The past will collide with the future Saturday afternoon in Kansas City, and only one narrative will leave the field alive. The Kansas City Chiefs have lost 11 of their past 12 playoff games—seven by a touchdown or less—including all six games at home in the past 25 years. Another one-and-done after finishing with the best record in the AFC will simply reinforce the generation-long narrative that the Chiefs are a paper tiger, a regular-season juggernaut that folds like a flip phone in the postseason.
But if the Chiefs win on Saturday, the Legend of Patrick Mahomes II will grow even larger in his first season as a starting quarterback in the NFL. To lead the Chiefs to their first playoff win at Arrowhead since Joe Montana would be the perfect chaser to the greatest regular season by a 23-year-old quarterback since Dan Marino (if not ever). A win on Saturday would clinch the Chiefs’ first trip to the AFC championship game in 25 years, and just their second trip since before Patrick Mahomes Sr. was born.
The stakes could hardly be greater, and a casual observer or dedicated troll might question whether Mahomes is up to the pressure of the moment. Not me. Mahomes led the Chiefs to victory at Mile High after being down 10 points in the fourth quarter; he went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in Foxborough even after his team spotted the Patriots a 15-point halftime lead; he completed a game-tying drive in the final minutes against the Ravens’ relentless defense, including two fourth-down completions, one of which—the 48-yard surgical bomb to Tyreek Hill on a mad scramble to his right—might have been the pass of the season. Worrying that the pressure might get to Mahomes is the last thing on my mind.
No, the Chiefs player who is already causing me to lose sleep in anticipation of Saturday’s game is kicker Harrison Butker. And it’s not really his fault.
As a Chiefs fan, the most stunning thing about the end to the Eagles-Bears game Sunday afternoon wasn’t that Cody Parkey’s kick somehow banked off both the upright and the crossbar, a combination you might never see again in a thousand Sundays of football. The most stunning thing was that it didn’t happen to the Chiefs.
Over the past 48 years, the Chiefs are 4-16 in the postseason, and that record is inextricably linked to a streak of horrifically bad kicking luck in the playoffs, a streak which is now working on its third generation and shows no signs of abating. Other teams have struggled to find reliable kickers for years at a time, but only the Chiefs have employed competent, and occasionally elite, kickers who inexplicably lose their touch come playoff time. (Don’t worry, Vikings fans, your petition for inclusion is under consideration.)
The streak began on Christmas Day 1971 in a divisional-round playoff game against the Dolphins that is still widely considered one of the greatest games ever played—it is the longest game (82 minutes, 40 seconds) in NFL history. The Chiefs were among the NFL elite going in, having won the Super Bowl two seasons before, and having won the AFL title twice in the decade before that. But they lost that day, and it broke them.
When it comes to pinpointing The Moment It All Went Wrong in Kansas City, we can be even more precise. The fortunes of the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t turn on a single game, but on a single play. It’s a play that only die-hard fans and football historians are even familiar with, but it heralded the spiraling misfortune that has plagued the Chiefs in the playoffs ever since. And it involved two Hall of Famers, one of whom was the first player at his position ever to be inducted into Canton.
That player was Jan Stenerud. And he was a kicker.
Stenerud wasn’t the first player to bring soccer-style kicking to the NFL, but he was the player who, by his sheer success, popularized it. Before Stenerud, most kickers approached the ball straight on, striking it with their toes. Not coincidentally, most kickers were terrible. In 1966, AFL kickers made just 52.6 percent of their field goal attempts—and most of those attempts were chip shots by modern standards. Even from under 30 yards, the league was just 72-of-106 (67.9 percent). The entire AFL made just three 50-yard kicks (in 18 attempts) all season.
The following year, as a rookie, Stenerud—a native Norwegian—showed off his soccer-style approach, which involved approaching the ball from the side and striking the ball with the instep of the foot, the same approach everyone uses today. He made more 50-yard field goals (two) than the rest of the AFL combined (one). From 1968 to 1970, Stenerud was 66-for-74 (89.2 percent) from under 40 yards, while the rest of the league converted just 72.2 percent of the time from that distance. In Super Bowl IV, Stenerud opened the scoring by connecting on three field goal attempts, from 48, 32, and 25 yards, as the Chiefs beat the Vikings, 23-7. Stenerud would go on to have a 19-year NFL career, and in 1991, he became the first pure kicker ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Which is why it’s so ironic—and so in keeping with our story—that it’s the kicks he missed on a single day in 1971 that are the most memorable of his career.
