In a season where the Kansas City Chiefs have done so many things that earlier teams could not accomplish, the 2015 squad added another moment to the history books Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Coach Andy Reid’s team rode a strong defensive performance to a 30-0 victory over the Houston Texans in an AFC wildcard round game.
The outcome ended what was within a week of becoming a 22-year drought of postseason victories for the Chiefs. They had lost their last eight games in the playoffs, a distinction that tied with Detroit for the longest losing streak in NFL postseason history.
“I didn’t feel it, but I know how important it is,” Reid said of ending the franchise’s January losing streak. “When you get to the playoffs and in the first round things don’t go well, it rips your heart out; I’ve been on both sides of that, including the first year we were here. I’m happy for the Hunt family and the fans of Kansas City. They are unbelievable.”
From the game’s first play when Knile Davis returned the opening kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown, the Chiefs held the reigns of the wildcard matchup, never letting the Texans think there was any chance they could win the game.
They intercepted Houston quarterback Brian Hoyer four times and recovered his fumble that came during a sack. The offense scored twice and although he did not reach the end zone, tight end Travis Kelce had a big game, with eight catches for 128 yards.
“We feel like we can play all three phases and the special teams came out today and started it,” said quarterback Alex Smith. “I think the entire locker room sees the value of all three phases. We don’t underestimate any one of them.”
It was the most decisive postseason victory in Chiefs history, topping the club’s 24-point victory over Buffalo in the 1966 AFL Championship Game (31-7.) It stretched their current winning streak to 11 games and they became the only NFL team to start 1-5 and win a game in the playoffs.
“This was not a surprise for us,” said outside linebacker Justin Houston, who returned to the field after missing the last five games with a knee injury. “We had a goal from the first day of camp, we are on a mission and this doesn’t change that. It’s on to the next game.”
When and where they will play next will be decided by the outcome of the other AFC wildcard-round game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. A Steelers victory would send the Chiefs to New England for a game on Saturday.
A positive outcome for the Bengals would have the Chiefs traveling to Denver for a Sunday game.
There was one item that put a damper on the celebration, as wide receiver Jeremy Maclin left the game in the third quarter with a right knee injury. The severity of the problem wasn’t known after the game, but there wasn’t a lot of optimism coming out of the Chiefs locker room concerning his status. Reid said it was a sprained knee and that Maclin will undergo an MRI exam on Sunday.
“He’s a huge player for us and any time a player like that goes down, it’s hard,” said Smith. “We know how much Jeremy means to us.”
The Kansas City defense provided plenty of opportunities for its offense with the five takeaways, but it was not until the second half that Smith was able to push the ball into the end zone. He connected with wide receiver Chris Conley on a 9-yard touchdown pass and fullback Spencer Ware scored on a 5-yard run. Combined with the kick return score by Davis and three Cairo Santos field goals, that produced 30 points and a victory.
Hoyer had no idea of how to handle the Chiefs defense and Houston coach Bill O’Brien had no choice but to stick with him because of the lack of work in the Texans offense that backup Brandon Weeden has had since joining the team in the middle of November.
“I just thought that the best thing for us in this game was to stick with him,” said O’Brien. “I named him the starter, with the game plan and the number of reps that Brandon got during the week was basically nil, I felt like the right thing to do was stick with Hoyer.”
Until Saturday, only one postseason game in NFL history started with a kickoff return touchdown; that was Super Bowls XLI when Chicago’s Devin Hester took the ball back 92 yards for a score. Going into the playoffs, the Chiefs had an 18-game stretch without a return touchdown on special teams; the most recent was in Game No. 14 of the 2014 season.
They were shut out during the ’15 regular season, but that changed when Davis took the kick six yards deep in the end zone and ran untouched for a touchdown. Big blocks by fullback Spencer Ware and tight end Demetrius Harris sprung Davis for the second longest kick return score in NFL postseason history. The PAT kick set up the Chiefs with a 7-0 lead and only 11 seconds was taken off the first-quarter clock.
“When I reached the 20, I saw it open up and it was just go get it,” said Davis. “It was huge for us. This would have been my first year without a kick return touchdown, so it came at the right time.”
That was the only touchdown of the first half, as the Chiefs offense could not dent the Houston defense and the Texans offense was simply awful, as Hoyer threw three interceptions and fumbled the ball away on a sack by defensive end Allen Bailey.
Given those opportunities, the Chiefs picked up just a pair of 49-yard field goals from Santos. Those 3-pointers are the longest in the Chiefs postseason history, topping Jan Stenerud’s 48-yard kick in Super Bowl IV. “We had some opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of,” said Kelce. “We had a couple penalties, a few missed plays. But we hung in there. We knew what we could do.”
On their first chance after a Houston turnover, Smith’s pass was behind wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, and the ball was tipped and grabbed by Houston linebacker Brian Cushing. The next two takeaways gave them good field position but ended up with the field goals. The last two takeaways saw them punt the ball away twice.
After intermission, the Texans moved into Chiefs territory but their drive stalled out and they punted. The Chiefs took over at their 6-yard line and in 11 plays and almost 5 minutes, 30 seconds on the game clock, the offense had its first score. Smith and Conley connected on a 9-yard play. The call was designed for Maclin, but because of his injury, Conley was playing his spot. It was not a combination that Conley saw in practice last week.
When they got the ball back again, they went on an 8-play, 71-yard drive that was juiced by a 48-yard completion from Smith to Kelce. Ware scored on the first play of the fourth quarter, shaking off a Houston tackler and reaching the end zone.
Offense and special teams provided the touchdowns, but it was the Chiefs defense that was the engine behind this victory. Houston had 226 yards of offense and averaged just 3.6 yards per play. The interceptions came from linebacker Josh Mauga, safety Eric Berry and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Sean Smith. Bailey had two sacks and forced two fumbles. Defensive end Jaye Howard added another sack. The Texans passing game produced just 112 net yards.
“Today, the defense was dominating, they were suffocating,” said Smith. “All those turnovers and except for a long run (49 yards by running back Alfred Blue) they didn’t have much. They played lights out today.”
And for the first time since January 1994, they have the chance to play another game in January.
“We are not done, but we are for the night,” said Reid. “We are going to enjoy it and then we’ll get back on it.”
New England or Denver, it mattered not to the Chiefs on Sunday who they will play next. They were just happy to know there would be another game.
“We were aggressive, we were ferocious, we were initiating the contact off the ball,” said Kelce. “We know that in our next game there are going to be highs and lows. We stuck together, we kept going. That’s what we’ll have to do again.”