From 1990 through 1997, Marty Schottenheimer led the Chiefs into the playoffs seven times. The one exception was 1996. It didn’t start out that way—right up until the end, the 1996 Kansas City Chiefs were well-positioned to continue the string of postseason appearances. But a late collapse left them out of the dance.
The late 1990s Chiefs were founded on their defense, and particularly the triumvirate of Neil Smith at defensive end, Hall of Fame outside linebacker Derrick Thomas and cornerback Dale Carter. All three were perennial Pro Bowlers. Thomas and Carter had vintage years again in 1996, with Thomas getting 13 sacks and Carter punching another Pro Bowl ticket.
But Smith only recorded six sacks in an uncharacteristically bad year that mirrored the team’s. Even with veteran free safety Mark Collins intercepting six passes, the defense went from the NFL’s best in 1995 to 11th in points allowed for ’96.
Schottenheimer’s offenses were built around the running game and the Chiefs of this era offered a consistent two-pronged attack, with Hall of Fame veteran Marcus Allen sharing the load with Greg Hill. The two backs combined for nearly 1,500 yards running behind an offensive line anchored by another future Hall of Famer, right guard Will Shields.
Allen, at age 36, was still a versatile player and his 27 pass receptions were third on the team. Kimble Anders was the best pass-catching fullback in the NFL and his 60 catches led the Chiefs and got him the second of three straight Pro Bowl invites.
But as versatile as Allen and Anders were, their receiving numbers underscored the offense’s biggest problem. They couldn’t stretch the field. A changeover at wide receiver gave more prominence to Chris Penn and Sean LaChapelle, but it didn’t change the essential difficulty.
That difficulty was quarterback Steve Bono. A career backup who had gotten his first real chance to start in ’95 at the age of 33, Bono simply showed that…well, that he was a career backup. He was near the bottom of the league in both completions and yards-per-attempt.
In ’95, Bono had been excellent at avoiding mistakes and with the defense at the top of its game, that was enough. This year, the defense wasn’t as good and Bono threw 13 interceptions—his 3% interception rate was 11th in the league. Not bad, but when that’s the best you have to offer, it’s a big problem.
Kansas City opened on the road against a mediocre Houston Oilers team. The Chiefs did not run the ball well and only had 25 minutes of possession time. By rights, they should have lost, but the Oilers racked up over 100 yards in penalties and KC escaped with a 20-19 win.
They were better when the Oakland Raiders came to Arrowhead a week later. A defensive battle saw the Chiefs leading 7-0 in the third quarter. Defensive back James Hasty recovered a Raider fumble and raced 80 yards to the house. The play all but sealed what ended up as a 19-3 win.
The victory was a good start to what was a stretch of four consecutive games against AFC West rivals. Kansas City went to Seattle (an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002) and Bono played well. He tossed a 9-yard TD pass to Penn. Then Carter got in the act on offense and caught a 46-yard touchdown pass. Allen and Hill combined for 109 yards on 23 carries and the Chiefs coasted, 35-17.
A week later at home, Bono outplayed Denver’s great John Elway. Bono went 20/35 for 242 yards and capped the afternoon off by leading a fourth quarter touchdown drive that pulled out a 17-14 win. The winning streak came to halt the next week in San Diego when the lack of a running game or any pressure from the defensive line led to a 22-19 loss. But the Chiefs were 4-1 and there was no reason to expect anything less than another playoff trip for Marty’s boys.
Pittsburgh had gone to the Super Bowl in 1995 and would return to the playoffs in ’96. They came into Arrowhead on a Monday Night and simply pounded the Chiefs. The KC defense got carved up by mediocre veteran quarterback Mike Tomczak and was muscled up front in the running game. A 17-7 loss could have been much worse and sent Kansas City into their bye week on a dour note.
Another prime-time home game awaited on the far side of the bye, this one a Thursday Night visit from Seattle. The Chiefs showed they had made the most of the time off. They were up 20-3 by halftime, played efficient football in every way and dispatched the mediocre Seahawks 34-16.
It was time for a visit to Denver. In a division that tended to be very balanced, the Broncos were the ones emerging for a big year. That Week 4 visit to Kansas City was their only loss thus far. The Chiefs needed to win to keep pace and lock up the tiebreaker situation. Instead, their worst performance of the season ensued.
Kansas City was outrushed by Denver 213-24. The Chiefs committed twelve penalties. Their only points came on a kickoff return by Tamarick Vanover. They lost 34-7. Denver was in command of the AFC West.
