NFL Playoff Diary: And So It Goes
Well, that was the most ridiculous and wonderful and stressful and incredible football weekend ever, right? Four games where the team scored the game-winner on the final play? Are you kidding me?
I’m going to go out of order here and start with the Sunday games because Chiefs-Bills just ended, and I’m feeling all sorts of giddy.
Kansas City 42, Buffalo 36 (OT)
Let’s see here: The date was Jan. 2, 1982. So that means I was just about to turn 15 years old. I only remember snippets of the Chargers-Dolphins playoff game that day — I remember Kellen Winslow being near death. I remember what seemed like a million missed field goals James Bond villains named Rolf Benirschke and Uwe Von Shamann. I remember the ultimate hook-and-ladder play, Don Strock to Duriel Harris to Tony Nathan.
What I remember most vividly was the feeling, the overwhelming feeling, as the game ended. Yes, there had been the Colts-Giants championship game and Chiefs-Dolphins on Christmas Day, and the Ghost to the Post Raiders-Colts game of ’77.
But, I just KNEW — with all the certainty that an almost-15-year-old can know anything — that I had just seen the greatest game ever played.
And now it is 40 years later, and I am 55, and I have precisely the same feeling in the afterglow of this Chiefs-Bills masterpiece.
No, wait, masterpiece isn’t the right word — it’s too staid, too static, as if this game belongs on the wall of a museum. That isn’t right at all. This game lived and breathed, it gasped and shrieked; at some point, it transcended football and became something else entirely, something completely unexpected — a summer song and a car chase and a sled ride down the steepest hill and a Vegas magic show and a leap off a diving board.
Has football like this ever been played?
And more to the point: Have two quarterbacks ever played like this?
The numbers are staggering. Buffalo’s Josh Allen was 27 for 37 for 329 yards with four touchdown passes and 68 yards rushing. Not that those numbers do his game justice, because the digits cannot communicate the velocity of his passes or the absurdity of his escapes or the force in the way he runs.
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes was 33 for 44 for 378 yards with three touchdown passes and 69 yards rushing. Of course, those numbers do no better a job of explaining Mahomes’ game than they did for Allen. To grasp what Mahomes had done, one would need other branches of math … geometry, for instance, just to calculate the angles only he seems to see.
Allen and Mahomes played at this altitude even though they were facing good, even excellent, defenses. Buffalo gave up the fewest points all season. The Chiefs’ defense, after a foggy start, melded into a dominant unit as well. And I don’t believe either defense played poorly in this game, at least not until they were gassed at the end. I believe they were simply facing quarterbacks who have found higher ground.
The first three quarters were pure and unadulterated joy, and I will admit that as the fourth quarter began — with Kansas City leading 23-21 — I worried about an anticlimax to such a breathtaking game. The Chiefs punted. And then the Bills punted, and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill unleashed a twisting, dizzying 44-yard return deep into Buffalo territory. The Chiefs needed only to punch it in for a touchdown to give themselves a two-score lead and, perhaps, put this one away.
But the Bills defense stuffed Kansas City on third and one, and forced a field goal.
Kansas City 26, Buffalo 21.
And away we go — the Bills put together an extraordinary seven-minute drive, one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen. The Bills faced four decisive third downs and two decisive fourth downs, and on each and every one of them Josh Allen did something heroic. Choir music should have played in the background. He completed a five-yard pass to Cole Beasley for a first down. He blasted nine yards up the middle (running over Kansas City’s Charvarius Ward in the process) for a first down. He sprinted to his right for three yards and a first down. He avoided two tacklers who seemed to have him cold and scrambled six yards for a first down.
And finally, just after the two-minute warning, on fourth and 13, Allen found a wide-open Gabriel Davis in the end zone for the touchdown that gave Buffalo the lead. Then, just to show off, he eluded half the Chiefs’ defense as he rolled out and found Stephon Diggs in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion.
Buffalo 29, Kansas City 26.
Everybody knew, of course, that 1:54 was way too much time for Patrick Mahomes to bring the Chiefs back. In fact, it literally was too much time. The Chiefs scored faster than they intended — Mahomes hit a crossing Hill over the middle, and the Cheetah, as he is called, did not just pick up a nice chunk of yards but, instead, eluded defenders, detonated down the sideline, and scored … a 64-yard explosion that sent the Arrowhead Stadium crowd into another dimension.
Kansas City 33, Buffalo 29.
Alas, there was 1:02 left in the game. Still too much time. Josh Allen might have the strongest arm in the NFL, and he zipped a pass for 28, then another for 12, then another for 16, moving the ball all way to the Chiefs’ 19-yard line. There were 17 seconds left, which meant Allen had three plays to score the touchdown that would surely win the game.
He needed only one play. That man Davis caught six touchdown passes all season. But he caught four on this day, the fourth right here when he beat his man to the inside, turned, and saw Allen’s perfect pass on his chest.
There were just 13 seconds remaining.
Buffalo 36, Kansas City 33.
There will be lots of talk about what the Bills should have done here. They should have squib-kicked the ball to take some time off the clock. They should have covered the middle of the field defensively. They should have …
Well, what could they have done, really? At this point, the game had moved beyond game plans and schemes and logic. It was in the hands of the gods. The Chiefs got the ball on the 25. Mahomes throw a short pass to Hill, who yelped a Road Runner “meep-meep,” leaped in the air, and blurred ahead for 19 yards. And on the next play, Mahomes connected with a somehow wide open Travis Kelce for 25 yards.
How Travis Kelce keeps getting wide open is beyond human understanding.
The timeout was called with three seconds left.
Kansas City Harrison Butker made the 49-yard field goal to tie the game as the clock expired.
Buffalo 36, Kansas City 36.
It should have ended there. That would have been proper. That would have been justice. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, should have taken the field with two Super Bowl trophies, handed one to each team, and said: “This is as good as football can possibly be. I declare these two teams champions.”
But, alas, life is not a Disney movie or an ABBA song. Overtime arrived, and that meant a coin toss, and even while the coin was in the air, I imagine everybody understood — the way that gas station attendant in “No Country for Old Men” understood when Anton Chigurh flipped his coin — that it was the only thing that mattered.
“Look, I need to know what I stand to win,” the attendant said.
“Everything,” Anton Chigurh said. “You stand to win everything.”
The Chiefs won the coin toss. And then, in the least surprising result of this most surprising game, Patrick Mahomes drove right down the field for the winning touchdown while Josh Allen watched helplessly from the sideline. It didn’t feel like the right ending for a game so epic, but, as they say, them’s the rules, at least for now.
The reason for the NFL overtime rule, of course, is that, realistically, you have to find a way to end games. They can’t go on forever no matter how much we may hope they do.