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Nick Bolton saves Chiefs’ hopes for the AFC’s first-round bye

The rookie linebacker combined with Melvin Ingram to the deliver the defensive play of the season.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s contest against a Denver Broncos team already eliminated from playoff contention proved much more difficult than expected for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs — playing to keep the possibility alive of winning the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and only first-round bye — trailed 21-20 during the fourth quarter. The Broncos had the ball deep in Chiefs territory and seemed poised to extend the lead to eight points.

On second-and-2 from the Chiefs 9-yard line, Chiefs defensive end Melvin Ingram exploded behind the line of scrimmage to force a fumble by Broncos running back Melvin Gordon. Rookie linebacker Nick Bolton picked up the ball at the 14-yard line and returned it 86 yards for a momentum-shifting touchdown. A successful two-point conversion made the score 28-21, and the Chiefs would eventually win 28-24.

“I was just coming off the edge, [defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] called a great blitz,” Bolton recalled after the game. “A D-lineman, Melvin Ingram, went ahead and got critical penetration, got a TFL, caused a fumble. From then on, just a scoop and score. Had some teammates giving me some great blocks heading into the end zone. Just trying to get to the end zone from there.”

Bolton took the opportunity to further commend Ingram for his leadership on the unit.

“Mel — since he came in here — has been a great vet in the room,” he explained. “Coming in every single day trying to get better, trying to prove himself, and help our defense become better. Having a guy like that come in midseason and bring out what he brings to the football team is special.

“He keeps going out there and making plays, communicating, [and] putting us in the best position as possible as well. That’s a credit to him for coming in midseason and being able to do that.”

It was the league’s longest fumble return of the season, particularly impressive late in a game played on less than ideal field conditions.

“[I thought I may slip] probably [when I was] getting close to the 50-yard line,” he admitted. “I had seven studs (cleats) in for the field, and I slipped a little bit. At that point, I was just trying to get to the end zone. I was hoping to get to the end zone, get a touchdown for our team, and help us win.”

Bolton’s head coach and quarterback had similar concerns about slippage during the return.

“That was a game-changer,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of the play. “I was hoping that he wouldn’t stumble — those guys don’t get a chance to run that far, that fast very often. And he ran it like a stallion. He took off and looked like a running back.”

“That was a big play by a big-time player in Nick,” added quarterback Patrick Mahomes in his postgame remarks. “Nick picked it up — he almost went down, but he got away to the end zone.”

Ironically, the Bronco player with the best chance to tackle Bolton on the fumble return was quarterback Drew Lock, his former University of Missouri teammate. After the game, Lock seemed unsurprised that the linebacker got away from him.

On top of tonight’s highlight play, Bolton ends his rookie season as the team leader in tackles. The rookie credited his mindset for the successful first campaign.

“I just wanted to come in and be the best version of myself every single weekend,” Bolton reflected. “That’s kind of what my mindset was coming to OTAs, training camp, and on to the season. I’m going to continue to try and do that for our football team. I feel like it makes us better if I come in every single day and give my best efforts.

“I’m not chasing stats; I was chasing wins. Just trying to win the championship from here on out.”