defense missing opportunities for turnovers and the offense playing from behind. The clock management in the fourth quarter was bewildering, but not at all why they lost. Some of the men in this locker room will curse their inability to continue the things that got them here.
This season’s story in the bigger sense will be about perseverance, of a team led by a man who spent his offseason fighting cancer losing five of its first six games — plus losing one of its best players to a season-ending knee injury — and then becoming the first team in 45 years to start so poorly and make the playoffs.
It was a historical run, and combined with the Royals’ run to the World Series championship, it showed a city that had grown to think otherwise that sports teams don’t always have to break your heart. Just three years ago, the Chiefs went 2-14 in what virtually everyone involved will forever remember as the worst professional year of their lives.
Now Tamba Hali is standing in front of his locker calling this his most fun and proudest season in a decade of work in the NFL.
“We were on something special,” he said. “We were doing something that hadn’t been done. I wish we could continue that. But, yeah, this is probably the most fun I’ve had, with a bunch of selfless guys, playing with each other, in and out of the huddle, we don’t care who’s in. That was fun to me. Just having a team mentality, just trying to win games.”
As the days turn to weeks and then months, the perspective will evolve. By the time the Chiefs meet for offseason workouts, and then training camp, they will probably be talking about this season a little differently.
They will be proud, yes, and finally winning a playoff game means more to the organization and the Hunt family than you might realize. The drought had become A Thing, a somewhat embarrassing mark of futility, and so if nothing else this season is a success.
But it’s only a measured success, and now comes the realization that more will be expected. The Chiefs always had too much talent and coaching to be as bad as they were early, and as the players talked of increased energy and improved preparation during their winning streak, the obvious point will be made that they need to have that from start to finish.
They caught some rotten luck with the injuries, but those happen in the NFL. The Patriots had a week off for their key players to get healthy. The Chiefs had to play in Houston, where Maclin was injured, and others could not rest.
“Now you know how important getting home field (advantage) and getting that first-round bye is,” Maclin said.
The Chiefs have shown it's possible to lose with a first-round bye, of course. But once the emotions settle and the disappointment mellows, the inventory of this wild season will show they need to improve in a long list of ways — the offensive line, another playmaker on offense, plus however the free agency of key players like Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard, Eric Berry and Sean Smith might affect the defense. Doug Pederson, the offensive coordinator, is leaving to be the Eagles’ coach. The offseason is always a time to manage change.
The point, now, is for them to close the gap between the league’s best teams. The sting of this loss is more than it otherwise might be with the understanding that the AFC was wide open. No dominant team emerged. Most years, it won’t be like that.
The Chiefs proved themselves to be good, but they want to be great. That means navigating the precarious balance of addressing weaknesses and maintaining strengths. The Chiefs need to devote resources to the offensive line, but can they do that while making sure they have depth among the receivers and linebackers? The hardest work always comes toward the end.
This Chiefs season ended differently than so many before. There is disappointment in the final result, but pride in the journey. They have improved, in ways both big and small. They lost in the playoffs, but this time it wasn’t as the henchmen in someone else’s highlight reel, or a shameful slip on the banana peel that will end up in one of those “which Chiefs playoff loss was the worst?” polls. Here, they just lost to a better team. Considering where they came from, this is progress.
Won’t be next year, though. And that’s where the hard work begins.