In that decisive Longest Game against the Dolphins, Stenerud hit a 24-yard field goal to open the scoring in the first quarter, and the Chiefs scored a touchdown later in the quarter to go up 10-0. In the second quarter, Stenerud set up for an easy 29-yard field goal. It was supposed to be a fake; the plan was for the center to hike the ball directly to Stenerud, who would run for the first down.
Stenerud was under orders from head coach Hank Stram to sell the fake completely—he kept his head down, betraying no sign of the fact he was prepared to take the snap and run with it. Unfortunately, he sold the fake so well that his own snapper, Bobby Bell (who’s in the Hall of Fame as a linebacker), thought Stenerud had missed the sign. So Bell instead snapped the ball to the holder, quarterback Len Dawson, who was caught off-guard as much as Stenerud. In the confusion Dawson put the ball down and Stenerud attempted the kick, but with his rhythm completely off he pushed the 29-yard kick wide right.
The missed opportunity would haunt the Chiefs when the Dolphins tied the game, 10-10, at halftime, then responded to Chief touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters with game-tying touchdowns of their own. But with 35 seconds left, Stenerud set up for the presumed game-winning field goal from 31 yards out. There was no trickery this time. By his own admission, it was “a kick that I should probably have made 49 out of 50, particularly with a good snap and a good hold.”
This was the 50th time of 50. Stenerud missed it wide right. In a documentary the NFL made on the 40th anniversary of that game, Stenerud said, “To this day, I don’t really understand why I missed that kick. It’s a very painful, hurtful thing.” (When The New York Times called to ask Stenerud about the kick a year later, he replied, “Do you want to talk about my mother’s funeral, too?” and hung up.) The game went into overtime, and Stenerud got another chance to win the game, but this time his 42-yard attempt was blocked. Finally, midway through the second OT, Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian got a chance to kick from 37 yards, and he didn’t miss. The Dolphins would go on to play in the Super Bowl. They lost to the Cowboys, but came back in 1972 with the only undefeated season in NFL history, and then won a second straight Super Bowl the following year.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, would not reach the playoffs again for 15 years.
By then the Chiefs had a new kicker, and while Nick Lowery isn’t a Hall of Famer, he was a three-time Pro Bowler who still ranks 13th all time in field goals made. He didn’t factor in the wild-card loss to the Jets after the 1986 season, 35-15, but four years later the Chiefs made the playoffs again, and again they faced the Dolphins. Lowery hit from 27, 25, and 38 yards, and the Chiefs led 16-3 going to the fourth quarter. It should have been 16-0, but the Dolphins’ strong-legged young kicker, Pete Stoyanovich, nailed a 58-yard kick in the second quarter—the longest kick in NFL playoff history to that point by 4 yards. Two fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Marino gave Miami a 17-16 lead. With 49 seconds left, Lowery set up for a 52-yard attempt to decide the game, having converted 24 field goal attempts in a row. His kick fell just short, and Miami won.
The 1990 season did mark the Chiefs’ return to perennial contender status, as they would make the playoffs six straight years. The next year they hosted the Raiders in the wild-card round, and while Lowery missed from 33 and 47 yards, they held on to win, 10-6. After the 1993 season the Chiefs hosted the Steelers in the first round, and on this day, their quarterback was Joe Montana, who on fourth down with under two minutes left threw a touchdown to tie the game, 24-24. The Chiefs got the ball back in regulation and Lowery set up to kick a game-winning 43-yard field goal with 12 seconds left. He missed wide right, but in overtime Montana led the Chiefs back down the field to set up a 32-yard attempt. This time Lowery didn’t miss, and the Chiefs won. They haven’t won a home playoff game since.
The Chiefs elected to move on from Lowery after that season, and signed a new kicker, who as a rookie the year before had won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys. His name—and I will mention it only once, which uses up my quota as a Chiefs fan for this decade—was Lin Elliott. He kicked without distinction for the Chiefs in 1994 and again in 1995, when the Chiefs went 13-3 and earned the 1-seed in the AFC for the first time. After a bye week, they hosted the Indianapolis Colts, who had gone 9-7.
