With 1:16 on the clock in the fourth quarter, Chad Henne received the snap, moved to his right and threw a five-yard pass to Tyreek Hill on 4th-&-inches. It was only a short play, but it had a monumental impact. The catch and run was enough for a first down and it allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to run out the clock and claim a remarkable 22-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
The win booked the Chiefs a spot in their third straight AFC Championship game, but it had more significance than that; it helped Kansas City reach a critical point in defining their season.
The way I see it, the result on Sunday got the Chiefs to a point where the season can no longer be considered a failure. If the Chiefs were to lose or not even make the Super Bowl, it would be disappointing. A missed opportunity, even. But it would not be a failure.
Now of course, the goal for the Chiefs this season has always been to win the Super Bowl—and rightfully so. This team is too good with too much talent to be satisfied with just one Super Bowl title. “Run it back” has been Kansas City’s motto throughout the year, a mantra adopted by fans and players alike almost as soon as the celebration parade came to an end.
But even if that doesn’t happen this year, Kansas City has now reached their pass mark, the minimum acceptable threshold they had to meet.
If the AFC’s number one team and reigning Super Bowl champions Kansas City had lost to the sixth-seeded Browns at home in the Divisional Round, coming off the back of the best regular season in franchise history, that would have been a disaster—an unequivocal failure. But now, things change. Super Bowls are incredibly hard to get to, and they are even harder to win.
To get to Tampa Bay, the Chiefs will have to beat a darn good Buffalo Bills team. To lift the Lombardi Trophy, they will also have to beat either a terrific Green Bay Packers team or Tom Brady and the resurgent Buccaneers.
To win it all, Kansas City will have to play at their best. But even then, that might not be enough. Anything can happen in football. Sometimes a game hinges on a single play call, a crucial mistake, a lucky bounce on a fumble in the end zone, or a moment of pure brilliance. Sometimes the better team loses.
Every team faces challenges throughout the year, and the Chiefs have had to overcome their fair share of adversity and injuries along the way. And they could still get another dose of both this week with the status of Patrick Mahomes, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Sammy Watkins and Bashaud Breeland all unknown.
A loss in either of those games for the Chiefs, while disappointing and heartbreaking, would not be reason enough to deem the season a failure and a write-off.
No team could ever be truly satisfied just by getting there, but there is no shame in losing in the conference championship or the Super Bowl. Only four teams make it this far each year, and that in itself is a respectable accomplishment.
For the Chiefs, there have been hopes, and even expectations, of winning the Lombardi Trophy again this season. But now, at this stage of the year and with all that has been accomplished along the way, a failure to do so will not mean a failure overall.