The Houston Texans largely avoided Chiefs return man Tyreek Hill on Sunday.
The strategy –– which called for lots of punts toward the sideline –– made sense. For the Texans, owners of some of the league’s worst coverage units (at least by the numbers), challenging Hill ––arguably the league’s fastest man, with a keen sense for reading his blocks on returns –– made little sense.
But with the Chiefs ahead by 12 midway through the fourth quarter, and the Texans badly needing a stop, they inexplicably ended up punting to Hill … who promptly made them pay.
Hill fielded the punt, darted toward the right corner, rocketed upfield on one cut and dashed untouched toward the end zone for an 82-yard punt return that not only gave the Pro Bowl return man his first special-teams score of the season, but also effectively buried the Texans in the Chiefs’ 42-34 win in front of an announced crowd of 71,835 at NRG Stadium.
“(Special-teams coach) Dave (Toub) said all week we were an inch away from getting one,” coach Andy Reid said. “Tyreek, right when you think people have angles on him, he changes it. He’s got speed, he’s got quickness and he’s got vision. A great combination to have.”
Hill said he knew when the ball was in the air that he’d have a chance to do some damage.
“It’s always that moment where you always feel, in your body, like, man, I’m about to take this to the house,” Hill explained. “(Ball) in the air, I looked up, looked back down (and saw) enough time for me to do my thing and catch it.”
With the win, the Chiefs, who remain the NFL’s only unbeaten team, pushed their record to 5-0, even though they didn’t get out of the game unscathed. Tight end Travis Kelce sat out the entire second half due to concussion protocol, while the team fears receiver Chris Conley snapped his Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter.
Still, the mood was buoyant in the locker room after a win in which Hill and many of his teammates played starring roles, not the least of which was quarterback Alex Smith, who continued his strong start to the season with another terrific, possibly MVP-caliber performance.
Smith, who finished 29 of 37 for 324 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, tortured the Texans all game long, often drifting away from trouble, keeping his eyes downfield and delivering darts.
“Yeah, he’s really good at extending plays,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “We had to try to keep him in the pocket. Obviously we didn’t accomplish that. He’s a great player.
Smith’s mobility, in fact, played a big role in the Chiefs’ first touchdown of the game. After a pair of field goals by kicker Harrison Butker spotted the Chiefs a 6-0 lead in the second quarter, Smith –– who faced third and 5 at the Houston 8-yard line –– slid to his left and held onto the ball long enough for running back Charcandrick West to pop open. Smith delivered a dart for an 8-yard touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead 13-0.
And after the Chiefs added another field goal to push their lead to 16-0, it appeared the Texans –– who seemed dazed following game-ending injuries to defensive stars J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus –– might be on the receiving end of a blowout.
The Texans’ dynamic rookie quarterback, Deshawn Watson, had something else in mind, however. Watson, who won over so many with his epic performance in Clemson’s national championship win over Alabama in January, showed plenty of grit all night, beginning with a scoring drive that was capped by a 6-yard touchdown throw to receiver DeAndre Hopkins and cut the deficit to nine.
The Chiefs answered immediately. Smith capped a seven-play, 75-yard march that only took one minute, 15 seconds with another short touchdown pass to West, who dodged an oncoming tackler and hopped into the end zone for another touchdown that gave Kansas City a 23-7 halftime advantage.
Again, Watson –– who finished the night 16 of 31 for 261 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions –– refused to fold. After the two teams exchanged fruitless drives, Watson again led his team down the field, capping a 78-yard march with a 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver Will Fuller V.
The two-point conversion attempt to Fuller was incomplete, however –– cornerback Marcus Peters had the coverage –– and the Chiefs still led 23-13 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
The Chiefs extended their lead to 13 with another Butker field goal –– his fourth of the day –– but Watson again responded. Facing second and 6 at the Chiefs’ 48, the dynamic rookie danced away from trouble and uncorked a gorgeous deep ball downfield to Fuller, who hauled it in over cornerback Terrance Mitchell for another touchdown that cut the Texans’ deficit to 26-20 with 12 minutes left.
“We were on top of everything, a couple of bang-bang plays,” Mitchell explained. “You just have to live with it.”
NRG Stadium was rocking at that point, the hope of Watson’s terrific throw lifting fans’ spirits.
But with the Chiefs needing a response, Smith, the 13-year veteran, responded.
“We knew the onus was back on us,” Smith said. “If you keep answering them, it kind of becomes demoralizing. Making it a two-score game was important for us.”
So on the first play of the ensuing drive, Smith threw an 18-yard out to tight end Ross Travis. Two plays later, Smith found Conley for a 15-yard gain along the left sideline.
And after a darting 23-yard run by Kareem Hunt, Smith tossed a little shovel pass to receiver De’Anthony Thomas, who sped around the left corner for a 10-yard touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead by 12 and silenced the crowd with 9 minutes left.
“I thought he did a heck of a heck of a job with it –– we answered most of the bells there that were thrown at us when things were getting a little tight,” Reid said.
That gave the Chiefs a somewhat-comfortable 32-20 lead, one that would only grow larger when the Texans inexplicably kicked to the dangerous Hill, who put the nail in Houston’s coffin with a score that not only pushed the Chiefs’ lead to 19, but drove scores of blue-and-red clad fans to the exits instead of watching the Chiefs put the finishing touches on a win that dropped their team’s record to 2-3 on the season.
Given the way the stadium emptied (despite the fact the Texans rallied to score 14 late points), Hill’s celebration on the tail end of the return –– the same two-finger peace sign he flashed on his touchdown in Week 1 vs. New England –– could not have been more fitting.
“I’m trying to make that a trademark,” Hill said with a smile. “I got a great reaction to that. Everywhere I go, people are always throwing up the deuces. I got my teammates throwing up the deuces. That’s what people know me as now.