At one point, if you can believe it, the Houston Texans were blowing out the Kansas City Chiefs 24-0.
Deshaun Watson went 4 for 4 on the first drive of the game, capping the last throw with a touchdown to put the Texans up 7-0 early on the Chiefs. Less than two minutes later, the Texans blocked a Chiefs punt and returned it for another 7 points. Such was the tenor of the first quarter of an insane divisional matchup at Arrowhead Stadium. At one point, the Texans looked like they were running away with the game, poised to host the AFC Championship at NRG Stadium. Kansas City’s receivers were failing to haul in catches and were muffing punts. Their first three drives ended in punts. Within the first fifteen minutes of the game, it seemed that no Chiefs skill players could step up to match the moment.
Frankly, it was beginning to look like the latest in a long line of ignominious losses the Chiefs have suffered. The recent vintage of Chiefs playoff heartbreak alone has included, from most recent to least recent, an overtime loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last year that might not have been had the Chiefs won the coin toss, a one-point loss to a mediocre Titans team where Marcus Mariota caught his own throw for a touchdown in 2017, and one of the greatest playoff chokes to an Andrew Luck-led Colts team in 2013. In a playoff game featuring two coaches known for disappointment among their fanbases, it almost seemed that Bill O’Brien (!!!) of all people was going to out-coach Andy Reid.
Patrick Mahomes wasn’t having any of that. Not today.
A different blowout ensued, Mahomes finished with five touchdowns, and the Chiefs advanced to their second consecutive AFC Champsionship Game on the heels of a 51-31 walloping of the Texans – the first time the Chiefs put up at least 51 points since an offensive record-setting loss on Monday Night Football against the Los Angeles Rams last season.
With 44 seconds remaining in the first half, Mahomes threw what could best be described as a toss to tight end Travis Kelce, capping a rancorous second quarter that saw the 2018 MVP score 28 unanswered points in 10 minutes and 10 seconds, including an initial dime to running back Damien Williams to get the Chiefs on the scoreboard, and two additional throws to Kelce for paydirt. Despite a 48-yard Watson bomb to DeAndre Hopkins that brought the Texans to within striking distance of the end zone, kicker Ka’imi Fairbarn shanked the kick far to his right.
Just like that, the Chiefs managed to shrug off a 24-0 hole. The third quarter brought much of the same, with a free play to receiver Sammy Watkins, a long Mahomes scramble, and a second Mahomes scramble that set up Williams’ punch into the end zone to put Kansas City up 34-24. Despite the best efforts from the Houston offense, and a good dash of slipperiness demonstrated by Watson in the pocket, the Texans never seemed to get back into a groove on offense. On the opposite side of the ball, a number of ill-timed defensive penalties ensured that the Chiefs never had to sweat too much to score, as demonstrated by a 5-yard Damien Williams rush, his second touchdown of the night.
Before long, the Chiefs were up 41-24, and the early panic attacks among Chiefs fans about another seemingly inevitable playoff letdown gave way to the promise of another week in the playoff fight, and one more week playing at home with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
And yet. A Will Fuller haul gave Watson the chance to scramble in for a touchdown to make the game 41-31. There was yet a fiery spit of hope for Houstonians. The sense that Watson could put the game on his back, like he has at times across his time playing football in the public eye, remained.
But Mahomes was simply on another level this game. Less than a minute through the fourth, Mahomes launched a torpedo to Watkins, setting up his fifth touchdown pass of the night, this time to tight end Blake Bell.
Despite Watson’s best efforts, the Texans never found a way to make the last three quarters as close as the first. With 8 minutes and change remaining in the game, the Texans faced a 20 point deficit – a near-identical hole that they put the Chiefs in just a few hours prior. At this point, the game was more or less decided. It was the first time a team in the postseason has won by such a margin (20+ points) after being down by a similar margin earlier in the game. The Texans would never score again; a drive that got inside the Chiefs red zone that might have given the Texans a puncher’s chance was snuffed out following a long Deshaun Watson sack.
The stage is now set for an AFC Championship round few can say they saw coming – a rematch of a Week 10 Chiefs-Titans tilt that saw Tennessee improbably walk away with a 35-32 victory in Nashville. Notably, this was the last defeat Kansas City suffered this season – they have rolled to seven straight consecutive victories since that November 10th loss, including the divisional round win versus Houston. Now, the Chiefs have earned the right to decide the AFC on their turf, against a Titans team that hasn’t hesitated to become road warriors this postseason.
In a sense, this is a win for all of us, the neutral viewing public. A Titans-Chiefs showdown feels like a spiritual successor to classic Giants-49ers clashes of the 1980s, pitting explosive offensive talent against stifling defenses and commanding running games. Either the Chiefs roll to the Super Bowl after being denied the opportunity to last season, or the Titans make the final leg of one of the most improbable Super Bowl runs in recent memory. In both scenarios, we get a new challenger in the Super Bowl for a new generation of the viewing public, both with tantalizing styles to call their own that should keep whoever makes it out of the NFC gauntlet wary over the next few weeks.
Get your popcorn ready next Sunday. It’s gonna be a fun one.