The ensuing game remains the most painful sports event of my lifetime, one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, and cemented our kicker as the greatest scapegoat in Kansas City sports history. He was wide right on a 35-yarder at the end of the first half with the game tied at seven. After the Colts took a 10-7 lead on a Cary Blanchard field goal, our kicker was wide left on a 39-yarder early in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game. And with 42 seconds left, he was wide left on a 42-yarder that would have tied the game. Three makeable field goals, three misses, and the Chiefs lost, 10-7. He wasn’t the only reason they lost—starting quarterback Steve Bono was benched before the final drive—but he is the only reason anyone remembers. The Chiefs released him before breakfast the next day; he never played in the NFL again. Twenty-three years later, a movement is afoot to let bygones be bygones, and in his defense, the weather was brutal and the field was so frozen that both kickers had trouble with their footing—Blanchard also missed two (long) field goals. Even so, in the annals of NFL history, the only other kicker so associated with playoff defeat is Nate Kaeding with the Chargers.
To replace him, the Chiefs traded with the Dolphins for Stoyanovich. The Chiefs again went 13-3 during the 1997 season, again earned the 1-seed, and again went undefeated at home during the regular season. They did that thanks to the best season of Stoyanovich’s career—he went 26-for-27 on field goal attempts, and against the Broncos in Week 12, he nailed a 54-yarder on the final play of the game to turn defeat into victory, 24-22. That game decided the division; the 12-4 Broncos settled for the 5-seed, which meant that after winning in Jacksonville in the wild-card round, they had to come back to Kansas City for a rematch.
With the game scoreless in the second quarter, Stoyanovich set up for a 34-yarder and nailed it, but lineman Greg Manusky was called for a phantom penalty which moved the ball back 10 yards. On the re-attempt from 44 yards, Stoyanovich hit the upright. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs down 14-10 instead of 14-13, they set up for a 48-yard attempt—but on fourth-and-6 coach Marty Schottenheimer inexplicably called for a fake to the holder, punter Louie Aguiar, which failed. Now, on their final drive, with the Chiefs down 14-10 instead of 14-13 or even ahead 16-14, they needed to score a touchdown—but their drive got only to the 20-yard line before a failed fourth-down attempt with 12 seconds left. If the Colts game is the no. 1 most painful sports loss of my lifetime, the Broncos game is no. 1A—especially since the Broncos went on to win their first Super Bowl, and repeat the following season.
Two years later, needing only to win their final game of the season to make the playoffs, the Chiefs hosted the Raiders, whom they had beaten 11 times in a row at home. The Chiefs blew a 17-0 first-quarter lead, and the game was tied 38-38 when Stoyanovich lined up to take a 44-yard attempt on the final play of regulation. He missed wide right, and the Raiders won in overtime.
The Chiefs wouldn’t reach the playoffs again until 2003, when they again went 13-3 and got a first-round bye, and again hosted the Colts in the divisional round after going 8-0 at home. Their kicker this time was Morten Andersen, who is the only pure kicker other than Stenerud in the Hall of Fame and, despite being 43 years old, had not missed a kick of under 40 yards in his two seasons with Kansas City. Late in the first half, Andersen shanked a 31-yarder. The Chiefs would lose, 38-31.
Three years later, the Chiefs would sneak into the playoffs at 9-7 and this time head to Indianapolis for their first-round playoff game. They lost easily, 23-8, but even in a laugher their kicker managed to make news—Lawrence Tynes comically missed a 23-yard attempt in the second quarter. The Chiefs got rid of him after the season, and Tynes would win two Super Bowls with the Giants in the next five years, both times hitting a game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC championship game.
Over the next decade the Chiefs would play in five more playoff games and lose four of them, and while they couldn’t blame their own kickers, they could blame the opposing kicker for one of them. Two years ago, the Chiefs hosted the Steelers in the divisional round after a first-round bye and kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone all game. But they lost anyway, because Steelers kicker Chris Boswell attempted six field goals—and made all of them, single-handedly beating the Chiefs, 18-16.
Last season, the Chiefs debuted a new kicker, Harrison Butker, who in his NFL debut nailed a game-winning 43-yard field goal with four seconds left, and finished his rookie season 38-for-42 on field goals and perfect on 28 extra points. Going into the Chiefs’ wild-card matchup against the Titans at home, there was no reason to be nervous about his performance. No reason, except history. Late in the third quarter, with the Chiefs leading 21-10, Butker lined up for a 48-yard attempt, and hit the left upright. The Chiefs would lose, 22-21.
