KANSAS CITY — Sometimes teams that enter the final game of the season needing half a dozen things to break their way get their wish.
The Kansas City Chiefs went around all week grumbling at themselves for failing to make the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.
Now they’re rubbing their eyes and getting ready to go to Indianapolis on Saturday, thanks to a 35-30 victory over Jacksonville and losses by Tennessee, Cincinnati and, most improbably, Denver, which lost 26-23 in overtime to San Francisco. That handed the Chiefs (9-7) the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs and a trip to Indianapolis next week.
First, the Chiefs had to beat Jacksonville, which they did, 35-30 behind Larry Johnson’s three touchdowns and record-breaking rushing day. Then they needed New England to beat Tennessee. Check.
Then Pittsburgh had to upset Cincinnati. Check again, after the Bengals’ Shayne Graham was wide right on a 39-yard field goal try with 8 seconds left in regulation.
Then, 3 1/2 hours later after players and coaches had scattered to their homes and New Year’s Eve parties, the most improbable leg of all in this farfetched four-team parlay came through.
It was a fitting tribute to Lamar Hunt, the team’s founder, who died on Dec. 14.
Even Clark Hunt, the chairman of the Chiefs, wondered if his father was somehow involved.
“I’ve had some people in the locker room suggest that maybe my father hand a hand in that,” the younger Hunt said after the Chiefs won.
“I don’t know, we’ll find out how well he does in the Broncos-49er game.”
The Chiefs had feared that for the second year in a row, they’d wound up the regular season with a hollow winning record.
Johnson rushed for 138 yards, scored three touchdowns and set an NFL record for carries in a season but still they needed for Denver to lose.
“It won’t be that disappointing if we don’t get in. It really won’t,” guard Brian Waters said then. “It’s out of our control. And if we don’t make it, it was our fault. It’s nobody else’s fault.”
Said defensive end Jared Allen, “It’s frustrating that we’re 9-7. Either way this turns out, the regular season’s been disappointing.”
Johnson’s 416 carries erased the record of 410 set by Atlanta’s Jamal Anderson in 1998. Johnson’s 1,789 yards rushing broke the team record of 1,750 yards the durable 230-pounder set last year in only nine starts.
Jacksonville finished the season with three straight losses and wound up 8-8.
“This is where we put ourselves. To walk away, losing three games in a row, that ain’t no good feeling,” defensive end Paul Spicer said. “If anybody in here says this season was a success, they’re lying to you. There’s no way in the world this season was a success, after losing three straight games.”
Johnson said he’d prefer not to have 400 carries “every season.”
“It just means that I know I can carry the ball through an entire season and you have something to gauge me by,” he said. “Now you know you don’t have to worry about tiring me out because you know how far I can go.”
The Chiefs’ fourth touchdown came after Ty Law intercepted David Garrard’s pass, and sent the turnover-prone quarterback to the Jacksonville bench for the rest of the game.
Law picked off Garrard on the 18 and returned it to the 2, and Johnson scored to put Kansas City up 28-10 with 12:08 to play.
Into the game came Quinn Gray, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and had appeared in only one game in three seasons. He led the Jaguars on three touchdown drives, finishing the first two with nifty runs himself. Jacksonville pulled them to within five points with 5:00 remaining on Maurice Jones-Drew’s 5-yard run following Trent Green’s fumble.
Gray darted nine yards for a TD on his first possession, then went 17 yards for his second score. Garrard was 10-for-18 for 140 yards with a 26-yard TD pass to Fred Taylor in the second quarter.
Quarterback is sure to be the biggest question of the offseason in Jacksonville. Garrard had replaced Byron Leftwich after six games.
“I wanted to give our football team a spark,” said coach Jack Del Rio. “He did a nice job of giving us the spark and leading us to scores and giving us an opportunity.”
A roughing-the-passer penalty against Spicer for a late shot to Green seemed to energize a lethargic Kansas City team midway through the second quarter.
On the first play after the 15-yard penalty, Johnson rambled 40 yards to the 8, and on fourth-and-goal from the 6-inch line vaulted into the end zone to put the Chiefs on top 14-10.
On their next possession, Green hit Kennison on a 35-yard flea-flicker pass for a touchdown.
The Chiefs’ first TD came on Bernard Pollard’s blocked punt and recovery in the end zone.