With five seconds remaining in the first half of the AFC championship game, the Kansas City Chiefs led the Cincinnati Bengals 21-10. The Chiefs were at the Cincinnati 1-yard line, but no timeouts remained.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid sent the offense onto the field. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes faked a handoff to Jerick McKinnon and hit wide receiver Tyreek Hill motioning short to his left. But Bengals cornerback Eli Apple pursued Hill and brought him down in the open field.
End of the half.
“I was hoping we could get the ball in the end zone,” said Reid of the decision. “I probably gave him the wrong play, first of all, to start with. I could have given him something better than that, where the play was open in the end zone — and then we would have had to go through that. I’ll take responsibility for that one.”
Mahomes described what he saw on what would later appear to become the game’s most crucial play. The quarterback explained he was aware that there was so little time on the clock after burning four seconds on the play before.
“I knew we needed to get points,” said Mahomes. “I knew that we called a play where we were trying to get someone over the middle quick. And I was supposed to throw the ball away. I got a little greedy there and tried to give it to Tyreek and get a touchdown. They had two people out there. Definitely, in the long run of things, it looks bad, but if we had another chance, I would have went for another play again.”
At the time, it did not seem as though that sequence of plays would completely shift the tide. The Chiefs still led by 11 points and were receiving the ball after the half.
But Cincinnati gained tangible momentum from the stop, as the Chiefs’ first drive of the third quarter ended in a punt, beginning a string of five straight empty possessions. After outgaining the Bengals 292-152 in the first half to build that 21-10 lead, the Chiefs did not score again until they needed a field goal to tie in the final seconds of regulation.
Mahomes tried to make sense of the difference between half one and half two.
“There was a few misreads here and there,” said Mahomes. “There was guys that were open I didn’t hit at the right time, I passed up on something shorter [where] I went to get something deeper down the field. And when you’re playing a good team, and you don’t hit what’s there — and you try to get a little bit more than what’s necessary — [it] kind of bites you in the butt, I guess you would say. It’s something that — we were playing so well in the first half. In the second half, we were just off a tick, and that’s all it takes to lose a football game.”
“I think we got to execute better,” added wide receiver Mecole Hardman. “We got to put points on the board. We can’t just be having three-and-outs or just putting our defense in bad situations. [We] just have to execute from an offensive standpoint. I mean, we scored three points total in the second half, so I think that’s on us just to be better in certain situations — in key situations — in getting the ball down the field and getting first downs and trying to get some points on the board. Didn’t do that in the second half.”
In the first half, Mahomes finished 18 of 21 for 220 yards and three touchdowns, but he was 8 of 18 for 55 yards and two picks in the second half and overtime.
Reid could only note that Cincinnati played more man coverage on second down.
“I can put the players in better positions to make plays — and I didn’t get that part done,” said Reid.
After two quarters of failures, the Chiefs still had a golden opportunity when they won the coin toss at the beginning of overtime. But unlike last week against the Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs could not take advantage.
And now, in a flash — stemming from a bad offensive half — it’s over.
“You take away the good things, just like any season,” reflected Mahomes. “It’s definitely disappointing. Here, with this group of guys we have, we expect to be in [the Super Bowl] and to win that game. And anything less than that is not success. So we’ll go back, and we’ll look at all the things we did well, the adversity we battled through, the team that we became toward the end of the season and try to learn from the mistakes we made and try to be better next year.”