The Chiefs were a stunned team Sunday. A week after clinching a playoff spot that few people expected when the season began, they still were harboring hopes for an AFC West championship.
But the Chiefs came out flat in a 23-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Arrowhead Stadium. That locked the Chiefs, 11-4, into the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and assured them of opening the postseason on the road on the weekend of Jan. 4 and 5.
And it appears that game will be a rematch with the Colts (10-5) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“We’ll have some motivation,” guard Geoff Schwartz said. “Definitely, they may think we’re (this) team, but we’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”
There’s still a chance that the Chiefs could end up at Cincinnati or New England. But if form holds — meaning a New England win at home over Buffalo and a Cincinnati win at home over Baltimore next week — the Chiefs will play an Indianapolis team that dominated them in every phase.
“I would expect our players to be upset over this,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “That’s what I sensed in that locker room. A lot of time and effort went into preparing. Same with the coaches. And if you’re not, then there’s something wrong with you. So you learn from it, that’s the most important thing …”
Things may be different next time the Chiefs play the Colts, or anyone else in the postseason.
Outside linebacker Justin Houston, who has missed the last four games due to a dislocated elbow is expected to return in time for the playoffs — if not for a tuneup next week in a now-meaningless game at San Diego — to help a pass rush that sacked Colts quarterback Andrew Luck once on Sunday and did not have a sack in two of the three previous games.
Offensive tackle Branden Albert, who has missed the last three games because of a hyperextended knee, should be back to help an offensive unit that allowed four sacks to the Colts.
And maybe it’s good that the Chiefs’ path to the Super Bowl is on the road. They are 6-1 away from home and just 5-3 at Arrowhead, including three straight losses.
“We’ll see them again,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said of the Colts. “They’ve got the upper hand on us right now because in their minds they think they can beat us. If we go there, it will be a different story.
“We didn’t get this far throughout the season playing like that. That’s not us.”
Indeed, the hallmark that distinguished the Chiefs’ starting 9-0 and clinching a playoff spot with two weeks to go in the season betrayed them against the Colts.
The Chiefs, who came into the game with just 14 turnovers — tied with Indianapolis for fewest in the NFL — gave the ball away a season-most four times, on two interceptions and a fumble by Alex Smith and a fumble by Knile Davis.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs, whose 21 takeaways lead the league, failed to create a turnover.
The fumble by Davis and Smith’s first interception were killers — they led directly to two Indianapolis touchdowns. Smith’s first interception was caused by a hit by from NFL sack leader Robert Mathis, who beat rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, and led to a floater picked off by linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
Smith’s fumble was his second in two weeks.
“I felt like I had done a good job all year with fundamentals in the pocket, as far as two hands,” Smith said. “I didn’t do it there. I was trying to run out of there and trying to make a play and got careless. You can’t have those, especially in good games against good teams.”
The Chiefs’ defense was just as culpable, and though Indianapolis has lost star wide receiver Reggie Wayne for the season, nondescript receivers such as Griff Whalen, T.Y. Hilton and Da’Rick Rogers ran free through the Kansas City secondary.
“We had some errors on defense … we had some mistakes and they capitalized off it every single time …” Johnson said. We had so many missed tackles out there … busted coverages. We have to do better.
“Hat’s off to the Colts. They had a game plan and executed better than then we did ours. They kicked our butt, no excuses. If we’re going to go all the way, which we plan to, we can’t ever play like this. We’ve got to get a lot better.
Cornerback Sean Smith learned something about the Colts.
“You have to go out there and compete for all four quarters,” said Smith, who had some issues in coverage, including drawing two penalties. “We started off pretty good, but as the game went on, they took it up another notch and we didn’t match their intensity. I wouldn’t say we were surprised, but they definitely took advantage of our mistakes, things we’re usually good on. We made a bunch of small, mental mistakes, some things we talked about beforehand.”
The Chiefs jumped on Indianapolis early, taking a 7-0 lead on Jamaal Charles’ 31-yard touchdown run and forcing two straight three-and-outs by the Colts. But the Colts then scored 23 unanswered points.
“One thing we learned is we have to play a more physical game,” said second-year offensive tackle Donald Stephenson. “We started out pretty good. We have to keep our foot on them. They were more physical than us. The turnovers, the miscues. … A team like that will jump on anything they get. That’s what they did.”
Schwartz, a five-year veteran, tried to put the surprising loss in perspective.
“In a 16-game game season, something like this happens every now and then,” Schwartz said. “And today was a bad day for it to happen.”
The next time these teams play, it will be a one-game season.