On three possessions, the Chiefs had punted three times — and one of those had been blocked and returned for a Texans touchdown. Normally-reliable Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill had muffed a Texans punt at his own 6-yard line, which led directly to another one.
Chiefs fans — who have watched multiple postseason games turn sour during the last quarter-century — were in full panic mode. The sky was falling.
But in the eye of the storm, Hill was calm.
”No man, what do you need to panic for?” he said after the game. “The more you panic, that’s when things get even more out of control, right? We’ve got the best coach in the league and the best quarterback in the league. I don’t need to panic.”
Rookie speedster Mecole Hardman — whom the Chiefs have spent the whole season grooming to follow in Hill’s footsteps — agreed.
”You can’t panic, man,” he said in the locker room. “If you panic, then everyone starts fussing at each other and you are not staying together as a team. Everybody stayed together as a team, stayed positive and stayed motivated — and good things happened.”
It was Hardman who made the first good thing happen, taking the 24-0 Houston kickoff at the goal line, finding a seam and turning on the afterburners. The Texans weren’t able to force him out of bounds until he had reached their 28-yard line — but Hardman had stepped out of bounds while making a cut at the 42.
But as it turned out, that didn’t matter.
Just two plays later, Andy Reid sent Damien Williams on a wheel route around the left side and quarterback Patrick Mahomes hit him in stride for a 21-yard touchdown strike — just the first score of a 51-7 streak over the next 41 minutes that would send the Chiefs to the AFC championship game for the second straight season.
”I was just trying to get something started,” said Hardman. “I try to give the team momentum after every kickoff.”
But it was more than just Hardman’s long return that sparked the team. On the sideline, Brother Mahomes had been preaching.
“Obviously we didn’t want to be in that spot,” Mahomes recalled after the game, “but I think the biggest thing I was preaching to the team was, ‘Let’s go do something special... Everybody is already counting us out. Let’s just go play by play and put our best effort out there.’”
“Well, you saw him going up and down the bench,” said head coach Andy Reid. “He was talking to everybody — saying, ‘Let’s just settle down and go.’ As a head coach, you can’t ask for more than that. He’s just going, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to be fine. Let’s go! I mean, let’s not wait until the fourth quarter, let’s go!’ He did that.”
But it wasn’t just that, either. Despite everything that had gone wrong, the Chiefs knew they could beat the Texans.
”They can’t play us man-to-man,” said Hardman. “They came in playing man. They were successful at first — and we just had to calm down. They had a lot of momentum, a blocked punt, scoring back-to-back, like that — that’s a lot of momentum. It gave them a free 14 points.”
“It was just a matter of settling down,” said Reid, “calming the storm and making sure that our guys knocked whatever rust or whatever off — to calm down and make plays. We’ve been doing that all year, so it was important that we got back to doing that.”
Reid said his own message to the players was to remind them who they really were.
“I just said, ‘This isn’t you — just get back. Relax. Pump the brakes here for a second, refocus and let’s go.’ It’s that simple, really. When you’re in that situation, you only have a few quarters to play the game. So, you have to get it done. No need to panic — that’s not going to help it at all. You just try to fix the problem. That’s kind of what we did.”
“I’ve been on teams that you get down two scores and people are on the sidelines, nitpicking each other and getting angry,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told NBCSports columnist Peter King on Sunday night. “Our coordinator, coach Steve Spagnuolo, told us something when it looked bad that was really helpful: ‘Don’t dwell on bad plays. Don’t dwell on good plays. Dwell on the next play.’ Plus, we got Patrick.”
“We just had to figure it out,” said Hardman. “Pat Mahomes is a guy that is so smart that he is going to understand what is going on. We just looked at Pat.”
Safety Daniel Sorensen had two huge plays in the game. He blew up a fake punt that set up the second Kansas City touchdown — and then forced a fumble on a Texans kickoff return that set up the third. While it was Hardman who struck the spark, it was Sorensen who fanned the flames of the Chiefs’ comeback.
“It’s a mindset,” said Sorensen. “One play at a time. You know that you can’t go back and change what has happened. You just stack positive plays together. We were able to do that. We were able to shift some of the momentum and make big plays. The offense got rolling. It was a team win. Everybody contributed to that victory today.”
Mahomes loved the conviction he saw in his teammates.
“I thought the best thing was seeing everybody’s attitude,” he said. “Everybody obviously wasn’t happy — but they knew that we were going to find a way to fight until the end. I thought that was the biggest thing you could see on our sideline. Guys wanted another chance to get out there and play.”
Over the seven seasons, Reid has been Chiefs head coach, we’ve talked a lot about the locker room — and the team culture — he has built. It’s part of what allowed his 2015 team — which everyone had given up for dead — to win 10 straight games to land in the playoffs. It was a factor this season when the Chiefs went from 6-4 to a first-round bye on the strength of six straight wins. So why should we be surprised when the team erases a 24-0 second-quarter deficit to take a 28-24 lead at halftime on the way to a 20-point playoff blowout?
“You guys have been around me long enough to know I think we’re always OK,” said Reid after the game. “We just keep firing — and we’re going to be all right.”