KANSAS CITY — This is what a breakdown looks like:
Texans coach Bill O’Brien unfolded his play sheet and adjusted the knob on the headset power pack attached to his hip. Fireworks popped and exploded a few hundred feet overhead to commemorate Damien Williams’s five-yard touchdown run at the 4:39 mark of the third quarter, putting his team down by 17. Arrowhead Stadium was shaking; it hadn’t stopped shaking for the better part of the afternoon. Men wielding large Chiefs flags sprinted back and forth across the midfield space crowding O’Brien’s immediate line of sight. Under normal circumstances this is one of the worst places on Earth to be losing a football game of consequence. On this particular afternoon? Pure Hell.
There was a fleeting moment when O’Brien had this place under his sneaker heel. A 54-yard touchdown from Deshaun Watson to Kenny Stills on a brilliant screen-and-go three minutes into the game, followed by a blocked punt swatted into the end zone and recovered for a score. A muffed punt recovered by the Texans, leading to another touchdown from Watson to Darren Fells drove the score to 21–0 in the first quarter. The 75,503 rowdies, hopped up on parking lot rum and cokes which they kept cold with the fallen snow, were silenced. It was so quiet you could hear the public address announcer detailing the particulars of the evening’s 50-50 raffle without the slightest difficulty.
That was before one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history kicked into full throttle and stunned everyone wearing blue. Forty-one straight unanswered points allowed. Fifty-one points in a half-hour of game time allowed—so many touchdowns that the stadium had to announce that they’d run out of fireworks to launch after scores.
It was the largest blown lead in a half of football in NFL playoff history, squandering a series of gifts from the football heavens. The No. 4-seeded Texans were ahead by more than three touchdowns and steamrolling their way toward hosting the conference title game against a divisional opponent they’d already beaten once this year.
So what does a man do when he’s standing there amid the chaos, still more than 20 game minutes left in the longest afternoon of his life? The inevitable now seems impossible. Visions of the Super Bowl cracked over a distant horizon, quickly replaced by the thorny questions about job security. From the collar of his navy blue jacket, O’Brien plucked his glasses and placed them on their trademark perch at the end of his nose. It’s unlikely the move changed his view for the better.
“We definitely have to do a better job of coaching,” he’d say after the game, noting that there was really nothing he could say to the players in the locker room.
The Chiefs are headed back to the conference title game following an 51-31 win over the Texans on a cloudy, freezing day in the heartland. Patrick Mahomes was brilliant, going 23 of 35 for 321 yards and five touchdowns. Tight end Travis Kelce caught 10 balls for 134 yards and scored three times. Their locker room following the game raised a decibel level as each player filtered in to join the celebration, while the Texans packed up the remnants of a lost season into navy duffle bags and industrial laundry bins in near total silence.
“You’re up 24 nothin’ and the next thing you know it’s tied up,” wide receiver Will Fuller said. “So it’s tough.”
When asked if he could put the experience into words, he said no.
This is what a breakdown sounds like:
In the Texans locker room after the loss, no voices climbed above a whisper, mostly drowned out by the clang of plastic shoulder pads hitting the floor, the running water from a nearby shower, or the splash of a thick game-plan packet, warning about Mahomes's hard counts, hitting the edge of the trash bin. Defensive end J.J. Watt sat at his locker and stared into the distance. His hands were clasped together and his elbows rested on his thigh pads. Based on the angle, he could have been looking at Whitney Mercilus, Morris Claiborne or Bradley Roby, though it could have been a target a thousand miles from Kanas City.
“The beginning of the game was exactly how you would write it up if you could possibly write it up in a script” Watt said. “You go up 24-0 in a tough environment on the road, the special teams are making great plays… then it all falls apart.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the Texans began to crash down to earth. On a fourth-and-one at the Kansas City 21-yard line with 10:58 to go in the second quarter, it appeared O’Brien was poised to go for it, knocking the Chiefs out for good. Disorganization on the sideline, stemming from an uncertainty on whether or not to challenge the spot of the ball, combined with O’Brien not liking any of the play calls he had for the fourth down situation, forced him to pull back and kick a field goal.
The Chiefs scored two plays later to cut the lead to 17.
On a fourth-and-four from Houston’s own 31-yard line, the team ran a fake punt to safety Justin Reid. One player said that this was a sight adjustment call that kicks in when the punt team gets a certain look. Reid sprinted toward the first down marker on the Texans’ sideline but was wrapped at the legs by Kansas City safety Daniel Sorensen.
The Chiefs scored four plays later and cut the lead to 10.
And so it went, five more drives in a row that ended in touchdowns, turning a Texans blowout into a Chiefs win so convincing that the early traffic crowd began safely firing up their cars early in the fourth quarter. After big runs, Mahomes would sprint toward the crowd behind the south end zone and spread his arms like a conductor after the encore. They acted as though the initial deficit was just some enjoyable handicap affixed to them just so the game more competitive.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid laughed about it afterward. What was he thinking when his team was down 24?
“That we need to score some points.”
Was there a moment when he thought it was going to be O.K.?
“I think we’re always O.K.,” he said. “We just keep firing and we’re going to be alright.”
Maybe this is what a breakdown feels like—the notion that, after it starts there is nothing you can do to stop it. One minute, you’re holstering your play sheet after dialing up a first-quarter kill shot that could send your team to the Super Bowl. The next, you're just a man all alone on the sidelines amid the fireworks wondering where it all went wrong.
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