KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The boos began reverberating at Arrowhead Stadium before the second quarter even arrived Sunday, and boy were they loud.
With a minute left in the first quarter, a Chiefs receiver had dropped another easy pass, one of many in a cacophony of embarrassing, careless miscues at the start of Kansas City’s AFC divisional round game against the Houston Texans.
And the crowd had seen enough.
The boos were full-throated. The Chiefs were trailing to an inferior team by 21 points … at home! Despite the fact the Chiefs had a higher-ranked offense, higher-ranked defense, higher seed — the works.
So when the roundly disrespected Texans increased their lead to 24 points early in the second quarter, it spurred a flood of bad playoff memories to the consciousness of Chiefs fans as their coach, Andy Reid, appeared to be headed toward another playoff failure in an otherwise distinguished coaching career.
In sports, this “oh no, not again” feeling can be powerful, especially when the affected team is playing at home, and the coach involved has an uneven playoff history. That nervous energy can even seep into players via osmosis.
But the “oh no, not again” blues can be cured. It takes a collection of alpha dogs on the home team — or a single alpha dog, particularly one who plays a super-critical position like quarterback.
On Sunday, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes fit the bill as the third-year pro proceeded to systematically break down the Texans and show the value of an elite quarterback in the playoffs.
The Chiefs were in bonafide football hell. They were 41 game minutes away from an offseason of criticism, second-guessing and more “Andy Reid can’t win the big one” think pieces and columns. Amid this chaos, Mahomes teamed up with his magnificent play-calling coach and finished with 321 yards passing and five TD passes to guide Kansas City to a thrilling 51-31 comeback victory.
“I don’t know who pissed him off, I don’t know who made him mad,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told Yahoo Sports, referring to Mahomes. “I told him in the training room [afterwards], man — I said man, I don’t know who made you mad but I don’t have anything to do with it. Because when he comes out and [plays] like that, he’s clearly the best player in the National Football League by far, and everybody knows that.”
Anger has been quite a motivator for Mahomes. He revealed this past week that it took him well past the recent Super Bowl to get over last season’s overtime defeat to New England in the AFC championship game.
As such, down 21 on Sunday, CBS's cameras caught Mahomes cajoling and speaking passionately to his teammates on the bench.
Patrick Mahomes had words for his offense on the sideline. pic.twitter.com/mL3FocMggi
— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) January 12, 2020
Teammates say scenes like this never turn negative as there's no doubting his competitiveness.
"He's a pretty passionate guy, and he really speaks from the heart," right tackle Mitchell Schwartz told Yahoo Sports. "He gets frustrated when we're not playing to our ability, and it's subtle reminder to pick it up and go out there and do what we're able to do. He's a pretty inspirational guy to have on the team and follow."
For Mahomes, Sunday was an “over my dead body” game of the highest order, the type that only elite quarterbacks seem to make, the type that can make a quarterback and coach combination legendary – provided they finish the job and win the whole damn thing this year. Think Tom Brady and Bill Belichick against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
“I mean, to be able to score 50 points in the playoffs — down by 24?” Mathieu told Yahoo Sports. “Man. Man. Man. That’s 15, man. That was impressive. No doubt about it.”
The fact that we’re discussing a Chiefs championship possibility is remarkable, especially with the way the Texans game started.
“People booed,” defensive end Frank Clark noted.
But with the Chiefs scoreless and trailing by 24, a flicker of hope was sparked when Mahomes got K.C. on the board by taking it into the end zone in only two plays, with the touchdown coming on a gorgeous play design by Reid.
Still, there was a sense of negativity abound. Prior to this game, the largest comeback win in Chiefs history was 21 points. So they needed help to make history, and on this day, they got it from Texans head coach Bill O’Brien.
Up 17, Houston quizzically ran a fake punt that was brilliantly snuffed out by safety Daniel Sorensen, and given the way the crowd roared and the Chiefs’ sideline reacted, you could sense the momentum of the game had shifted, especially after Mahomes capped the drive with another touchdown pass.
And when the suddenly bumbling Texans promptly turned it over on the kickoff return — the Chiefs recovered the fumble and returned it to the Texans’ 6 — and Mahomes tossed another touchdown pass to pull within three, the sense of optimism turned into outright belief.
The Texans responded with a punt (of course), and Mahomes threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game, a brilliant 6-yard pitch to Kelce in which he kept his right foot behind the line of scrimmage while the rest of his body crossed for a touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead 28-24 at halftime.
The Texans have a brilliant quarterback of their own in Deshaun Watson, and they did not give up in the second half. But neither Watson nor O’Brien could conjure enough points to keep up with a Reid and Mahomes-led offense that scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second half to solidify a win that sends Kansas City to it second straight AFC championship game.
And now, the road to the Super Bowl has never been clearer for Reid’s Chiefs. There is no boogeyman standing in their path to the AFC crown, no Brady, no Belichick looming. Hell, the Tennessee Titans even did them a solid by taking out the Ravens, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, on Saturday night, meaning instead of going on the road to Baltimore, the Chiefs now get to host the Titans next Sunday.
Sure, the Titans beat the Chiefs 35-32 in November, and the Titans feature the hottest playoff running back in two decades in Derrick Henry, the same man who racked up 188 yards against K.C. in November. All those worries are understandable. Historically, physical, beat-you-up teams like the Titans are the ones that have marched into Arrowhead Stadium and upset Reid’s playoff squads; the 2016 Steelers, the 2017 Titans and 2018 Patriots sure profiled that way.
And to be sure, losing again in the AFC title game, to a team they are better than, would be very Chiefsy, and very familiar to one of the NFL’s most quietly tortured fan bases.
But losing in the divisional round to an undermanned Texans team — after a dreadful start right out of the furthest reaches of “All-Madden” mode — was decidedly Chiefsy, too, and it didn’t happen. Why? Multiple Chiefs said it was because they stayed together, which Mathieu crystallized by noting there was no sideline sniping Sunday, even when they were down 24 points.
“That’s rare,” Mathieu added. “There was no back and forth, there was no arguing, no nit-picking — even from the coaches, man. It’s so impressive.”
And to hear teammates tell it, a big reason they stayed together is because of their collective belief in their elite quarterback, a man capable of outright magic when paired with Reid, one of the NFL’s best play callers.
“This team’s different — I think Pat helps that, just knowing you have Pat as your quarterback and there’s no score he can’t come back from,” fullback Anthony Sherman, who has been a Chief since 2013, told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve just got faith in him and Coach Reid and their gameplan.”
So, as Sunday’s historic comeback against the Texans proves, every game is winnable, even in the bleakest circumstances. And if the Chiefs go on to win a legacy-clinching Super Bowl for the notoriously snakebitten Reid, their very special quarterback, with a little bit of help from the opposing coach, will be a big reason why past depressing playoff negatives are no longer in play for Reid’s Chiefs.
They’re two wins away from Lombardi, and it’s never felt more real.
“Houston, they came out with their first 15 [plays] … they had a hell of a push,” Clark said. “But thank God we got Pat Mahomes.”
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