The Kansas City Chiefs’ playoff ghosts are a mirage

16 Jan 1994: Coach Marty Schottenheimer of the Kansas City Chiefs watches his players during a playoff game against the Houston Oilers. The Chiefs won the game 28-20.
16 Jan 1994: Coach Marty Schottenheimer of the Kansas City Chiefs watches his players during a playoff game against the Houston Oilers. The Chiefs won the game 28-20. /

The idea that any real playoff ghosts exist for any franchise, even the Chiefs, is a silly mirage that has no real bearing on this year’s team.

Lin Elliott.

Lin Elliott, Lin Elliott, Lin Elliott.

See? Nothing happened.

Lin “The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named” Elliott has spent over two decades as one of the supreme examples of how irrational hate-filled sports fans can be. Granted, for the Kansas City Chiefs, his missed kicks in the playoffs of the 1995 season were the start of a series of heartbreaking postseason losses to the Indianapolis Colts. But also he’s a long-since retired kicker who played a game for a living and he failed to boot a ball through a goal a few times one night over 20 years ago.  Move on.

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Peyton Manning carved up the Chiefs defense in the 2003 playoffs. That was 15 years ago. Andrew Luck led an improbable second half comeback in the 2013 playoffs after the Chiefs took a 38-10 lead. That was already half a decade ago.

If Elliott got his “Shall Not Be Named” moniker from Voldemort in Harry Potter, allow me to remind you that the entire thematic point of the wizarding world refusing to say Voldemort’s name was that they were a bunch of scared children who let their superstition paralyze them. And Voldemort was, like, basically Wizard Hitler. So the magic world had at least an understandable reason to be superstitious about him. Lin Elliott was just a kicker.

The only thing that joins today’s Chiefs and Colts teams with those playoff games from the 1995, 2003 and 2013 seasons are their mascots and uniforms. One of the most tired talking points routinely passed off as legitimate analysis is the record between two teams dating back to seasons so far gone a good chunk of the players in the league today weren’t even born yet. Lin Elliott and Peyton Manning will have objectively zero impact on this weekend’s game in Kansas City. That they were Chiefs and Colts during their careers is purely coincidental to today’s teams of the same names.

Listening to analysts and fans pull stats surrounding a particular matchup chronicled from games a decade or more in the past as evidence for why one team has an edge on another is the sports equivalent of listening to that friend who is obsessed with numerology. Numbers in sports create an illusion of proof, even when what’s actually underneath is 100% empty. “The Chiefs are 0-4 against the Colts in the playoffs.” Could there be a more meaningless observation? At that point, you’re trying to extend sports data to include a decades-long dice roll.

Because that’s all the Chiefs’ extended playoff woes are—coincidence. Previous teams that happened to wear red and gold uniforms and happened to occupy Arrowhead Stadium happened to lose games in the playoffs. Those teams aren’t this team. Losing to the Colts more than 20 years ago means nothing in 2019. We all know this, and yet we continue to allow a blue horseshoe to represent something more than a mascot.

Even the Chiefs playoff woes under Andy Reid aren’t particularly impactful to this season’s team. The 2013, the 2015, and even the 2016 teams look very different compared to today’s roster. 2013 featured Alex Smith throwing to Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery. This year’s defense is a radical departure personnel-wise from just last season. And, of course, the Chiefs didn’t have Patrick Mahomes under center the previous five years.

The Colts don’t “have the Chiefs’ number” in the playoffs. The strings aren’t being pulled behind the curtain by the past, and the hypothetical Chiefs vs. Colts playoff game in 2042 won’t be impacted by this one in 2019.

The only contexts in which these playoff ghosts are real are in the minds of Chiefs fans and the storytelling of sports media narrative-spinners. I mean, I certainly can’t deny that the idea of the Chiefs facing their playoff demons is a fun story. Part of the thrill of investing in sports is the mostly artificial storylines crafted around games. Heightening drama to make everything feel weighty and poetic is part of why the NFL is the pop culture monster we know and (hate to) love.

For Chiefs fans, myself included, seeing the Colts lined up across from the Chiefs in a playoff game is going to feel far more foreboding than if it was the Baltimore Ravens or Los Angeles Chargers. This is because we’ve all experienced those previous losses to Colts with a deep emotional investment.

But you know who hasn’t? This entire Chiefs roster. Sure, a few of them were there in 2013, but they certainly weren’t there in 2003 or 1995. When Lin Elliott was missing those kicks, Mahomes was doing the same thing everyone in Kansas City was doing: crying, pooping his pants, and throwing up all over himself. Mahomes had an excuse, he was a literal four-month-old baby. The effect The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named has had on Mahomes’ life is nonexistent. Elliott is just a former employee at Mahomes’ current place of business. I wouldn’t be surprised if this week was the first Mahomes had ever heard Elliott’s name.

The real playoff “curse” on the Chiefs was the three decades of refusal to draft a quarterback in the first round. That inexplicable run of draft day incompetence is, of course, over. That choice also destroyed the only real running thread through the Chiefs’ playoff misery that had any legitimate impact on their fate—not having the better quarterback. Now they have the best quarterback. No longer is there a reason to conjure the past to excuse losing. No longer is there a reason to make the anticipation of heartbreak the fanbase’s identity.

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Win or lose on Saturday, that’s all it will be—a win or a loss. It’s time to separate the past from the present. We all acknowledge Mahomes as a new chapter for the Chiefs, but he’s actually an entirely new novel. Nothing that happens from here on is beholden to what happened in that previous tragedy.