When the game clock strikes zeroes in a modern-day NFL game and a team’s best performer is without question the kicker, it’s easy to assume it was not a successful afternoon.
Despite dominating possession of the ball and producing 461 offensive yards, the Chiefs only points Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals came from kicker Cairo Santos, as they lost their third straight game, falling 36-21 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Santos set a Chiefs record going seven-for-seven on field goals, tying a club mark for most field goals attempted in a game (Jan Stenerud in 1971), and breaking the mark for successful three-point kicks in a game (Ryan Succop in 2012.)
“He kept us within striking distance,” head coach Andy Reid told reporters of Santos, who was successful twice from 51 yards, twice from 40 and also from 34, 29 and 22 yards. “It comes down to we have to do a better job when we cross the 50-yard line (on offense) and we can’t give up big plays on defense.”
Reid’s defense struggled most of the day, giving up five touchdowns, including four rushing scores, something they had not done in three previous games. They allowed Cincinnati’s offense seven plays of 20 yards or more, with two of those plays going for more than 50 yards. The Chiefs defense did not force a turnover and did not sack Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw for 321 yards.
But all of those field goals came from mistakes and poor play when the Chiefs offense moved the ball inside the 50-yard line.
Shaky pass protection, penalties and minus yardage plays all combined to keep the Chiefs offense out of the end zone. Alex Smith threw for a career-high 386 yards, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin caught 11 passes for 148 yards and running back Jamaal Charles touched the ball 17 times for 145 total yards.
Those were nice fantasy football numbers, but the production did not lead to a single touchdown.
“Just negative plays, whether it would be penalties, sacks, negative runs would happen and all the sudden we would be in a bad situation,” Smith told reporters after the game. “It was like that all day. We would march it and then all the sudden stall out.”
Thus was the story behind the record-setting day for Santos; all seven field goals came because of offensive mistakes in Cincinnati territory:
FG#1 – The Chiefs had first-and-goal at the 10-yard line, but gained only six yards on three plays and had fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Result: 22-yard field goal.
FG#2 – With the ball at the Cincinnati 23-yard line, Smith was sacked on first down and then under heavy pressure on third down, he connected with Maclin for a play that lost 2 yards. That made it fourth-and-9 at the 22-yard line. Result: 40-yard field goal.
FG#3 – Later in the second quarter, the Chiefs were at the Bengals 33-yard line. On a first down play, Smith was sacked and eventually they faced fourth-and-10. Result: 51-yard field goal.
FG#4 – At the two-minute warning in the first half, the Chiefs had first-and-10 at the home team’s 26 yard line. But a 10-yard offensive pass interference call against Maclin for an illegal block and a delay of game call against the offense left them at fourth-and-1 at the Bengals 17-yard line with nine seconds to play. Result: 34-yard field goal.
FG#5 – Again, the offense moved into Cincinnati territory to the 27-yard line. On first down, an end-around run by wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas failed miserably, losing eight yards. They eventually faced fourth-and-5 at the 22-yard line. Result: 40-yard field goal.
FG#6 – With a first-and-10 at the Bengals 11-yard line, three Smith passes went incomplete. Result: 29-yard field goal.
FG#7 – The record breaking field goal came after the Chiefs had first-and-10 at the Cincinnati 36-yard line. On first down, the Chiefs were called for an illegal formation and ultimately faced fourth-and-7 play at the 33-yard line. Result: 51-yard field goal.
“We’re moving backwards and we have got to take care of that,” Reid said of his offense. “We are going to do that. We just have to eliminate some of these things. In the National Football League, it’s not as bad as you think and not as good as you think. There is a small margin between winning and losing, and we’ve got to tighten that up.”
His players agreed.
“We were moving the ball well, but when we get the ball over the 50-yard line we have to keep it going forward,” tight end Travis Kelce told reporters after the game. “Today, we either got stopped or moved it backwards hurting ourselves. You can’t do that if you want to win games.”
A pair of third quarter mistakes really eliminated any chance the Chiefs had of coming back on the scoreboard. On a third-and-11 play, the K.C. pass rush flushed Dalton out of the pocket, but the Cincinnati quarterback was still able to connect with wide receiver Brandon Tate on what turned into a 55-yard touchdown pass. Tate caught the ball at the 10-yard line against cornerback Marcus Peters, but went untouched and he got up and ran into the end zone for the score.
Late in the quarter, Kelce fumbled as he was going to the ground on a big hit by Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson. The ball was recovered by safety Reggie Nelson who returned it 25 yards to the Chiefs 5-yard line. The Bengals scored two plays later on the second of three TD runs by Hill, and added the 2-point conversion on another run by Hill.
The game started in much the same manner that the loss to Green Bay began six days earlier with the Chiefs defense giving up two first quarter touchdowns. The Cincinnati offense was a mystery to Bob Sutton’s group, as they put together back-to-back scoring drives of 7 plays for 80 yards. The Bengals moved the ball running and passing and six of those 14 plays picked up 10 yards or more. Dalton hit all eight of his passes to four different receivers, including 36 yards to wide receiver A.J. Green and 27 yards to running back Rex Burkhead.
The Cincinnati touchdowns came in the running game, with Hill scoring on an 8-yard run and running back Giovani Bernard busted a 13-yard play for the second score.
Slowly the K.C. defense started to figure out what was happening with the Bengals offense, forcing a punt and then watching Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent miss a 44-yard field goal. Meanwhile, Smith had the Chiefs offense moving, despite a heavy pass rush that sacked him three times in the first half and five times overall. Reid made a change in the starting offensive lineup, as second-year man Zach Fulton opened at right guard in place of Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff.
“We have got to tighten that up and keep working on it,” Reid said of a pass protection unit that has now given up 19 sacks in four games. “We’re young in some spots and inexperienced in some spots … you can expect the improvement to continue to take place as we go forward. We’ve got to keep getting better and that’s the bottom line.”
Now 1-3 in the first quarter of the NFL season, the Chiefs return home to face the Chicago Bears at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 4. The Bears pulled off a late victory over Oakland, so they arrive sporting a 1-3 record as well.
Postseason dreams require a concerted and quick turnaround in results for the Chiefs.
“This is a tough time,” left guard Ben Grubbs told reporters after the game. “This is not a good feeling. A lot of times players start pointing fingers and placing blame others (rather) than themselves. This team has good character. We are family. This is a tough time, but we are going to stick together and weather the storm. Go back to work, go back to practice, keep pounding away and come away with a win next week, hopefully.”