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The Chiefs Made a Historic Comeback Look Easy

Kansas City found itself in a 24-point hole early—then they put up so many points so quickly that their win wasn’t even all that close

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Patrick Mahomes was screaming. The Houston Texans had a 21-0 lead after the first quarter, and Kansas City’s shell-shocked pass catchers were sitting on the bench as their quarterback stood over them, imploring everyone to get their heads in the game. Mahomes had thrown 10 passes and his teammates had dropped four of them. Three of those drops would have gone for first downs. The same group had dropped just four passes in Kansas City’s previous six games combined. Announcer Tony Romo noted that when a heavily favored team makes a lot of mistakes, it can create a mind-set that leads to more mistakes. Instead of catching the ball without thinking, as they have done their whole lives, players begin thinking, “I have to catch this ball because we are losing,” which takes their focus off of the task at hand. The Chiefs were thinking too much, and Mahomes was begging them to stop.

The Chiefs stopped thinking, and then the fireworks began. That is not a metaphor. The staff at Arrowhead Stadium launches fireworks after every Chiefs touchdown, and the team scored seven touchdowns on its next seven drives, a postseason record. Kansas City overcame a 24-0 deficit to win 51-31 over the Houston Texans, tied for the fourth-largest comeback win in NFL postseason history. Kansas City is the first team to overcome a 24-point deficit in the playoffs since the Patriots beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl LI, but the Patriots needed overtime to win that game. The Chiefs cut Houston’s lead from 24-0 to 24-21 in less than five minutes of game time and went into halftime with a 28-24 lead, becoming the first regular-season or playoff team in NFL history to enter halftime with the lead after trailing by 24 or more points in the first half.

Mahomes threw five passing touchdowns, four of which came in the second quarter. The former MVP is just the second quarterback in NFL playoff history to throw four touchdowns in one quarter, and it is the second time he has thrown four touchdowns in a quarter this season. He is also the first player in NFL history with 300 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, and 50 rushing yards in a postseason game. Tight end Travis Kelce finished with 10 catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns, tying the record for receiving touchdowns in a playoff game. Kansas City’s 51 points is tied for the fifth most in any playoff game in the Super Bowl era, and they put that up in roughly 32 minutes of game time. When the Chiefs scored their final touchdown of the day, Arrowhead Stadium announced that it was out of fireworks.

Numbers can explain the dominance of Kansas City’s offense on Sunday, but some prologue is needed to appreciate the ecstasy coursing through the veins of Chiefs fans. Hypothetical injuries aside, the Chiefs’ first quarter was the team’s worst-case scenario. The Texans struck gold on their opening drive when Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson faked a bubble screen to Will Fuller and found Kenny Stills deep for a 54-yard touchdown.

On Kansas City’s next drive, Kelce dropped a third-and-6 pass that hit him in the hands (even more upsetting after the Chiefs took a timeout to get the play right). The Chiefs punted on fourth down, but the Texans blocked it and returned it for a touchdown.

The play was Houston’s first punt block for a touchdown in 101 games. It also gave the 10-point underdogs a 14-0 lead. When Kansas City came back on the field, Kelce’s case of the drops had spread to receiver Demarcus Robinson, who dropped a pass on third-and-5 that would have given the Chiefs a first down. Though the defense stopped the Texans’ next drive, head coach Andy Reid put receiver Tyreek Hill in at punt returner, hoping to create a spark. It made everything worse. Hill, who returned one punt during the season, fumbled the punt and Houston recovered.

The Texans scored two plays later to take a 21-0 lead. On Kansas City’s next drive, Mahomes tried to hit running back Damien Williams for an easy swing pass on first down, but Williams dropped the pass without a defender in the area (the dropsies are highly contagious). It was still only the first quarter, but Chiefs fans booed loud enough that it came across on the CBS broadcast. On the next play, Robinson dropped another pass that would have led to a first down. Chiefs fans booed even louder.

Hill took a big hit on third-and-10, and the Chiefs punted. The Texans soon added a field goal to push the lead to 24-0 and put the Chiefs in panic mode. That’s around when CBS showed the video of Mahomes giving his offense that pep talk, but it wasn’t just Mahomes’s words that changed the game. Chiefs kick returner Mecole Hardman took the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to give the Chiefs the ball in Texans territory. Not only did that return provide a spark, but Texans defensive back Lonnie Johnson, the man responsible for guarding Travis Kelce, was injured on the play.

That kickoff was the end of one game and the beginning of another. While the first quarter was defined by chaos and Chiefs despair, the second quarter was defined by a comeback for the ages. Romo noted that Johnson’s injury would completely change the Chiefs’ plan on offense, as they could go to Kelce on every play if Johnson was not in the game (or playing at less than 100 percent). On cue, Mahomes hit Kelce for 25 yards down the sideline. On the next play, Kelce set a pick on Texans linebacker Jacob Martin to spring Williams for a 17-yard receiving touchdown. Oddly enough, it was the first passing touchdown Mahomes has thrown in the first half of a playoff game in his career.

The score made the game 24-7, and the Chiefs defense forced a three-and-out from Houston on the next drive. On fourth-and-4, the Texans ran a fake punt, but Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen ran down the ball carrier, Texans safety Justin Reid, and tackled him for a turnover on downs.

Mahomes, still hunting for the Kelce matchup, targeted him on three of his next four throws, eventually finding him for a touchdown that got Arrowhead stadium buzzing. Romo and Jim Nantz were discussing how many wild things had happened in the game when, on the ensuing kickoff, Sorensen popped the ball out of Houston kick returner DeAndre Carter’s grasp (Carter is the same player who tossed the ref the ball in the Buffalo-Houston game and nearly gave up a touchdown). The ball landed in the hands of Kansas City’s Darwin Thompson, who seemed as stunned as everybody else, before remembering to run.

The Chiefs were within the Texans’ 6-yard line for the second time in 10 seconds of game time. On third-and-goal, Mahomes found Kelce again for a touchdown to cut the game to 24-21. Less than five minutes had elapsed from the moment when the Texans took a 24-0 lead.

The Chiefs didn’t need any special-teams flukes to set up their next scoring drive. Kansas City started within 10 yards of their own end zone after a Houston punt, but drove 90 yards on eight plays. Romo noted that the Texans had switched to man coverage, allowing Mahomes to scramble as defenders had their backs turned to him. On the final play before the two minute warning, Mahomes ran for 21 yards, and a few plays later he ran for 14 yards to get Kansas City to the Texans’ 5-yard line. For the third drive in a row, Mahomes found Kelce for a touchdown. All three came from 5 or 6 yards out, and two of them came on third-and-goal.

This touchdown was the hardest of them all. Mahomes was sprinting to his left when he stopped and flicked the ball in the opposite direction to Kelce. It was more beer pong shot than touchdown pass. Luckily, Mahomes’s foot was not over the line of scrimmage (and his elbow was not over the table), and he hit his third touchdown in a row to catch fire.

The play capped one of the most astonishing halfs of playoff football in NFL history. In the second half, the Chiefs added another 23 points to secure the biggest comeback in franchise history with 20 points to spare. Mahomes, 24, is on his way to his second AFC championship game in his second year as a starter. The Chiefs will also be hosting for the second year in a row. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid will be coaching in the seventh conference championship game of his career. Mahomes was still screaming after the game ended, but this time he was joyous.

“We coming back! We coming back!”

Mahomes wasn’t talking about the largest comeback in franchise history. He was talking about the Chiefs coming back to Arrowhead Stadium next week to host the Titans. Mahomes is always focused on the task at hand.