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How a struggling defense spoiled the Chiefs’ shot at glory

Remembering one of the better Chiefs teams in franchise history — and what could have been.

Chiefs v Chargers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Editor’s note: It’s “Best Teams to Never Win a Championship Week” on SB Nation. And though this week is much more fun this time around (given the Chiefs have just won the Super Bowl), there are still plenty of teams and players from over the years we wish could have experienced it. John Dixon wrote about the 1971 team on Tuesday.

The early 2000s were defined by the controversy around the 2000 elections, the tragic terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stock market crash of the dot com era and the recession, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. For better or worse, technology took off in this decade, including the launch of Facebook, Twitter and many of the video game consoles that are still popular today.

The Chiefs of the early 2000s were also both innovative and tragic.

The decade began with the death of Derrick Thomas and the firing of Gunther Cunningham. It felt like the Chiefs were stuck in mediocrity without an identity or a great path forward.

Atlanta Falcons v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

But then Dick Vermeil was hired, and he promptly traded for Trent Green and signed Priest Holmes.

What followed would change the identity of Chiefs football and leave a lasting impression on NFL history. It took a couple of years for the team to find their footing, as the Chiefs went 6-10 in 2001 and 8-8 in 2002. But that 2002 team featured the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in Holmes and saw the emergence of the “X-Factor” on special teams. Dante Hall had three returns for touchdowns in 2002, and the Pro Bowl returner turned special teams into must-see TV.

The 2003 season felt historically destined for greatness.

Hank Stram and Marcus Allen got their gold jackets, and Vermeil’s team put on a show en route to a 9-0 start. Holmes had 27 rushing touchdowns and 2,110 total yards. Hall had four touchdowns, including a 100-yard kick return and a 93-yard punt return. When the offense had to throw, Green played like an elite quarterback, with over 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns behind the best offensive line in NFL history.

Green’s passing targets included Tony Gonzalez (916 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Eddie Kennison (853 yards and five touchdowns), and of course, he threw to Holmes in the flats. The blocking group was outrageously loaded. John Tait, Casey Weigmann, Tony Richardson, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Brian Waters, Jason Dunn and even Gonzalez helped impose the will of the offense.

“We were going to score. Whatever we wanted to do, we could do. We were dominating the field at that point.” - Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Chiefs offensive lineman Will Shields

“After a while that year, everyone knew what was coming, they just couldn’t stop it.” - NBC Sports’ Peter King

“It was the best offensive team the Chiefs ever had. EVER.” - Former Chiefs writer Bob Gretz

“The highlight of my entire career was helping Priest. It was something special.” - Former Chiefs fullback Tony Richardson

The 13-3 Chiefs held a first-round bye, and expectations were sky-high. The Chiefs had an unstoppable offense, putting up 30 or more points on average, and they could score at any time on special teams. The team was below average on defense, but that didn’t seem to be too important.

On January 11, 2004, Arrowhead Stadium was rocking for the Divisional Playoff game versus the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were worse on defense than the Chiefs, and there was no way they could stop Holmes. Their offense was historic as well, featuring Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James and Brandon Stokley. This matchup was going to be a shootout, and everyone knew it.

Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Holmes had a historic day, with 198 total yards and three touchdowns, Hall scored on offense and on a 92-yard kickoff return, and Green was efficient, if not spectacular. This formula worked all season, and if you just looked at the offensive numbers, you’d assume the Chiefs cruised into the AFC championship game.

Unfortunately, Manning was just a bit better, distributing the ball among his wide-open receivers and earning a trip to the first AFC title game of his Hall of Fame career. James had 125 yards and two touchdowns, as the Chiefs tackled as poorly as they covered.

It was a back-and-forth game where, famously, neither team punted once. The Colts got out to an early lead, but the Chiefs came back to get into scoring range around the two-minute-warning before halftime with a shot to get within four. Gonzalez caught a deep pass that would have been a touchdown between multiple defenders, but it was called back for offensive pass interference. A missed shot to Hall, a dropped pass by Johnnie Morton and a missed field goal later, and it was 21-10 Colts at halftime. Then Holmes fumbled on the second play of the third quarter.

The sequence of events gave the Colts a chance to put the Chiefs away. But Holmes would keep the home team in it, getting chunks of yardage on the ground and scoring.

Manning hit Reggie Wayne in stride for a touchdown to push it to 30-17 and things looked bleak. But Hall fielded the ball on the 8-yard line and blew through the middle of the kick coverage. Vermeil and Arrowhead went absolutely crazy.

Alas, back came the Colts offense moving the ball with ease and going up 38-24. Holmes scored again to make it a one-score game, but for one final time, the Chiefs couldn’t stop Manning and James, who ran the clock out.

Chiefs v Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Looking back at what could have been, there are so many if onlys, including the aforementioned sequence before halftime. But there was also linebacker Mike Maslowski, who had 162 tackles in 2002, having a catastrophic, career-ending knee injury in the Chiefs’ first loss (Week 11 at Cincinnati). The defense never really recovered.

Prior to Week 11, the defense had 29 takeaways and allowed 16.7 points per game. After losing Maslowski, they only managed eight takeaways and allowed 26 points per game. Maslowski might have made the difference between 9-0 and 4-3... the difference between the team that had a chance to make a run and the one that lost in the “No Punt Game.”

After the loss, Greg Robinson promptly resigned and Cunningham returned to take over the defense. Vermeil would retire in 2006, and the window closed on the greatest offense in Chiefs history...

...or at least it was the greatest offense in team history prior to the Patrick Mahomes era, which not only topped the offensive numbers but also brought the Lombardi Trophy home — the same trophy that eluded Vermeil and some of the greatest Chiefs teams of our lifetimes. They deserved better.

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