HOUSTON — Mixed emotions can sometimes be accompanied by mixed messages.
Inside the visitor’s locker room in NRG Stadium on Sunday after the Kansas City Chiefs 30-24 overtime win over the Houston Texans, the Chiefs went through a mini-celebration of sorts. Coach Andy Reid revealed to the Chiefs the crisp new ball cap they earned, the commemorative item after they clinched their seventh consecutive AFC West title. In his postgame speech, Reid raised his hat in honor of his players.
“My hat’s off to you, baby,” Reid said, grinning.
Behind Reid, though, was superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who wore his ball cap but didn’t smile, his hands on his hips following perhaps the Chiefs’ most peculiar victory of the season.
“Obviously, we know we have a lot to work on,” Mahomes said a few minutes later. “But you have to celebrate. We won the AFC West. You have to enjoy that.”
The scoreboard showed that the Chiefs outlasted the Texans, but they were expected to win Sunday’s game by a comfortable margin, an outcome that would be decided well before the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Texans entered their home venue with only one victory in their previous 13 games.
Before their upcoming postseason run, the Chiefs wanted to have an encouraging showing against the Texans; a dominant performance against a less-talented opponent while not committing many self-inflicted errors. Instead, the Chiefs collected yet another closer-than-expected victory, after which they had to acknowledge their nagging issues and mistakes just as much as their usual highlights and triumphs.
“It was a weird game,” Reid said.
7. TIMES. RUNNING. ? pic.twitter.com/6CX3kCqRfe
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 18, 2022
The game’s box score proved to be one of the strangest of the season for the Chiefs. They gained 502 yards, generated a season-high 33 first downs and converted half of their 12 plays on third down. Meanwhile, the Texans gained just 219 yards and had 18 first downs.
A large reason the Texans (1-12-1) had a lead at halftime and for a large stretch of the second half is because the Chiefs (11-3) continued a pattern that is one of their most troubling leading up to the postseason: They turned the ball over twice. They now have had at least one turnover in nine consecutive games, the longest such streak in Reid’s 24-year career as a head coach.
In the second quarter, rookie running back Isiah Pacheco fumbled the ball on the first snap of a drive. Two plays later, the Texans scored their second touchdown on a 17-yard scramble by quarterback Davis Mills, the longest run of his two-year career. The Texans scored their final touchdown, a 12-yard pass from Mills to tight end Jordan Akins, after recovering a fumble by receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“Ridiculous,” Reid said of the Chiefs’ giveaways. “You can’t have that. The guys know that.”
One tactic by the Texans offense that Reid thought was creative was their decision to have two quarterbacks, Davis Mills and backup Jeff Driskel, on the field together for several snaps. The quarterbacks alternated snaps at times, too.
A disappointment for the Chiefs defense is that both rookies, such as cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson, and veterans, such as linebacker Willie Gay and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, surrendered either a touchdown or a highlight-worthy play. Most of the Chiefs’ 10 penalties, which resulted in 102 yards, were committed by defenders. In fact, the Chiefs’ D committed six penalties on the Texans’ final touchdown drive, including the scoring play, during which Gay made illegal contact with a route runner while in coverage before Akins’ touchdown reception.
“This is one of the hardest-fighting teams we’ve played this season,” said safety Justin Reid, who played the previous four years for the Texans. “I knew that it was going to be a dogfight. Their record doesn’t reflect the type of team that they have.”
With five minutes left in regulation and the score tied, Andy Reid elected to not have the Chiefs offense be aggressive, even though Mahomes ended the game having completed his final 19 passes. The Chiefs ran the ball to exhaust the Texans of their three timeouts and Reid called a short screen pass to running back Jerick McKinnon for the offense’s last play of regulation, which resulted in a one-yard loss. That set up a potential game-winning, 51-yard field goal attempt for kicker Harrison Butker in the final minute of regulation. But Butker, who had missed an extra-point attempt just before halftime, missed the 51-yarder; the ball sailed wide right.
“It feels like every week when we come out that it’s a Super Bowl for the team that we’re playing,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said. “The game is that important. We’re going to see their best. That was certainly true of the Texans. They gave us all we could handle.”
The one reliable constant that was a positive for the Chiefs in Sunday’s game, as has been the case for most of this season, was Mahomes. Following a three-interception performance in last week’s win over the Denver Broncos, Mahomes was precise and patient while delivering short passes against the Texans, who did their best to prevent him from throwing the ball deep. All of Mahomes’ 36 competitions were within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, as the Chiefs “matriculated the ball” downfield, little by little.