For 47 years, the Chiefs have been tortured by kickers in the playoffs, a pattern which defies belief or explanation. Among the torturers are Stenerud and Andersen, the only two kickers in the Hall of Fame; two elite kickers in Lowery and Stoyanovich—one of whom kicked the Chiefs out of the playoffs as an opponent before he did so from the inside; and a two-time Super Bowl winner in Tynes. (Even The Kicker Who Must Not Be Named has a ring.) The stench of the team’s kicking history has been harder to wash off than hotel soap.
Here’s two charts detailing every field goal attempt in every Chiefs playoff game since 1971:
Chiefs Field Goals
|Distance||# Made||# Missed||FG%|
|Distance||# Made||# Missed||FG%|
Opponent Field Goals
|Distance||# Made||# Missed||FG%|
|Distance||# Made||# Missed||FG%|
|Games in K.C.||17||3||85.0%|
These charts sum up a half-century of playoff heartbreak for Chiefs fans. They’ve missed 14 of 35 kicks overall, or 40 percent, which is the highest percentage of misses on playoff kicks of any franchise in the NFL since 1971. Their opponents have missed just five kicks, and all five came in games their opponents won anyway—and four of them were absolved because the opposing kicker also kicked the game-deciding field goal. Yepremian was short on a 52-yarder in 1971, Stoyanovich almost connected on a 57-yarder in the same game he nailed his 58-yarder, and Blanchard missed from 47 and 49 yards on an 11-degree day in Kansas City, but the field goal he did make was the difference in a 10-7 game. And all four of those missed kicks were from 47 yards or farther.
From a distance, in fact, the Chiefs and their opponents are almost even, each having connected on roughly half of all attempts from 47 yards or more. But from 46 yards or fewer, the Chiefs’ opponents are a perfect 29-for-29. The Chiefs have missed on 11-of-29, and if you take out the gimmes from no more than 27 yards out, the Chiefs have missed more than half their kicks—10-of-19—from 28 to 46 yards, a range that NFL kickers convert about 80 percent of the time. And as bad as it’s been, it’s been even worse—far worse—at home.
In that last paragraph lies the explanation for why, going back to before the invention of the handheld calculator, one of the NFL’s proudest franchises and most loyal fan bases has been kicked—ahem—in the balls in the playoffs over and over and over again. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it. But I know that it has been responsible for some of the worst moments of my life as a sports fan.
Saturday afternoon, the Chiefs will try again. For the third time in the past 25 seasons, they are the no. 1 seed in the AFC. For the fifth time, they are coming off a first-round bye. For the fifth time, they play the Colts, who have won as many playoff games at Arrowhead (two) as the Chiefs. And for the seventh time, they host a playoff game. They haven’t won any of the previous times. There’s no reason their history with kickers should have any impact on Saturday’s game, but then there was no reason to think that Parkey somehow hitting four yellow bars in a single game earlier this season would have any impact on last Sunday’s game, yet he somehow hit two yellow bars on a single kick that decided a playoff game.
Butker has had a fine sophomore season, converting on 24 of 27 field goal attempts this year; while he has missed four extra points, thanks to the Chiefs’ historic offense he attempted more extra points (69) than all but three players in NFL history. But he’s a kicker, he plays for the Chiefs, it’s a home playoff game, and he’s already missed a field goal in a playoff game the Chiefs lost by one point. Meanwhile, on the other side of the field will be Adam Vinatieri, who is 46 years old but is basically the Mariano Rivera of kickers—he’s the most prolific and the most clutch kicker in NFL history.
But while the Chiefs may have 47 years of history stacked against them, they have something on their side they didn’t have in those 47 years—Patrick Mahomes. Case in point: In Week 14 the Chiefs were at home against the Ravens, and—just as in their last home playoff win, against the Steelers 25 years ago—the Chiefs trailed 24-17 in the final minutes before Mahomes completed a fourth-down pass for the game-tying touchdown. And as they did 25 years ago, the Chiefs got the ball back in regulation and set up for a game-winning 43-yard field goal. And like Lowery 25 years ago, Butker missed the kick.
And like Montana 25 years ago, Mahomes led the Chiefs down the field in overtime, giving Butker a chance at redemption, and like Lowery 25 years ago, Butker took advantage of it.
The Chiefs face a daunting history Saturday afternoon. But in a battle between playoff demons and a franchise quarterback, I’ll take my chances with the franchise quarterback. The best way to keep your field goal kicker from determining the outcome of the game is to just score touchdowns instead.
But just to be safe, maybe the Chiefs should go for two every time.