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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the same end zone where the most traumatic football memory of thousands of people’s lives occurred, more than two decades of bad playoff juju evaporated Saturday.
At about 5:03 p.m. on Saturday, in the south end zone of Arrowhead Stadium, a future Hall of Fame kicker improbably missed a 23-yard field goal just before halftime. His team — down 17 thanks largely to the inspired play of the opposition’s generational quarterback — trudged into the end zone tunnel with its head down in disbelief.
Prior to Kansas City’s 31-13 divisional-round victory over the Indianapolis Colts, if you would have asked Chiefs fans which team this scenario happened to, they would have unequivocally picked their own. That’s what years of bad January breaks and a 1-11 playoff record (including an 0-4 mark vs. the Colts and a six-game home playoff losing streak that started in the 1995 season’s playoffs) will get you: absolutely zero benefit of the doubt.
“The fans had a lot of anxiety about [the game],” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt explained.
But this is a new era in Kansas City, one where Chiefs fans — whose team will play in the AFC championship game for the first time since 1994 — can finally be free of the cynicism they’ve worn for years to protect themselves from heartbreak.
Saturday’s win, the Chiefs’ first home playoff victory in 25 years, included several moments that were the football equivalent of a soul-cleansing. Many were authored by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whose stat line wasn’t gaudy Saturday — he completed 27 of 41 passes for 278 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions — but still made his presence felt, thanks to the myriad of clutch throws he made while leading the Chiefs to victory.
“He made one throw today,” said Chiefs defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi, “where I literally said, ‘Yo, that’s enough. This ain’t real. Let me go home.'”
The throw Nnadi is referring to — which resulted in a one-handed catch by Sammy Watkins — was impressive. But the most poignant moment of the game for Chiefs fans was the one that reminded them of a traumatic playoff loss while, at the same time, let them know things really might be different this time: the missed field goal before halftime by Adam Vinatieri, also known as The Greatest Kicker Ever.
“It was just one of those days,” Colts coach Frank Reich said of Vinatieri.
The miss, which came with the Chiefs leading 24-7, was not only a disaster for the Colts — who badly needed a score after being badly outplayed in the first half — but poetic justice for Chiefs fans, who remember the Chiefs’ 10-7 divisional-round home loss to Indianapolis in 1996 (known around here as The Lin Elliott Game) like it was yesterday. In that game, Elliott missed three field goals, including a 42-yarder to tie late in the fourth quarter. Elliott missed that last kick wide left, and it was fitting that Vinatieri’s miss on Saturday sailed wide left too … in the same end zone, no less.
As such, when the ball bounced to the ground Saturday and the refs waved no good, the Arrowhead Stadium faithful let loose a bonafide roar. Kansas City’s 17-point lead was safe, and there was a tangible sense that maybe the worst wasn’t predestined to happen to their team in January, after all.
Yet, this miss wasn’t enough to inspire this type of confidence on its own. Those same fans had just been primed for the moment by Mahomes, who minutes earlier led the kind of clutch, tension-relieving drive these fans had not seen around here in the playoffs in years. It came after a flash of adversity that would have sent them into a panic a year ago. After a blistering start by Mahomes’ offense and a fired-up defense staked the Chiefs a 17-0 lead, disaster struck when Najee Goode wiggled through a crease up the middle and blocked Dustin Colquitt’s punt.
The Colts recovered the block — Colquitt’s first in five years — in the end zone to cut their deficit to 17-7 with six minutes left in the half, and you could tell by the groans in the stadium that the bad memories — like the Elliott miss, the blown 28-point second-half lead to these same Colts in 2014 and the 18-point blown lead to Tennessee last January — came flooding back for some.
“Voodoo, right?” defensive end Allen Bailey told Yahoo Sports, referring to that past defeats. “I’m dead serious. It felt like that.”
Only … those past Chiefs teams couldn’t combat those bad vibes with a 23-year-old QB so respected by his teammates that he was named a postseason captain this year, despite being the offense’s youngest starter. His ensuing drive, which settled the natives and fortified his teammates, proved why.
On the very first play of the drive, Chiefs coach Andy Reid — who carved up Indianapolis’ vaunted zone in the first half with masterful play-calling — used a play-action throw that left tight end Travis Kelce streaking wide open across the middle. Mahomes found him for a 30-yard gain, and five straight completions later, Mahomes ran in from 4 yards away to re-establish the Chiefs’ 17-point lead.
“That’s Patrick Mahomes,” outside linebacker Justin Houston told Yahoo Sports. “It’s doesn’t shock me, it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Thankfully, he’s on my squad.”
The Colts got the ball back and marched 70 yards in less than two minutes — oh no, there’s the defense failing again — only to watch the Chiefs’ much-maligned secondary force an incompletion with three seconds left, followed by Vinatieri banging the 23-yarder off the left upright.
“That had to let air out of the [Colts’],” Colquitt told Yahoo Sports. “It told them [we’re] back, [we’re] not the same guys. This is a different cast. That was a game-changer there.”
Even when Watkins fumbled at the tail end of the third quarter, giving the Colts both the ball (at the Chiefs’ 20-yard line) and new life in a game that remained 24-7 Chiefs, it mattered little, as the Chiefs’ well-prepared defense — which had a beat on all the Colts’ tendencies and held Indianapolis to a measly 263 total yards — promptly sack-stripped Andrew Luck two plays later to eradicate any negative thoughts.
Mahomes didn’t guide them to another score immediately, but by the time the Colts’ offense finally scored a touchdown with 5:31 left to cut the deficit to 11, the stadium wasn’t nearly as tense as it would have been in the past. After all, the Chiefs had Mahomes … the best player on the field. And when Vinatieri compounded his rough night by pushing the ensuing extra point wide right, fans exploded, they also knew they had luck on their side.
“There’s a lot of plays that went our way,” Houston said, shrugging his shoulders.
Yes, on this cold, snowy afternoon in the nation’s heartland, the breaks would finally go for, and not against, the Chiefs. Not even the weather — blizzard conditions that should have favored the Colts, the team with the stronger rushing advantage on paper — helped the Colts, as Kansas City rushed for 180 yards while Indianapolis rushed for only 87 against the league’s 31st-ranked run defense.
“Wow, I was not expecting it to end today … it is very stunning,” Reich said of the loss.
Next Sunday, Kansas City will play either the Patriots or Chargers in the AFC title game, and there will be no talk of the crushing playoff defeats from the past. The Chiefs have never hosted a conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, after all, so instead of bad juju and bad memories, the build-up to the game will be about the coaches and the players, and how they match up.
And considering the Chiefs are not only starting to get the January breaks that have long tortured them, but also have the league’s most valuable player on their side (not to mention a defense that is playing its best football at the right time of year), it’s not a stretch to think it might be the Chiefs’ time.
“It’s a different feeling this year,” left tackle Eric Fisher explained to Yahoo Sports afterward. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about what our goals are, or what we’re capable of. We’ve got our eyes set on the prize.”
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