There were plenty of moments when special teams played a key role in the Kansas City Chiefs’ thrilling 42-36 overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills in last Sunday’s Divisional round matchup. The most prominent was placekicker Harrison Butker’s 49-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, which occupied just three of what now might be seen as the most-famous 13 seconds in franchise history.
Butker had already missed a 50-yarder in the second quarter — not to mention an extra point in the third quarter — but in a pressure-filled moment, he saw it as an advantage.
“I think it was actually a blessing,” he told reporters on Monday. “When you have a missed kick, you’re able to kind of think about what you need to change — what you need to adjust. I thought the 50-yard left hash [in] that direction, I adjusted my aiming point too much — kind of deviated a little too much from the game plan I kind of had in warmup.”
But for the final play of regulation, Butker returned to his original plan.
“After that missed kick, I kind of hit myself on the butt and said that I just need to stick with the game plan I had in the warmup — and that’s what I did for the 49-yarder. So I almost had like a practice kick with the miss — and was able to bounce back and take what I could from the miss and help me for the 49-yard left hash [in the] same direction.”
In the previous ten seconds, quarterback Patrick Mahomes had hit wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce in successive plays to put Kansas City at the 31-yard line. That led to post-game speculation that the Bills should have used a squib kick following their last-minute touchdown — rather than a deep kick for a touchback — giving Kansas City even less time to set up for a tying field goal.
But Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub isn’t sure that would have been Buffalo’s best move.
“We could’ve gotten the ball out to the 40 just as well with a squib kick — and it would have been basically like the first play of our offense,” he explained to the press on Thursday. ”A squib kick — by the time you get tackled — takes about four seconds. I think the offensive play was five seconds, so it’s comparable. You’re saying, ‘Hey, do you want to stop them with your special teams, or [do] you want [them] to deal with your No. 1 defense that you have?’ So that’s the choice you got to make.”
Toub said such a decision must take all the particulars of the situation into account — including the presence of Kansas City kick returner Byron Pringle near the goal line. But however it is made, it will always be open to questioning.
“Put it this way,” said Toub. “If someone squibs us the ball like that, we’re thinking we’re going to get it to the 40 — at least. That’s really what we’re thinking — and maybe even more. I’m sure that came across their mind with what they were going to do there. You have to try to figure it out. If they squib to us and we got it out, they would’ve said, ‘Yeah, you should’ve kicked it deep.’ It’s just one of those things that it’s always easy to second-guess.”
One of Toub’s own decisions in the game — putting both Mecole Hardman and Tyreek Hill back to return a second-quarter punt — was certainly subject to scrutiny.
“It didn’t work out the way we wanted it to,” acknowledged Toub. “We didn’t execute the play.”
After the kick, Hardman ran forward toward the right sideline, holding out his hands as if he was preparing to catch the punt. He appeared to be acting as a decoy — so that Hill could slide toward the middle and field the ball. But when it hit the ground between the hashes at the 15-yard line — where safety Daniel Sorensen was waiting expectantly, apparently there to block for Hill’s return — the wideout was nowhere near the ball. So it bounced untouched toward the goal line, where Buffalo downed it at the 1-yard line.
“We had a play on,” said Toub ruefully. “We had a miscommunication — and that’s what happened on that. It was a total mistake by us on our end of it.”
But while special teams can taketh away, sometimes they can also giveth.
“The good thing was that Tommy Townsend came in when we had to punt backed up,” said Toub of the sequence of plays. “He was able to flip the field — he had a great punt there — and got us out of the hole that we put ourselves in there.”
But it wasn’t the only time Hill came into the game as a returner. In the fourth quarter, he was the one on a Bills punt — and after offsetting penalties wiped out his modest 13-yard return, he gained 45 yards to the Buffalo 16-yard line on the replay.
“He’s so dangerous,” marveled Toub. “He just puts so much pressure on the punt team. And the fact that we made them kick two? That was huge. Anytime we have a situation like that — and we don’t get a big one on the first one — we want to put the punt team back there to cover again, because it’s so hard to cover two kicks. So you have that advantage, too.
“Then you have Tyreek back there — with the whole crowd chanting, ‘Tyreek, Tyreek, Tyreek’ — I mean, it’s a tough situation for a punt team to be in. We’d use him again.”
So as the Chiefs play to win — or go home — don’t be surprised if Toub once again opts to put Hill in for a return.