A stretch of four games in five weeks against NFC teams was ahead. Kansas City got well in a visit to playoff-bound Minnesota. The defense got rolling and took a 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter. The KC running game, on its way to a 202-48 edge in rush yardage took over down the stretch. Hill ran in for touchdowns from 17 and 10 yards respectively and the Chiefs won 21-6.
Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers were having a big year that would end up with a Super Bowl victory. They came to Kansas City and the Chiefs were dominant. Bono only went 9-for-22, but those nine completions produced over 200 yards. Hill rushed for 94 yards. There were no turnovers. KC led 27-6 in the third quarter and only some empty points late in the game made the final score cosmetically close at 27-20.
Chicago was the next visitor to Arrowhead. The Bears were mediocre, and the Chiefs, seemingly on a roll, were a (-8.5) favorite. They didn’t play as well as the previous two weeks, but KC stopped Chicago on the ground, while getting a combined 116 yards from the Allen/Hill combo. The Chiefs escaped 14-10.
San Diego, in the midst of a mediocre year after two straight playoff seasons, made their return visit to Kansas City. The afternoon was a disaster for the Chiefs. They were down 28-0 after three quarters. Backup quarterback Rich Gannon came in and threw a couple fourth quarter touchdowns, but the 28-14 final was never a game.
A short week followed with a Thanksgiving Day trip to Detroit. The Lions of this era were generally good, with Barry Sanders. But ’96 was a hard year and they only won five games. For the national audience, the Kansas City defense kept Barry under control, limiting him to 77 yards. Allen and Hill combined to carry 32 times for 176 yards. Gannon didn’t make big plays, but he was efficient—15/18 for 120 yards. And he rallied the Chiefs in the fourth quarter, turning a 21-14 deficit into a 28-24 win.
There were three games to go. Kansas City was in firm control of their playoff destiny. Even though Denver, now 12-1, had everything in the AFC all but put away, there were three wild-card berths available. The Chiefs were one of two wild-card contenders at 9-4—the Bills and Patriots had that same record and were tied atop the AFC East.
Every other contender—San Diego, Indianapolis and Houston was 7-6. Jacksonville was 6-7. Kansas City had pole position and extra rest for the stretch drive following Thanksgiving.
That extra rest didn’t do much the following Monday Night in Oakland. Gannon was awful, going 12/33 for 88 yards. The Chiefs were flagged eleven times. They trailed 26-0 after three quarters and lost 26-7. The Bills had also lost on Sunday, so KC and Buffalo were still tied at 9-5, with New England getting control of an AFC East race they would win. Indianapolis had pulled up to 8-6. But San Diego had lost, while Jacksonville beat Houston, putting those three teams at 7-7. KC was still in good shape.
But the schedule had both the Colts and Bills on it, the latter on the road to end the season. That further heightened the importance of the late Sunday afternoon kick with Indy—the team that had broken Kansas City’s heart in the playoffs a year earlier.
Gannon got the start and pulled a hamstring early on. Bono came back and was facing an early 14-0 hole. Even though Allen and Hill combined for 97 yards, the quick deficit meant they could only carry a combined twenty times. The Chiefs rallied, but lost 24-19.
Buffalo’s loss meant that the Chiefs, Bills and Colts were all 9-6. Tiebreakers meant that Indy had clinched one of the three spots. San Diego had lost, so they were out. But Jacksonville had won and nudged to 8-7. What’s more, the Jaguars controlled tiebreakers on both the Bills and Chiefs.
Thus, it was simple—if Jacksonville beat Atlanta, the Jags grabbed the second playoff spot. Which meant that Buffalo-Kansas City was winner-take-all for the final berth. Both games were early on Sunday afternoon and the Jaguars took care of business.
The Chiefs and Bills were on a similar trajectories—perennial contenders of the 1990s seemingly determined to kick away their playoff berth down the stretch. They both played like it in this game. Bono was back, but only 14/28 for 138 yards and two interceptions. Allen, as he always did in the biggest games, played well and carried 20 times for 87 yards. The Chiefs took a 9-6 lead into the fourth quarter. But Kansas City turned the ball over three times down the stretch and lost 20-9.
In the blink of an eye—three straight losses—it was over. To make matters worse, Jacksonville went on to upset Buffalo, then stun Denver in the divisional round and create a wide-open AFC bracket. One that a veteran team like Kansas City might have found a way to come through. The December collapse denied them the chance.