KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When the Chiefs were 1-5 and heading into the final 10 games on their 2015 schedule, there wasn’t a soul alive thinking about them making the playoffs. The coaches and players simply wanted to win another game.
They not only won, but the Chiefs have now captured nine straight victories with their 17-13 decision over Cleveland on Sunday at a windy Arrowhead Stadium.
Now 10-5 on the season, the Chiefs have played their way into the AFC playoffs, getting help when Baltimore upset Pittsburgh 20-17. That clinched one of the wildcard spots for Andy Reid’s team, the second in the three seasons that he’s been the head coach.
“We don’t care if we win by one point, or 21 points,” Reid said. “We were 1-5 at one point, so we appreciate every one of these things. It’s tough to string a bunch of (wins) together in the National Football League.”
So how does an NFL team go from 1-5 to 10-5?
“We didn’t panic,” said the most veteran of Chiefs, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. “That’s the most important part. There was a sense of urgency yeah, because you can’t get too far in the hole. We got as far as you could get in the hole and still make it to the postseason. We pulled it out.”
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said the ability of the Chiefs to stay focused on the next task at hand allowed them to climb out of what appeared to be an inescapable dilemma after six weeks.
“Stay the course; don’t get caught up in what’s being said and who is saying what,” said Maclin, who caught an 11-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season with that catch. “You have to always remember it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
Sunday’s game was the toughest the Chiefs played during their current streak. They held a two-touchdown lead at halftime, but struggled to apply a knockout punch to the visiting Browns on offense, defense or in the kicking game. They were unable to score a point in the third and fourth quarters, producing just 58 offensive yards while allowing 190 yards, with a touchdown and field goal for Cleveland.
Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel kept his team in the game, largely by using his legs in the second half. Manziel constantly escaped pass-rush pressure and finished with 108 rushing yards on 11 carries. That was the good Johnny. The bad Johnny showed up when he threw the ball, hitting only 31 percent of his throws (13 of 32) with one interception and an average of 4.3 yards per attempt.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our defense in the second half,” Manziel said. “I thought we put some good drives together. But when it came down to it, I don’t think I was good enough in crunch time today; extremely subpar and cost us some points.”
Trailing by four points, the Browns had two opportunities late in the fourth quarter, as the Chiefs offense couldn’t buy a vowel or a first down; they moved the chains just once in the period.
But Cleveland could not score on those chances. They faced a fourth-and-8 situation at the K.C. 30-yard line, and rather than attempt a 48-yard field goal in blustery conditions, Browns head coach Mike Pettine decided to go for a first down. Manziel’s pass was incomplete into the end zone, with no receiver within 10 yards of where the ball landed.
Manziel had another chance, as the Chiefs were unable to run the clock, and Cleveland took over at its 30-yard line with 1:52 to play in the game. They moved to the K.C. 18-yard line, but the Browns did not have any timeouts left and Manziel could not stop the game clock before it ran out. He flung his helmet in anger after it was all over.
“You look at the scoreboard and you’ve lost,” Pettine said. “But in some sense you feel like you just ran out of time.”
The Chiefs started the scoring, using almost half of the opening quarter as quarterback Alex Smith led the offense on an 11-play, 65-yard drive that finished with an 11-yard pass to Maclin. The PAT kick was good from Cairo Santos for a 7-0 Kansas City lead.
On the next K.C. possession they went nine plays and 39 yards to set up a 40-yard field goal from Santos and a 10-0 edge.
The Browns got a 45-yard field goal from Travis Coons midway through the second quarter. But Smith threw his second touchdown pass with 32 seconds to play in the first half, hitting tight end Travis Kelce on a 13-yard scoring play and a 17-3 edge.
“It was really the tale of two halves today,” said Smith, who threw for just 125 yards and also had an interception. “We had the ball the entire first half and a lot of rhythm and then couldn’t do much with it in the second half. But nonetheless, it’s a win, a huge win.”
The Browns came roaring out of the intermission, as Manziel directed the offense on a nine-play, 82-yard drive that started with his own bootleg run that gained 34 yards. The touchdown came on a 10-yard run by running back Isaiah Crowell and the Chiefs’ lead was cut to 17-10.
Manziel led the offense 62 yards on 21 plays, reaching the Kansas City 8-yard line, but the Chiefs defense kept the Browns out of the end zone and Coons made a 36-yard field goal and Cleveland trailed 17-13.
That was as close as the Browns got and they returned to Cleveland to close out the season next Sunday against Pittsburgh. The Chiefs will watch the Monday night game between Cincinnati and Denver with great interest. A Broncos loss would tie K.C. and Denver for first place in the AFC West, and the Chiefs own the tiebreaker-edge with better division and conference records.
The Chiefs would have to beat Oakland next Sunday at Arrowhead to cap a remarkable comeback season.
“We know we’re not done,” said running back Charcandrick West, who led K.C. rushers with 62 yards on 14 carries. “We know we could have played better than what we played today. Yeah, we got the win, but there’s more to come and we’re a better team than what we just played.”
It was not their best performance in the last nine games, but it was a winner.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, it doesn’t matter what the records, you got to go out there and compete,” Maclin said. “Whoever thought the Browns were going to come here and lay down is out of their minds. We’ve got to play better, especially on offense. But, a win is a win.”
NOTES: LBs Justin Houston (knee) and Tamba Hali (thumb) were not available for Sunday’s game, leaving the Chiefs without their 142 career sacks. The defense was unable to sack Manziel. … Cornerback Marcus Peters came up with his eighth interception of the season, tying the franchise record for rookie season swipes. Safety Bobby Hunt also had eight for the Dallas Texans in 1962. … Maclin became the first Chiefs wide receiver to go over 1,000 receiving yards since 2011. Maclin now has 1,034 yards on 84 catches. The last 1,000-yard receiver for the Chiefs was Dwayne Bowe, who made his return to Kansas City on Sunday with the Browns. He was active for the game, but did not have a catch. … The national anthem was sung by Crosby Reid Naylor, the youngest daughter of head coach Andy Reid.