KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The moment that could turn the game and perhaps the season had arrived.
The Chiefs had lost three of four and were coming off a miserable home defeat to the Chargers. But they had regrouped and played the favored Ravens tough for a half at Arrowhead Stadium.
The score was tied 3-3 when Baltimore took the second-half kickoff. Terrance Copper’s hit on return man Deonte Thompson forced a fumble and the Chiefs’ Edgar Jones pounced on the ball at the Ravens’ 29.
Two third-down conversions later, the Chiefs had first down at the 1, a punch-in away from taking the lead — their first during a game this season.
Ridiculous, right? How could an NFL team possibly reach its fifth game, on Oct. 7, without leading before the final gun?
Now, inches away from going up a touchdown on the Ravens, the Chiefs could finally apply some pressure on their opponent instead of playing uphill the entire time.
If they held on, the Chiefs would win for the second time in three games and be in the thick of an AFC West derby that nobody seemed willing to seize.
You know what happened next.
Center Ryan Lilja took the blame for the snap that quarterback Matt Cassel never controlled, and the scene that followed the confusion in the pile of humanity at the goal line was the Ravens’ Ed Reed emerging with the ball for a 12-yard return.
The Chiefs challenged the call and lost. No lead, no victory, and little competitive spirit the following week in a blowout loss at Tampa Bay.
Six games into the season and the Chiefs, who play host to the Raiders a week from Sunday, have not taken one snap, or played one second with a lead. Research after last week’s loss revealed nothing like this — no lead six games into a season — has happened in the NFL since 1983.
“It makes the game a lot harder,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said.
The Chiefs’ 1-5 record matches the Browns for the NFL’s worst. In one sense, the Chiefs are fortunate to own a victory, a 27-24 win over the Saints on Sept. 23 in New Orleans.
In that game, the Chiefs never led until the final play of overtime, winning on Ryan Succop’s field goal after a furious comeback from 18 points down in the second half.
Including the extra period in New Orleans, the Chiefs have played 368 minutes and 33 seconds. They have trailed 78 percent of that time: 287 minutes, 43 seconds.
The deadlock time of 80:50 includes 0-0. But it’s never stayed that way for long. The Chiefs have been outscored 51-6 in the first quarter this season. The Falcons, Saints and Chargers each scored touchdowns on their first possessions, the Chargers and Bucs on their second.
That alone isn’t enough for the Chiefs to change strategy.
“At the beginning part of a game, you’re calling what you’ve planned for,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “Unfortunately, we’ve put ourselves in positions in the third and early fourth quarters where we’re down by too many points and it changes a little bit.”
Here’s how much it changes: Chiefs quarterbacks are completing 71 percent of their passes in the first quarter.
In the second half, as the Chiefs become more predictable in an attempt to close deficits, their completion percentage falls to 57 percent in the third quarter and 52 percent in the fourth.
That means rushing attempts decrease and the ball doesn’t find its way to one of the NFL’s most productive players, Jamaal Charles, who slid from first to third among the NFL’s rushing leaders after a 40-yard performance at Tampa Bay.
Turnovers have been a killer. The Chiefs rank dead last in the NFL in turnover margin, minus-2.5 per game, nearly one more than the next team on the list. Cassel leads the league with 14 turnovers, nine interceptions and five fumbles.
Last week, it was a first-quarter interception by Brady Quinn off the hands of tight end Steve Maneri at the Bucs’ 17 that prevented a go-ahead opportunity. As poorly has the Chiefs have played, yes, they sometimes feel snakebitten, especially after the second of Quinn’s picks. The ball wasn’t an incompletion because it rolled off of Dexter McCluster’s arm, and Ronde Barber returned it for a touchdown.
“Everybody here is trying to get better,” Quinn said. “But you hope the ball bounces your way in some form or fashion sometimes.”
It hasn’t so far, and that has contributed to the Chiefs playing catch-up all season. But Johnson said he’d take more outcomes like the one in New Orleans, if that’s what it takes to win.
“If we have to come from behind, that’s cool,” Johnson said. “Somehow we just have to get a win.”