KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes stalked up and down the sideline like a field marshal rallying his troops, the brilliant young quarterback imploring his Chiefs to stay together even as the Texans were on the verge of taking them apart.
Kansas City already faced a 24-0 hole in the division-round playoff game, bigger than any deficit they had overcome in franchise history.
“The biggest thing I was preaching,” Mahomes said later, “was, ‘Let’s go do something special. Everybody is counting us out. Let’s go out there and play by play put it out there.’ And play by play, we did what we were supposed to do.”
Beginning with the first of his five touchdown passes, Mahomes and the Chiefs slowly chipped away at Houston’s seemingly insurmountable lead. They continued to pick up momentum, outscoring the Texans 28-0 during the second quarter alone, eventually reeling off 41 consecutive points before cruising the rest of the way to a 51-31 victory Sunday that propelled Kansas City back to the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season.
In doing so, the Chiefs (13-4) became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game by at least 20 points after trailing by at least 20. They matched the fourth-biggest comeback in playoff history while winning a postseason game in back-to-back seasons for the first time. Tight end Travis Kelce and running back Damien Williams scored three touchdowns apiece, joining the 49ers’ Jerry Rice and Ricky Waters in Super Bowl 29 as the only teammates to score that many times in a postseason game.
Meanwhile, Mahomes led by example as much as by voice. He finished with 321 yards passing, becoming the first player in postseason history with at least 300 yards passing and five touchdowns while running for at least 50 more yards.
“You saw him going up and down the bench, he was talking to everybody, — ‘Just settle down,’” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “As a head coach, you can’t ask for more than that. When he’s the leader of your team and he’s going, ‘Hey, we’re going to be fine. Let’s not wait for the fourth quarter. Let’s go!’ And he did that.”
Now, after losing to the Patriots in overtime in last season’s conference title game, the Chiefs are back on the brink of their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years. They host Tennessee on Sunday in a rematch from earlier this season after the Titans upset Lamar Jackson and the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens late Saturday.
“We’ve already played them and we know they’re a tough team,” Mahomes said. “They’re a team that battles all the way until the end. They’re a team that’s really hot, playing really good football right now, so we know it’s going to take our best effort. And, whatever way, we’ve got to find a way to win.”
Deshaun Watson, meanwhile, passed for 388 yards and two touchdowns while running for another, but not even his heroics could bail out the Texans (11-7) after their calamitous second quarter and dismal third. The result: The reborn Houston franchise is 0-4 in the division round and has never won a road playoff game.
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“I definitely thought we were going to have to score more than 24,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien, who made a series of debatable calls during the collapse. “I think that they’re, obviously, a very explosive team and it just didn’t work out.”
The Chiefs certainly gave Houston a chance to end their frustrating playoff streak in the first quarter.
On defense, Kansas City blew coverage on wide receiver Kenny Stills on the opening possession, allowing him to walk into the end zone from 54 yards. On offense, they wasted timeouts, dropped a series of easy passes and managed just 46 yards. And on special teams, the Chiefs had a punt blocked for a score and fumbled a return that set up another touchdown.
Indeed, the Texans kept humming right along after finishing on a 22-3 run to beat the Buffalo Bills last week in the wild-card round, while the mountain of miscues made by the Chiefs made them only the fourth home playoff team to trail 21-0 after the first quarter.
Things turned around on a series of plays — and a call by O’Brien in particular — that will be debated for a while.
After the Texans stretched the lead to 24-0 early in the second quarter, the Chiefs began to nip into their deficit with a quick touchdown drive. And the comeback really gained momentum when O’Brien called for a fake punt at the Houston 31-yard line and the Chiefs stuffed it, giving them a short field and setting up another easy touchdown.
“We had that play ready for a variety of different teams and situations,” said the Texans’ Justin Reid, who took the snap and was stopped short of the first down. “Credit to them, they made the play.”
As the Chiefs continued to take off, the Texans continued to stumble.
On the ensuing kickoff, Houston return man DeAndre Carter had the ball pop loose and into the arms of Darwin Thompson, whose recovery set up a second Mahomes-to-Kelce touchdown in a matter of seconds. And their third came after the Chiefs forced a punt — a successful one, for a change — and they drove 90 yards to take a stunning 28-24 halftime lead.
“I mean, it was an amazing thing. Everything was working,” Mahomes said. “The play-calls were open, everybody was getting open against man coverage, which we’ve been preaching all season long, and guys were making plays.”
The comeback became a clobbering by the time the third quarter ended.
The Chiefs breezed downfield to start the second half, and Williams finished the drive with his first TD run. Their overhauled defense under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sacked Watson on fourth down to get the ball right back, and Mahomes and Co. required just six more plays to position Williams for another TD run and a 41-24 lead.
The 41 consecutive points, spanning most of the second and third quarters, were the most since the Jets had the same against the Colts in the 2002 AFC wild-card round.
Even when the Texans finally cracked the scoreboard, when Watson scrambled to his left and dived over the pylon, the Chiefs rendered the touchdown moot. In four plays they went 72 yards to set up the fifth TD pass by Mahomes, the strike to little-used tight end Blake Bell giving Reid’s team a postseason-record seven straight TD drives.
It also gave a festive crowd that turned out early in freezing weather and a slight drizzle a chance to celebrate early.
“We’ve got full confidence not only in the players but the game plan going into it. Just got to deal with what’s going on in the game — what’s real and what’s not — and what was real was we were hurting ourselves early,” Kelce said. “With that, you just rally the troops, lean on the leaders of this team and make plays. That’s what we did.”
Houston played without S Jahleel Addae (hamstring) and TE Jordan Akins (hamstring). It also lost RT Chris Clark to a knee injury early in the game, and backup Roderick Johnson struggled against the Chiefs pass rush the rest of the game.
Kansas City sat DT Chris Jones, who strained his calf muscle late in the week and couldn’t make it through pregame warmups. WR Tyreek Hill left briefly after a hard hit but eventually returned to the game.
The Texans will spend the offseason wondering how they let a 24-0 lead slip away, and the Chiefs will begin preparing for the Titans in the AFC title game. Kansas City lost 35-32 at Tennessee in Week 10, when Derrick Henry rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns. It was the Chiefs’ most recent loss.