KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nothing seemingly could go wrong for the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Then everything that could go wrong did go wrong in the second half as the Chiefs fell 27-24 in overtime, denying head coach Andy Reid and his team a third-straight Super Bowl bid.
“I know it’s disappointing,” Reid said. ”It’s final. That’s the unfortunate part of it. When things are in a calmer state, we’ll get together tomorrow for a team meeting. But I do appreciate the work each guy put in and respect them for that, especially where we were early in the season.”
The Chiefs built a 21-3 lead in the first half and led 21-10 at halftime. Nothing epitomized Kansas City’s second-half struggles than the stat line of Patrick Mahomes. The quarterback excelled in the first half with 18-of-21 passing for 220 yards and three touchdowns. In the second half, Mahomes struggled while completing 8-of-18 passing for 55 yards and two interceptions.
It was a hard loss to swallow for Mahomes and his teammates.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” Mahomes said. “Here with this group of guys that we have, we expect to be in that game and to win that game. Anything less than that is not success.”
Reid dismissed the notion of Mahomes pressing in the second half.
“Patrick’s a great player, so he was trying to make a play,” Reid said. “Like I said, I’ve got to do a better job of giving him things that he can make plays with. So, I can do a lot better in that area.”
Screen pass disaster
The Bengals racked up only 152 yards offense in the first half but more than a quarter of them came on the team’s final offensive play of the first half that began Kansas City’s breakdown.
Facing second-and-12 from the Chiefs 41-yard line, Burrow dumped off a screen pass for running back Samaje Perine. Cornerback Charvarius Ward had a chance to wrap up the ball carrier for a modest gain but missed the tackle. Perine then peeled through the Chiefs secondary to the goal line, outracing Nick Bolton and L’Jarius Sneed for the score.
Defensive end Frank Clark gave credit to the Bengals for making the plays and adjustments necessary to win the game.
“We have to keep our foot on their necks and just stay at them and about finishing the game,” Clark said. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t go our way. Things have been going our way all season, timing and different little things. It just didn’t go our way.”
Last week the Chiefs saved their best for the final 13 seconds of regulation but it was 13 seconds before halftime against the Bengals when the Mahomes and the offense started going off the rails.
After Cincinnati cut the lead to 21-10 with 1:05 left in the half, Mahomes moved his team down to the Bengals 15-yard line when Kansas City called timeout with 13 seconds left. On the next play Mahomes fired incomplete toward Hill in the end zone but an official flagged cornerback Eli Apple for pass interference, setting up the Chiefs with first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 9 seconds remaining.
Mahomes rolled left and found no one open, throwing the ball into the ground to stop the clock with 5 seconds left. Reid eschewed kicking the field goal there, choosing to run one more quick play and settling for the field goal if it didn’t work.
“I probably gave (Mahomes) the wrong play first of all, to start with,” Reid said. “I could have given him something better than that where the play was open in the end zone, and then we wouldn’t have had to go through that. I’ll take responsibility for that one.”
The play called for Mahomes to fire quickly over the middle but Kelce was well covered. Rather than throw the ball away, Mahomes fired the ball into the flat to Hill, who was intended as a decoy on the play.
“I got a little greedy there and tried to get it to Tyreek for a touchdown,” Mahomes said. “They had two people out there so, in the long run of things, it looks bad. But if we had another chance I would’ve went for another play again.”
Many of Kansas City’s second-half miscues fell under the category of timing and execution errors, and few were more critical than the third-and-6 play on the Chiefs’ opening drive of the second half.
Center Creed Humphrey’s snap barely left the ground, dribbling the ball to Mahomes in the shotgun. Mahomes picked up the ball and hand Kelce open on a corner route toward the right sideline but the throw fell just beyond his outstretched fingertips.
“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,” Mahomes said. “It’s something that we were playing so well in the first half and in the second half we were just off a tick and sometimes that’s all it takes to lose a football game.”
Kansas City used a balanced attack in the first half in building their early 21-3 lead, averaging 6 yards per carry on the ground while tallying 72 rushing yards. Mahomes generally made the right decisions on his run-pass option reads in the first half but a couple of poor decisions in the second half proved pivotal.
The most detrimental decision came with 2:23 remaining in the third quarter. With a corner blitzing off the edge, Mahomes chose to forego a handoff to McKinnon and pulled the ball back for a pass instead. He tried a pump fake before firing the ball in the direction of Demarcus Robinson. Three offensive linemen, anticipating the handoff to McKinnon, released downfield for run blocking, adding to the chaos beyond the line of scrimmage.
Defensive tackle B.J. Hill, however, deflected the pass and corralled an interception. That set up the Bengals at the Chiefs 27-yard line, and five plays later Joe Burrow connected with Ja’Marr Chase on a 2-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 24-24.
“There was a few misreads here and there,” Mahomes said. “There were guys that were open that I didn’t hit it at the right time, or I passed up on something shorter for something I wanted deeper down the field.”
Goal-line Meltdown Part II
Despite mustering only 34 yards of offense on their first five possessions of the second half, Mahomes and company showed signs of putting everything back together on their final drive. The Chiefs wanted to score while also leaving the Bengals with little if any time on the clock for a reply.
The Chiefs set up camp with a first down at the Bengals 5-yard line with 1:30 remaining in the game. McKinnon moved the Chiefs forward with a 1-yard run before things started going backward. Literally.
On second down, Mahomes again pulled out of an RPO and found nothing available. Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader broke through in applying pressure, and the Bengals sacked Mahomes for a 5-yard loss. On third down the Bengals dropped eight into coverage and rushed only three. With Mahomes unable to find a target, defensive end Sam Hubbard, who had been spying Mahomes to prevent him from scrambling, dashed up the middle and jarred the ball loose from the quarterback. Left guard Joe Thuney fell on the ball to prevent total disaster, but the 15-yard loss forced the Chiefs to settle for a game-tying field goal.
Mahomes said he usually doesn’t have a problem dealing with a spy in the middle of the field but said the Bengals executed their game plan well.
“They were doing a lot of similar stuff in the first half,” Mahomes said. “We were just executing at a higher level, and they stayed with it. They fought and that’s a good football team, but it takes a lot of fight to stay in a game whenever you’re down like that, but I’ve got to be better.”
Reid defended the scrambling behind the line of scrimmage Mahomes did late in the ballgame.
“I could’ve given him other things to work with, and better things,” Reid said. “I didn’t. He was trying to move around like he does and make plays. You never have to worry about that part. But I could’ve given him better plays to work with.”