KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs felt on top of the world a week ago, when they were coming off a narrow win at Carolina — mostly because they were suddenly on top of the AFC West.
They sure didn't feel like that Sunday.
Their offense continued to fizzle in the red zone, where Alex Smith threw a crucial interception in the fourth quarter. Their defense couldn't get Tampa Bay off the field on third downs, when Jameis Winston was able to repeatedly find Mike Evans and the rest of his wide receivers for first downs.
The result was a 19-17 setback that changes the complexion of the Chiefs' entire season.
No longer are they fighting for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Now, they're fighting to make the playoffs.
“It's just one game. We have to figure out what went wrong and move forward,” Chiefs offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz said, trying to put things in perspective. “It is an aberration, hopefully. It's not the type of thing a really top-tier team would let happen to them.”
Yet it happened. And it happened on both sides of the ball.
So far this season, the Chiefs (7-3) have been able to bail out their defense by converting crucial plays on offense, while their defense has stood tall when the offense has been scuffling.
When both sides went haywire Sunday, the result was obvious: a loss.
“We have to execute the plays. That's the cause. We stopped ourselves,” said running back Spencer Ware, who was held to 69 yards rushing in another dismal effort. “We know what we need to fix and we're going to continue to work on it as a team.”
That may be the biggest thing going for Kansas City as it tries to bounce back from its first loss since Oct. 2. There was no finger-pointing in an eerily quiet locker room, only resolve to fix the issues that have become the Chiefs' biggest concern in the waning weeks of the regular season.
On offense, it's the failure to score inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Kansas City came up empty on three trips two weeks ago at Carolina, and was converting touchdowns at a 40 percent clip heading into Sunday's game against Tampa Bay. The Chiefs settled for a chip-shot field goal by Cairo Santos on their first trip, then Alex Smith threw an interception that spoiled their comeback.
It also set up Tampa Bay's touchdown march that essentially sealed the victory.
“It's hard when you get that far down there. The back line becomes another defender for them,” Schwartz said. “We need to be able to stick to it and be able to execute the plays.”
The interception was on a play designed to be a quick pass to a slanting wide receiver, but Tampa Bay safety Chris Conte never bit on it. He was there when Smith released the pass, and coach Andy Reid said later the fault for the call rested on his shoulders.
“We were rolling there at that point,” Smith said. “Had a good run on first down and we're sitting there at second-and-goal, and you just can't have it. You can't throw it. You've got to protect the play.”
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs need to figure out ways to force fourth downs. The Buccaneers were 11 of 16 on third down, none bigger than Winston's pass to Evans on third-and-3 just before the two-minute warning. It not only gave them a fresh set of downs, but allowed them to run off all but the final 8 seconds of the clock.
“We didn't do a good job rushing the quarterback,” said Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston, who made his season debut after ACL surgery in February. “He had plenty of time in the pocket. We didn't get in the pocket at all, no penetration. We have to do better.”
It didn't help that their secondary was missing top cornerback Marcus Peters, who has been dealing with a hip pointer. Peters hoped to play against Tampa Bay but the pain was too much.
Now, the Chiefs hope he'll be back for a Sunday night showdown against AFC West rival Denver.