Patrick Mahomes completed a season-high +10.3% of his passes over expected in Week 15, including 19-straight completions to end the game.
The chances of Mahomes’ completion streak — based on the difficulty of each throw — was just 0.8%. #KCvsHOU | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/5b7KRheQjd
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 18, 2022
Early in the second quarter, Mahomes found McKinnon wide open on a short pass that ended in a 20-yard touchdown. Before halftime, Mahomes scrambled to his right and threw a strike to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who made an impressive diving catch in the corner of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown. Mahomes’ third touchdown was a byproduct of his elusive legs, as he scrambled for a 5-yard score. In what was one of his most efficient performances this season, continuing his MVP-caliber campaign, Mahomes finished with 36 completions on 41 attempts for 336 yards without committing a turnover.
By recording his 35th touchdown pass Sunday, Mahomes became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw that many TD passes in three consecutive seasons, joining Hall of Famers Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Drew Brees.
“You can see he’s maturing as a player,” Hunt said of Mahomes. “He came into the league as a remarkably mature young man. The responsibility that he had coming right out of college was tremendous. He handled it well.
“But his game has evolved. Certainly, there were some question marks about the offense this year, given the changes that we had at the receiver position. He’s shown that he is the best quarterback in the NFL. He’s been able to adapt his game to continue to win and put up very impressive numbers.”
And yet, the Chiefs’ game-winning plays in overtime have not been produced by Mahomes.
The Texans were given a chance to win in overtime, with either a field goal or a touchdown, after the Chiefs punted to end their initial possession of extra time. But on the Texans’ first snap, defensive end Frank Clark gave a second effort that Reid described as relentless. Clark fell to the turf when left tackle Laremy Tunsil cut-blocked him. When Mills began scrambling to his left, Clark got up and used his right hand to force a fumble. A few bounces later, Gay recovered the ball from between the legs of running back Dare Ogunbowale.
FUMBLE. The @Chiefs take it back on the next play.
?: #KCvsHOU on CBS
?: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/N9frUbzXbW pic.twitter.com/QCpCMDhTVd
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2022
“Good teams find a way to win no matter what happens,” Justin Reid said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty.”
The sudden change of possession, McKinnon said, led to many of the players in the Chiefs’ huddle on offense feeling grateful. Then McKinnon used his voice to inspire his teammates.
“Jet told us what to do,” right tackle Andrew Wylie said of McKinnon. “He said, ‘Get me in the end zone!’ We got him in the end zone and he got himself in the end zone, man. He’s an incredible runner.”
Before the players broke the huddle, Mahomes reminded McKinnon to keep both of his hands on the ball. McKinnon responded by repeating his intentions. Next to speak was Smith-Schuster.
“I’ve got your block, bro,” Smith-Schuster told McKinnon. “Find me when you get out there.”
McKinnon was never touched on his 26-yard walk-off touchdown. Each of the five offensive linemen blocked a defender before McKinnon made a cut to the left. As intended, in front of McKinnon was Smith-Schuster, who blocked cornerback Desmond King to free his teammate to sprint into the end zone.
“It was just execution by everybody,” Mahomes said. “When we do that, we’re hard to stop. We’ve just got to do that for an entire game.”
JET FOR THE WIN. pic.twitter.com/qJwEjvRV3Z
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 18, 2022
With three games left in the regular season, the Chiefs don’t completely control their own destiny to earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They will need the Buffalo Bills (11-3), who won the tiebreaker with their victory over them back in October, to lose at least once.
“It’s not in our hands,” Mahomes said, “but we can do our best to be ready in case we get that opportunity.”
While Mahomes announced the Chiefs’ next goal, a sizable number of his teammates in the locker room were happy to celebrate the team’s newest divisional crown. They took photos together while donning commemorative T-shirts, some of them even wearing sunglasses.
“It feels great,” said Justin Reid, who is in his first season with the Chiefs. “This is going to feel good, throughout today and tomorrow.”
Similar to Mahomes, Hunt didn’t spend much time smiling when he was at the podium while discussing the team’s success. Hunt said he appreciated that the coaches and players clinched the division this early into December. But Hunt wanted to talk about the future more than the present.
“The most important football is in front of us,” he said, “We’ve got to make sure we stay focused.”
(Photo of Patrick Mahomes: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)