Inside the Chiefs offices and at virtually every level of the organization are men who believe with every bit of their brains and hearts that they could have — would have — beaten Peyton Manning in the NFL playoffs. Whether they are right is impossible to know, and also not the point today.
They believed. They were there — hitting, swarming, talking — when Peyton Manning nearly broke and the Chiefs beat the Broncos by 16 in Denver. They should have beaten Manning the first time, too, but a bizarre and weak string of mistakes and turnovers turned a 14-point lead at Arrowhead Stadium into Jamaal Charles apologizing in front of his locker.
So, yes, they believed. They talked about this after their season ended against the Patriots, and again as the Broncos went to and won the Super Bowl. The Chiefs believed they were this close and, again, it is impossible to know if they are right.
But, as Manning (finally) announced his retirement on Sunday, it is a pretty dang good representation of the Chiefs' relationship with one of the NFL's all-time best quarterbacks.
For most of Manning's 17 mostly brilliant seasons, the Chiefs were among his most earnest henchmen, the unspectacular extras in his highlight film.
They nearly always believed, and they were nearly always wrong. Manning represented something that was largely unattainable, because the Chiefs are the team that's rarely had steady quarterback play and has so often been flicked aside by one of the defining football players of the 21st century.
A Chiefs pass rusher comes from the edge and then — Boom! Zing! Kazam! — Manning steps up in the pocket and finds an open receiver running away from a stumbling defensive back.
In the beginning, the pass rusher was Derrick Thomas, and in the final years Justin Houston. The receiver could've been Marvin Harrison or Demaryius Thomas, and the defensive back James Hasty or Sean Smith.
Yes, Manning has been around forever — the first time he played the Chiefs, Elvis Grbac was the Chiefs' quarterback and Kurt Schottenheimer the defensive coordinator — and the results have been so steady.
Other than teams from the AFC South, no franchise has lost to Manning more than the Chiefs. Only the Patriots have played him more. The Chiefs lost all but two of their 16 games against Manning, including twice in the playoffs.
They lost unforgettable knife twisters like The No Punt Game, and they lost more than their share of his surgical games, too — 21-of-26 for 242 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 24-17 win in 2014, for instance.
The Chiefs lost to Manning when they were terrible (an aggregate 55-12 in 2012) and they lost to him when they were good (twice in the playoffs).
Here's a depressing stat for Chiefs fans — they've cheered eight winning teams since Manning entered the league, and he beat all but one of them. You probably guessed this, but that was a year (2005) the Chiefs did not play Manning.
Manning was 23 when he beat the Chiefs for the first time, and 39 when he beat them the last time. That's a span of 5,793 days, nearly 16 years, enough that babies born the day of the first game were high school sophomores for the last one.
For much of the football world, or at least the part that cares about such things, Manning's legacy will be debated by those who value his prolific numbers and the way he changed the quarterback position against those who say a legend should've had more playoff success before being dragged by a loaded roster to a second Super Bowl championship in his last season.
But for the Chiefs, Manning represented a standard they never could match. He was consistent and reliable at a position with which the Chiefs have rarely felt even confident. Since Manning's rookie year, the Chiefs have started 13 quarterbacks. Manning's teams have started five, and that's only if you include three from the year he sat out in Indianapolis with the neck injury.
In a different world, one in which the random sequence of governing events laid out in the Chiefs' favor, this might be a completely different story. The Colts, of course, have had the draft's top overall pick twice in two decades and selected a franchise quarterback both times — Manning in 1998, and Andrew Luck in 2012. The Chiefs had the No. 1 pick in 2013, widely regarded as one of the worst drafts in recent league history.
When Manning was looking for a new football home in 2011, the Chiefs needed a quarterback. They reached out to him, too, and had a lot to offer — a good roster, particularly on defense, and the opportunity to essentially run his own offense and bring playoff success to a franchise starved for it.
But the Chiefs also had a simmering instability, and Manning essentially declined to even listen. He saw the Broncos as the better fit, and like most things in his football life, he made the right read.
If the timing were different, who knows? They had the No. 1 pick one year too late for Luck, and in the 1990s played nearly the same role for Joe Montana as the Broncos did for Manning. But while the Broncos got 50 regular season wins, two AFC Championships, and one Super Bowl in Manning's four years, the Chiefs got only two playoff wins in Montana's two seasons.
As it turned out, Manning's last game was the first time the Chiefs had ever played him with the superior quarterback. Alex Smith is a fine quarterback, but of course this has more to do with Manning's broken body and weak arm. The Chiefs beat him up that day, and Manning had never before been benched.
That was the last time the Chiefs saw him, so of course they wanted one more. And, who knows, maybe they could've done what the Steelers and Patriots and Panthers could not. Crazier things have happened.
But the Chiefs had been wrong so many times before, with so many chances. Maybe it's fitting this way, a franchise that Manning has punked and duped and beaten so many times over the years taking it once more.