In the NFL, great regular seasons can bolster player roles, pay out bonuses — and lead to accolades and all the spoils that come with them. The regular season is important, but great postseason performances make for legends, creating moments that are seared in the minds of millions for years to come.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton capped off a great 2022 season by turning in a memorable postseason that directly impacted the team’s run to a Super Bowl. Being in the right place at the right time has helped Bolton separate himself from his contemporaries, and this was amplified during the Chiefs postseason run.
Bolton had a tremendous 2022 season, but — as was detailed in part two of this series — he struggled in pass coverage at times. It isn't the end-all-be-all of evaluating linebacker play, but deep in coverage is not where Bolton was the most comfortable, and most teams were aware of it.
Early in the Divisional Round, the Jacksonville Jaguars looked to challenge him.
Lawrence pumps the ball and surveys downfield. He wants to hit the WR running the over route, but Bolton re-accelerates and nearly comes up with the interception. Great second effort on the play to force a fourth down. pic.twitter.com/5V5oDH7vNa— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 21, 2023
Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence quickly concludes his initial read isn't open, and he uses a pump fake to extend the play. As he scrambles, he finds Jamal Agnew speeding across the middle. Initially, it looks like Agnew has found the opening, but at the last second Bolton comes flying in to break up the pass.
Lawrence knew that this secondary route would likely favor the quicker Agnew, and he did a good job to accelerate out of the turn on his route. What they did not account for was Bolton entering second gear to get to the ball.
This play took place when the game was scoreless, but the Chiefs' seven-point margin of victory (27-20) shows this was more important to the overall outcome of the game than meets the eye. When accounting for the ankle injury to Patrick Mahomes slowing the offensive production, this opening three-and-out was meaningful in the final outcome of the game. Bolton also went on to recover a fumble late in the game, setting the stage for a long postseason run.
Bolton’s knack for making big plays in key moments showed up in the biggest game of the year. With the Chiefs trailing by seven points to the Philadelphia Eagles, Bolton would make the most important play of his career.
Hurts in empty. KC with 5 on the LOS. 65 picks down, but goes back to 56. Hurts is one on one with Bolton and shows some indecision but decides to bounce the play. Bolton didn't attack right away, instead slow playing it. The ball slips out, and the rest is history. pic.twitter.com/uMCEHVcIok— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 27, 2023
Out of the empty set, the Eagles want the Chiefs to believe they are passing the ball pre-snap, which is setting up a quarterback run from Hurts on third down. The middle of the field is wide open, meaning if the Eagles offensive line got the Chiefs' front blocked, it would have been a potentially massive gain.
Hurts had a tremendous game (and 2022 season, in general). He is tough as nails and saw the best the NFC had to offer, but now he was entering Bolton’s domain. One of the best run-attacking linebackers in the game, Bolton was aligned on the line of scrimmage head up on Lane Johnson.
On the snap, Bolton flashed to the B-gap, and Johnson initially mirrored down the line before picking back to block George Karlaftis.
Had Bolton attacked initially, Johnson likely would have powered down on him, creating a large gap and leaving Karlaftis in space against Hurts. Bolton remained patient, and Johnson had no way of knowing what Hurts would do. It set up a one-on-one in the B-gap.
Hurts wanted to run it up the middle, but as Bolton loomed between the line to gain, Hurts became indecisive, and it cost him. As he looked to switch the ball from his left to right hand and bounce the run, it slipped free — and with some good old fashion luck — bounced perfectly to Bolton. 36 yards later and it was a tie game.
This play prevented the Eagles from going up by multiple scores early and ended up being key in the game's final outcome.
Bolton’s scoop-and-score will be immortalized in football history forever, but it was not his only momentum-changing play of the game.
14 with the head start into the drag out of the motion. 88 with the in route while the WR's vacate opening up space. Bolton recognizes 14 quickly and accelerates to close the space and make the play. He initiates contact and his teammates rally. Huge 3rd down stop. pic.twitter.com/9XdEk8CnrT— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) June 27, 2023
After the Chiefs scored on the opening possession of the second half, the Eagles marched down the field and were in position to score.
On third down-and-11 in the red zone, the Eagles looked to exploit Bolton in space. Running back Kenneth Gainwell ran a drag route underneath the Eagles' wide receivers, and tight end Dallas Goedert ran a middle route designed to pick off Bolton.
The Eagles want Gainwell in space to get a first down — or get close enough to it to sneak it on fourth-and-short. Hurts is able to get the pass off.
While Goedert is his closest threat, Bolton is signaled at the last second by Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. — who was literally bumped by safety Justin Reid — to go cover the flat. The chain reaction was just in time, and although he was in space, Bolton squared up Gainwell and brought him down.
The Eagles elected to take a field goal, putting them up 27-21. This would be the last time they would be in the lead. The Chiefs' ferocious offense put up 24 points in the second half, but Bolton’s third-down stop held the game to a single possession and helped spark a mid-game rally from the defense as the Eagles would punt their next possession.
Although the Eagles would eventually tie the game in the fourth quarter, this stop was still a key cog in the outcome of the game. Bolton’s impact on the Chiefs was constant all season long, so it makes sense that his plays made a tremendous impact on the biggest stage.