Maybe too much time has passed for there to be any kind of kinship any longer. Maybe the Chiefs are just another football team now in the eyes of the folks who live and die with the Jets, just another franchise that presently sits in a place Jets fans covet so ravenously — on the precipice of a Super Bowl trip.
But the Chiefs’ journey has been remarkably similar to that of the Jets. Fifty years ago this month, the Chiefs were 13-point underdogs to the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. The Chiefs were an AFL power at a time when the AFL, still, was considered by many to be a Quadruple-A pro league.
Yes, the Jets had stunned the Colts and the world a year earlier, but in so many football circles that was still considered a fluke — the highest evolution of the “any given Sunday” ethos. Super Bowl IV, played in chill New Orleans, was the last game ever played by a team representing the AFL.
The Chiefs wore a commemorative patch on one shoulder, and carried chips on both.
“The week before the game, so many of us got messages from other AFL players,” quarterback Len Dawson told me one time. “It was important for them that we win the game because that would mean, forever, that the score of the Super Bowls would be NFL 2, AFL 2. In some ways, I always thought we had a little more pressure on us than the Jets did because they’d proven it could be done. It wasn’t any impossible dream.”
If possible, the Chiefs dominated the Vikings even more than the Jets had handled the Colts. The score was 23-7. The Chiefs, in their bright red jerseys, bloodied the Vikings for three straight hours, pounding Joe Kapp, hounding the Purple People Eaters defense. Kansas City coach Hank Stram was miked up for the game (for a $500 fee), and his observations that day, frozen forever on NFL Films, became an instant part of the sport’s popular culture:
“Let’s matriculate the ball down the field!”
“Ya marked it good, ya marked it good!”
“Sixty-five Toss Power Trap!”
Like the 1968 Jets, the Chiefs were nearing the end of a powerful reign. Two seasons after the Super Bowl win, they engaged in an epic overtime playoff game with the Dolphins on Christmas Day 1971. The Dolphins ultimately prevailed.
“And it was like something died,” Dawson said.
Sunday, at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs will try once more to finish the bridge connecting that glorious time with present day. It has been an exhausting process. The Chiefs mirrored the Jets’ futility for the bulk of the 1970s and 1980s, but under Marty Schottenheimer became one of the AFC’s perennial powers. Twice they went 13-3 under Schottenheimer, earning home-field advantage. Twice, they lost their first game.
They did the same thing under Dick Vermeil in 2003, wasting another 13-3 season. Andy Reid led them to the No. 1 seed again last year. The Patriots broke their hearts in overtime in the AFC Championship game.
“All you ask is to have a chance to play in a game like this,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said earlier this week. “We had that chance last year, and it still hurts to think about how it ended. Now we get another chance. It’s on us to make the most of that chance.”
Mahomes is too good a quarterback to be forever denied a chance at the Super Bowl. But then again, Reid is probably too good a coach to have only one trip on his resume — a failed excursion with the 2004 Eagles team that went 13-3. He has a remarkable 207-128-1 career record. His teams have finished in first place 10 times. And yet he is 1-5 in conference championship games.
He is also 1-8 lifetime against the Titans, the team that stands in the Chiefs’ way Sunday afternoon — a statistical oddity that will nevertheless be a large elephant in the stadium because at this time of the year, there seems to be an entire zoo lined up to remind Reid of his chronic playoff failures.
“I’m thinking more about the players than I’m thinking about myself,” Reid said this week. “That’s now where I go — I’m trying to get the guys ready, I’m going to make sure I’m ready, then I’m going to go play. It’s more a disappointment for the other teams, they worked their tails off and fell short.”
If this Chiefs team falls short, on the golden anniversary of the one Chiefs team to climb the ultimate football mountain, there’s no telling how long the local civic depression may last. Better to just look at it this way: It’s time. For a team. For a town. For a coach.
For more on the NFL playoffs, listen to the latest episode of the “Gang’s All Here” podcast: