KANSAS CITY — Clark Hunt worked his way around the Chiefs’ locker room following his team’s 37–31 overtime loss to the Patriots in the AFC Conference Championship Game, talking with each player before finishing with receivers Marcus Kemp and Chris Conley.
“Keep your head up,” he told the men closest to the exit doors. “Heck of a year.”
Just down the hall at Arrowhead Stadium, Jim Nantz was handing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady the trophy that bears the Hunt name. The Lamar Hunt Trophy was supposed to finally come back home. It was to be won by Kansas City in their stadium, with their MVP quarterback, in what was unquestionably the biggest home game in team history.
But this game ended like so many of the postseason contests of the last generation for the Patriots—and for the last two generations for Kansas City.
“When you know you can beat a team and you have them right in your grip at the end and you don’t seal it,” Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones said, “it leaves an odd feeling in your heart when you know you can get the job done.”
That the Chiefs were even in position to make their first Super Bowl in 49 years after four quarters against the Patriots was a feat within itself. New England almost doubled Kansas City in time of possession during regulation, had 12 more first downs than the Chiefs and totaled 161 more yards of total offense. The Kansas City offense was shut out in the first half for this first time this season.
By the time Patriots’ Matthew Slater called heads on the coin toss for overtime, the Chiefs’ defense had been on the field for 39:07 of the 60 minutes, and had to go back onto the field for three minutes and 50 more seconds. First and second downs weren’t an issue, but third downs went like this: Julian Edelman for 20 yards on third-and-10 from the New England 35. Edelman for 15 yards on third-and-10 from the Kansas City 45. Rob Gronkowski—the same Gronk who has one foot in Hollywood and who hadn’t been targeted more than eight times this season—for 15 yards on his 11th target on the day to get inside the red zone.
“The defense played great but it’s hard to play 50 minutes of football,” All-Pro guard Mitchell Schwartz said. “And we kind of left them on the field the entire day.”
Chiefs Kingdom had been appropriately optimistic about their chances this weekend. Many referred to the game as the Tom Brady Retirement Party. Two women at a local store on Saturday debated purchasing a t-shirt that commemorated the 142.2-deicbal world record for loudest stadium, figuring they would break the record the following day and the shirt would be outdated. Even Joe Montana was on the sideline amping up the crowd and, by default, cheering against the man who took his spot as the GOAT.
The Patriots began the night with a 15-play drive that amounted to the second-longest drive allowed by the Chiefs all season. The offense, led by QB Patrick Mahomes, followed up by having six of its first eight plays go for zero or negative yardage thanks to creative New England blitzes and solid man coverage. The Pats went to the locker room at halftime up 14–0.
“They just played better than us,” Schwartz said of the offense’s slow start. “There’s really nothing else to it. They were just better. ... We couldn’t really run the ball and it seemed like [Mahomes] got hit a lot, so it seemed like we didn’t really do our part up front.”
Mahomes found a rhythm after halftime. He engineered a four-play, 74-yard drive to start the half that looked reminiscent of his long drive to start the fourth quarter against the Rams in this season’s most epic game.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, Mahomes had the Chiefs up 21–17 after going on a 21–3 scoring run to start the second half. The fans were starting into their first of two M-V-P chants and yellow streamers hung on wires above the playing field.
Two lead changes later and the Chiefs had the chance to seal it. Trailing 28–24 with 61 seconds left, Brady threw his third interception of the game. The ball bounced off Gronkowski’s hands and into the arms of Charvarius Ward for an interception at the Kansas City 36. Sure, the Patriots still had all three timeouts, but best-case scenario New England would have burned all three timeouts to get the ball back with 45 or so seconds to go the length of the field for a touchdown.
But Dee Ford lined up offside. The free play turned into no play, and two plays later the Patriots had the lead again.
“I got to see the ball,” Ford said. “Especially the time of that game and what was at stake, just have to see the ball.”
The Chiefs would need a kicker to give them a chance at overtime. In 21 game seconds, Mahomes took the Chiefs from the Kansas City 31 to the New England 21, setting up Harrison Butker for the 39-yard field goal. And even the optimistic Chiefs fans had to feel uncomfortable.
This team’s tortured postseason history can be closely tied to kicking woes. Jan Stenerud missed two kicks and had another blocked in the 1971 double overtime loss to the Dolphins. Lin Elliott missed three field goals in the 10–9 loss to the Colts in the 1995 playoffs and never kicked again. Even Butker missed a kick in last year’s improbable 22–21 loss to the Titans.
But Butker didn’t know about all that playoff history. He had deleted all the social media apps from his phone before the playoffs started. He didn’t hear about the Elliott misses until after the Chiefs beat the Colts the previous week. And so with limited knowledge of the decades of kicking frustrations, he nailed the 39-yarder to go to overtime.
“After the Colts game I didn’t realize the whole Lin Elliott stuff, so I’m glad I didn’t because that would have been in the back of my head,” Butker says. “Usually when bad things happen in the kicking world, I try to disconnect.”
He’d never get the opportunity to fully correct the decades of kicking woes, though—not after the Patriots won the toss. In the end, New England doubled the Chiefs in plays, first downs and time of possession. The Patriots spent most of the game double-teaming Tyreek Hill and held him to one catch for 42 yards. Stephon Gilmore put the clamps on tight end Travis Kelce, who finished with three catches for 23 yards and lamented after the game how he had to play better.
No Chiefs player had ever participated in a conference championship game before, so the feeling in the locker room had to be a peculiar one. Not to Andy Reid, though. He finished Sunday night in second place in his conference for the fifth time in his head-coaching career.
“We wanted to bring the Hunt Trophy home here,” Reid said. “That’s the tough thing. The fact [the Patriots] get to do that right here is really tough. We are going to get that son of a gun.”
In the past, Belichick has treated the Hunt Trophy with relative disdain, quickly passing it off as soon as its handed to him. But he appreciates football history, and so in the visitor’s locker room of Lamar Hunt’s stadium he lifted the trophy slightly and even flashed a smile.
Belichick had ripped out the collective heart of Kansas City, but at least he handled it with care.
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