When the Kansas City Chiefs tied their Week 17 battle with the Cincinnati Bengals at 31-31, there was 6:01 remaining in the fourth quarter — making it hard to imagine that it would be the last time the Chiefs’ offense touched the ball.
The Bengals went on to waste all 361 seconds of the game clock on their 15-play, 79-yard drive that ended in the game-winning field goal. The 34-31 win was clinched by a six-play sequence inside Kansas City’s two-yard line in which multiple fourth-down stops were negated by defensive penalties.
This has led to questions about the Chiefs’ decision to prevent the Bengals from scoring — rather than allowing a touchdown so the Kansas City offense would have plenty of time to respond; when the Bengals first ran a play from the two-yard line, there were over two minutes remaining.
What will be discussed all over Chiefs Kingdom wasn’t a debate for the team’s leader: quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“They made six stops at the goal line — I mean. whenever you make six stops at the one-yard line, it’s tough whenever they get a first down after that,” Mahomes told reporters following the loss. “They made the stops, we almost got the ball backed up and we would’ve been able to get into overtime. They fought until the very end — and unfortunately, it didn’t work out our way.”
On fourth-and-1, a tackle made just short of the goal line was waved off due to offsetting penalties — one being a holding call on cornerback Charvarius Ward — and then the next attempt fell incomplete. But a flag on cornerback L’Jarius Sneed moved the chains.
The Chiefs’ head coach pointed out that the penalties were much more than just a late-game theme.
“Between the big plays and the penalties, that’s what got us,” Andy Reid told the media during his postgame press conference. “There were way too many penalties — nine penalties — including a touchdown on a kickoff return[and] a fourth-down play where our guys did a nice job stopping them at the one-foot line. I’d like to comment on each one, but I don’t want to be fined.”
Reid implied that the penalties he mentioned were bad calls — but those weren’t the only decisions in the game worthy of doubt. In that final possession, Kansas City had forced Cincinnati into a third-and-27. The defensive play-call was an all-out blitz that left Ward isolated against wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase — who ended the game with 266 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow avoided pressure with a quick throw, completing it to Chase downfield for a 30-yard gain and setting up the remainder of the game-winning drive.
“With hindsight, we probably could’ve helped out a little bit more on Chase,” Reid admitted. “But we put our guys in that position to make a play — hopefully get to the quarterback and keep them out of field-goal range. It didn’t work out. The guys busted their tail to get it done, but it just didn’t work out.”
It’s not easy to say things like, “it just didn’t work out” when the game-deciding strategy was to continue trusting a one-on-one matchup that had failed the Chiefs throughout the game. Burrow admitted to realizing he was able to just throw it up to Chase in those single-coverage situations.
Joe Burrow on Ja'Marr Chase : "Everyone knows that meme. 'F it. Ja'Marr's down there somewhere.'"— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) January 2, 2022
It was also well known that Burrow has excelled against the blitz this season — and yet, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo trusted his players to execute the strategy he’s leaned upon — and succeeded with — for most of the eight-game winning streak that ended on Sunday night.
But the defense could have been put in a more comfortable position if the offense had continued scoring in the second half like it did in the first two quarters. After a game-opening punt, the Chiefs ripped off four consecutive touchdown drives to take a 28-14 lead late in the first half. Yet the team scored only three points on their remaining four possessions — including two punts and a field goal in the second half’s three possessions.
“I think it was just execution,” said Mahomes of the second-half drop-off. “We were executing at a high level in the first half. We had a couple of bad plays here and there — from really everybody — that stalled drives out, but we found ways to score points. We just have to continue to work on being better; hopefully — in this next game going into the playoffs — we can get rolling.”
It wasn’t a do-or-die game — but with the importance of the AFC’s first seed, it’s likely that the Chiefs treated it as such. The loss dropped them to the same record as the Tennessee Titans, who have a head-to-head win against the Chiefs and will clinch the top seed with a win over the Houston Texans in Week 18.
Missing out on a great opportunity to be the only AFC team with a postseason bye week will be a disappointing way to go into the postseason— and it happened largely because of poor game management in a tight, Week 17 contest in which Kansas City appeared to be the better team for most of the game.
Moving forward, the team can still make up for the mistakes — but in the postseason, there won’t be room for those kinds of errors.