How KC Chiefs turned one quote into a win in Tampa. And a talk with the guy who said it

Jason Behnken/AP

The home-team locker room inside Raymond James Stadium is marked by a set of double doors painted a bright shade of red. At about 11:45 p.m. in Tampa, I planted myself directly outside them.

The objective is to find the guy who might have unwittingly played the biggest factor in the Chiefs’ 41-31 win Sunday: Buccaneers edge rusher Shaquil Barrett.

Or maybe it was purposeful. Who knows? That’s why we’re here, wondering what, or if, he might be willing to share.

Days ago, Barrett broadcast to the world that he didn’t see much of a difference in the Chiefs’ revamped offensive line and the unit his Bucs had destroyed two years earlier in Super Bowl LV. He relished the chance for a pass rushers’ coming-out party, he termed it, a message that made its way to Kansas City.

So, as those double doors opened, a handful of reporters walked through. Barrett stood near the entrance, headphones on his head, ready to make our entryway his exit. The first Bucs player on his way out.

Got a minute?

“Sure,” he said, continuing on his walk to the exit.

Did the Chiefs’ offensive line change your mind at all tonight?

“Uhh,” he started. “Respect to them. They did what they were supposed to do.

“But we were playing from behind the whole game, so they were able to stick with their game plan with quick passes. They didn’t really do too much — five-step drops — to give us time to get after them, but we still were able to get after him some.”

Any regret about your comments this week?

“Nah,” he said, along with a laugh. “There’s no regret about anything I said. No regret. They had a great game plan. They executed that great game plan.”

To be fair, the Chiefs did not keep quarterback Patrick Mahomes completely clean in a game they led from near-start to finish — the Bucs did sack him three times, though one came on a potential Hail Mary attempt to end the first half. The offensive line, however, was not only clearly different than the one the Chiefs fielded in that Super Bowl loss, the players manning it now were a primary difference in Sunday’s win.

Those first 20 minutes — when the Chiefs built a 21-3 advantage — don’t unfold without them.

But what’s most evident through a 45-second interaction with Barrett is that the impact of his comment escapes him. That’s mostly what we’re going to elaborate on for the rest of this space, because the next stop in this journey is the visitors’ locker room. It happens to be the winning locker room, and it quickly becomes clear that might not be by coincidence.

As I enter, there’s Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown, still in full pads and uniform, talking with a crowd around him.

“We heard what he said,” Brown said. “It was bulletin-board material. ... We all know what he said.”

To Brown’s left stands right tackle Andrew Wylie, who pauses when he’s asked if he heard Barrett’s comment. For a moment it seems as though he’s going to play it straight and toss the question aside, but then he smiles and acknowledges that, wait a minute, one of you guys standing here read it out loud to me just five days ago.

Moments later, head coach Andy Reid steps into the room. He’s looking for somebody — or somebodies — and he quickly finds them. He shakes hands with Mahomes and then five other players:

Brown.

Wylie.

Left guard Joe Thuney.

Center Creed Humphrey.

And right guard Trey Smith.

And then he turns around and leaves.

Five days earlier, as the Chiefs began their preparations for Tampa Bay, Reid had stood in the front of the entire team and issued these five offensive linemen a challenge. They were dreadful a week earlier in Indianapolis, a loss that at the end of the season might look even worse than it did at the time.

And now they were set to head to Raymond James Stadium, a setting in which, general manager Brett Veach once quipped, he determined at halftime of a game that the offensive line would demand the full weight of his offseason assets.

As a result, only one of the Chiefs’ five current starting linemen had been here for that Super Bowl blowout two seasons ago. But all of them are acutely aware it’s why they’re here now.

“A lot of moves were made after that loss against Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Obviously, some guys lost their jobs — and others came in and got opportunities like myself,” Brown said. “But, man, we took it personal. We take it very personally as an offensive line, especially when the spotlight is on us.”

Barrett had sat in the director’s chair Wednesday, providing that spotlight’s glow.

A mistake, it turns out.

It became an imprint in the mind of a quarterback who thrives on any slights, perceived or otherwise. And it helped to awaken a group that had not yet carried over the momentum it built one year earlier.

Then came the comment. Then came the response.

The Chiefs scored more points in the first half Sunday than the Bucs had allowed all season — six halves. And it’s how they did it that moved the offensive line to the forefront of a conversation. Yes, Mahomes played like a man who is 8-2 in these types of revenge games for a reason.

But he had some help. The Chiefs rushed for 53 yards in the opening quarter and then 52 in the next. They finished with 189 yards on the ground, more than their previous two games combined, and it’s not as though they collected them all with one burst. Their longest run traveled 20 yards.

Their 37 carries averaged 0.18 expected points added per play, according to Ben Baldwin’s model. A week ago, the Chiefs were at -0.22 per carry. On first downs alone Sunday, the Chiefs began with a running play 18 times, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

“They made our team roll today,” Mahomes said. “That’s a great defense, a great defensive line. I think they heard the talking, not only from (the Bucs) but from everybody about how they didn’t play well last week.”

There it is again. The talking.

They heard it, and perhaps they needed it. They were not yet playing like they had one year earlier, ignoring inexperience and youth and turning it into conversations about future Pro Bowls. The Chiefs cannot reach their ceiling without them.

That’s what Reid emphasized as the week began. This team needs them to play well again.

After a taxing week of preparation, by the way, Reid again stood in front of the team and talked about his linemen. They had accepted his challenge. They had put in the work, he said.

That address came Saturday night.

Twenty-four hours before they showed it to a prime-time audience.