Though the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 to win the AFC Championship on Sunday, the contest appeared headed for overtime with less than a minute to go.
Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker — after a season of struggles with inconsistency and injury — gave the Chiefs their three-point margin of victory with a 45-yard field goal. Only three seconds remained for Butker’s ensuing kickoff.
For the sixth-year pro — who missed six field goals, three extra point attempts and four games on the season — it was a moment of vindication.
“It was great for me as a coach,” Chiefs assistant coach and special teams coordinator Dave Toub said of Butker’s kick on Friday. “That’s what you try to strive for. You want to see your guys succeed. I was happy with that.”
Speaking after his coach, Butker admitted Thursday that he initially did not know the kick was good — even as he saw punter Tommy Townsend celebrating.
“I kicked that — and I wondered if a majority of fans were watching the jumbotron,” he recalled. “I know a lot of the Bengals’ guys on field goal block didn’t even turn around — they were watching the jumbotron. On the jumbotron, you’re thinking it’s going through the uprights.
“But when you’re actually watching the ball — like I was — you’re wondering is it going to have the distance? Even Tommy turned around — and he’s coming to hug me — and I’m like ‘Man, we’ve got to make sure this ball goes over the crossbar.’
“It was a great hit, but with that colder weather the ball psi drops. It was a great kick off my foot — then it just kind of floated there. I wasn’t sure it was going to go through. Obviously the fans, and Tommy, and a lot of people were already celebrating — which kind of gave me a little bit more confidence.”
It is fair to wonder about the team’s overall confidence in Butker after an ankle injury in the season’s first game has continued to linger. The Chiefs had the ball at the Cincinnati 37-yard line with 2:36 remaining in the game. Rather than attempting a 55-yard field goal to take a three-point lead, the Chiefs’ coaches elected to punt the ball back to one of the league’s most dangerous offenses.
Townsend pinned the ball at the 6-yard line — and the Chiefs were able to get the ball back with half a minute remaining in the game. Toub confirmed that he and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid made the decision based on Butker’s perceived range.
“We were at the 37, 38-yard line,” he explained. “Normally — in a situation when it’s not that cold or windy — we’d go ahead and crank that thing and go up by three and then make them do what they had to do there. That situation was definitely a field position deal. There was no hesitation at all between Coach and I.
“We punted — and we played field position. The way our defense was playing, it was a no brainer really. Defense was playing great. We stopped them [and] got the ball back. Tommy had a great punt — that was another great thing too. He was on in that game [and] put it at the six-yard line. That was perfect.”
The decision appeared supported by pregame reports of Butker’s practice kicks, though he likely would have been allowed to attempt a longer distance for his final kick.
Once again, the top of Harrison Butker's range appears to be from 50 yards.— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) January 29, 2023
“He made 53 and was short on 55,” Toub stated of the warmups. “It was tough for him not making a 55. Our line was the 35-yard line, so he could make a 53. That was the spot that we felt comfortable during the game. At the end of the game — when you’re going for a game-winner or at the end of the half — you go a little bit further.”
While playing through the injury, Butker has repeatedly described changing his technique. While he returned from injury to nail a franchise record 62-yard field goal in Week 6’s 24-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills, later games saw him struggle with accuracy.
The Chiefs will next face the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. Butker will enter the game on a hot streak of hitting all five postseason field goals and all five extra-point attempts.
“I think I’m kicking the ball as accurately as I was before,” he claimed of his recent success. “It’s just a different technique I’ve had to adjust. We’ll see about the power. It’s hard to tell kicking outside when it’s cold. That 62-yarder right after the injury — it was warm outside. Who knows if I wouldn’t have been able to kick that ten yards farther before the ankle.
“I’ll know more in Arizona. I feel really good with how I’m kicking the ball. I feel like I’m locked in [and] kicking the ball right where I want to. I’ll just continue this momentum going into the Super Bowl.”