In one of the wildest games we’ve ever seen, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Houston Texans 51-31 on Sunday, advancing to the AFC Championship — which will now be played at Arrowhead this Sunday afternoon.
Here are five things we learned from the game — and the rest of the NFL’s Divisional round games:
In the postseason, there’s always something unexpected
We always think we know what’s going to happen. We’ve watched these teams play all year. We think we know their strengths and weaknesses. We’re inclined to say things like, “The Marsupials will never beat the Condors in the Wild Card round — certainly not in their home forest!”
And then the Marsupials will shove the Condors into their pouches and move on to the next round.
We also think we know when a game is over. We always love to be the first one in the bar to shout, “Oh, man... this game is over!”
But then... the playoffs have a way of surprising you. I remember there was a playoff game — it seems like it was in early 2014 — when a team ran up a 31-10 lead at halftime. I think there were a few people who thought that game was over.
But it wasn’t. The other team stormed back in the second half, winning 45-44.
If I remember correctly, fans of the losing team quickly learned that it was the largest lead ever surrendered in a playoff game — or some such stat — and took to referring to it as a “defensive meltdown.” All these years later, they’re still talking about it that way.
Well, on Sunday, the Chiefs were trailing by even more points — 24, to be exact — before cruising to a 20-point victory. The Texans gave up an even bigger lead — and lost by 19 more points — than that other team did six years ago. (And I’ve already seen a tweet from a Houston beat writer characterizing it as a “defensive meltdown”).
But I seem to recall that back in 2014, the quarterback who played for that winning team was pretty good — and he had a pretty good supporting cast, too. And I won’t characterize what started happening shortly after the second quarter began on Sunday as a “defensive meltdown.” Instead, it seemed pretty clear to me that most of it had to do with an exceptional performance from Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and others on the Chiefs offense.
So maybe those fans ought to re-evaluate that “defensive meltdown” from six years ago. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m just saying that sometimes, your own point of view can fool you.
Anyway... it’s the playoffs. The usual standards don’t apply. The other teams are really good, too — and crazy things can happen.
Just the same... it’s likely to be a while before we see anything as crazy as we saw on Sunday.
Dirty Dan has earned his salary
Each offseason, Chiefs armchair general managers — and even media types — like to begin their proposals to manage the team’s salary cap by cutting safety Daniel Sorensen. They argue that the six-year veteran is too slow to be of benefit in coverage, and his contributions on special teams don’t justify the 29-year-old’s $4.6 million salary.
It’s doubtful that anything I say will change their minds, but I’d like to go on record: the big plays Sorensen made on Sunday were hardly the only ones he made for the Chiefs this season — but even by themselves, Sunday’s efforts probably justify his 2019 salary.
Without Sorensen, the Chiefs might not have been able to turn the momentum of the game quickly enough during the second quarter. He sussed out (and blew up) a Texans fake punt, setting up the second Chiefs touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Sorensen forced a fumble as Texans wide receiver DeAndre Carter was returning the kick. Two plays later, the Chiefs narrowed the score to 24-21 with their second touchdown in 94 seconds.
On such a big stage — and in such critical moments — those plays were well worth the money Sorensen is being paid.
Chiefs fans still rock the house
By the time four minutes had elapsed in the second quarter, Chiefs fans in Arrowhead Stadium had observed:
- Charvarius Ward make a mental error defending against a bunch formation, allowing Kenny Stills to run free for a 54-yard touchdown reception
- Travis Kelce drop a routine pass on third down, forcing a punt that the Texans blocked and returned for a touchdown
- Demarcus Robinson drop another routine third-down pass to end the Chiefs’ second drive
- Tyreek Hill muff a punt at his own 6-yard line. Two plays later, the Texans scored a touchdown.
- Damien Williams miss a simple catch in the flat
- Mecole Hardman nearly muff a kickoff
if online comments are to be believed, outside of Arrowhead, Chiefs fans were experiencing emotional breakdowns. And it’s doubtless true that inside the stadium, there were fans who were ready to give up on the game. And who could blame them?
But even then, fans in the stadium remained in the game, creating what appeared to be unbelievable amounts of noise.
It’s become fashionable to say that Arrowhead Stadium has lost its power to intimidate opposing teams. If there was ever a game where fans would have been entitled to sit on their hands, this was it. But Arrowhead’s fans didn’t.
The Tennessee Titans can be defeated
In 2019, the Titans were 10-2 when tied or leading at halftime — including their Week 10 victory against the Chiefs.
Why is this important?
Because as long as the Titans could get through half of the game without falling behind, they could continue to make running back Derrick Henry the centerpiece of their offense. But if they had to begin the second half playing from behind, they had to depend more on their passing game.
For the Titans, that just isn’t a winning formula.
It’s true that in 2019, Ryan Tannehill has been spectacularly efficient as a passer — but that’s been because the Titans have been able depend on Henry for the bulk of their offensive production. Even a passer with Tannehill’s somewhat limited skills can be successful if defenses have to devote so much attention to an amazing rusher such as Henry; with so many players in the box to defend against the run, the secondary is vulnerable.
So the way to beat the Titans is the same way the Titans beat the Ravens: get an early lead and continue to maintain it, forcing the opponent’s run-dependent offense to pass more than it would prefer.
A quick glance at the stats from Saturday night’s game show that Henry rushed for 195 yards, so it’s easy to conclude that Henry was the difference in the game. But the more important factors were the three turnovers the Titans forced — along with two fourth-and-1 attempts the Titans turned away — that allowed them get an early lead and hold it.
This, in fact, is precisely why the Chiefs lost to the Titans in Week 10: they never recovered from Damien Williams’ fumble halfway through the second quarter — the one that Rashaan Evans returned 53 yards for a touchdown. Without that play, the Chiefs probably could have taken a comfortable lead into the locker room — certainly 13-3 or 13-6, but perhaps as much as 17-3. Instead, the second half started as a 10-10 tie, allowing the Titans to continue to play their game.
The way the Chiefs have been playing since Week 10, getting to the second half with a lead shouldn’t be too difficult to manage. If they can do that, Henry isn’t likely to be the deciding factor.
San Francisco is the most interesting matchup the Chiefs could face
We’re now far enough along to be thinking about NFC teams. Provided that the Chiefs can prevail in the conference championship, I know a lot of longtime fans would love to see the Chiefs face the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.
I get it. The Super Bowl I rematch would be a compelling storyline for the press to be putting out there. I daresay that if it happens, I’ll be joining them; writing that kind of story is right in my wheelhouse.
But as a football fan, I feel differently about it.
It looks to me that a game between the Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers could be a whale of a game. Comparing the two teams statistically, they are quite similar. It could end up being one of the most exciting Super Bowls we’ve seen in a while — two really good teams making plays on both sides of the ball.
And it’s not as if there wouldn’t be some fascinating storylines to consider. In the year the New England Patriots make an early exit at the hands of the AFC’s sixth-seed, the NFC champions have an offense led by a Patriots’ castoff? After many years subsisting on the 49ers’ quarterback crumbs, the Chiefs finally have a franchise quarterback of their very own — and his first Super Bowl is against San Francisco?
Believe me... there would be plenty of grist for the media to chew.
I know there are many fans who want the matchup the Chiefs could win most easily. I feel differently. Instead, give us the best the NFC has to offer. If the Chiefs win a Super Bowl, I want it to be just like the victory they had against the Minnesota Vikings 50 years ago: one that nobody can deny.