Romo and Jim Nantz had just been talking about “The Catch,” the famous Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark touchdown in the 1981 season’s NFC championship, vaulting the San Francisco 49ers into their first Super Bowl to face this same Bengals franchise, allowing for a natural tie-in to this game.
With the Bengals holding a slim edge over the Chiefs, overcoming three 14-point deficits to take a 31-28 lead, Romo could see how this game — a beautiful preview of the AFC championship matchup on Sunday — was going to go down.
“This game is feeling like there’s going to be a ‘Catch’-type of moment,” Romo said as the Chiefs were starting what would end up being their final drive of the afternoon. “It might not be quite to that level, but I am just saying there’s going to be something big.
“Big! Huge! Big, Jim!”
Romo wasn’t lying. Little did he know, the thrilling finish that day — and the Bengals’ highly unorthodox approach to it — would later be revalidated based on what unfolded in the Chiefs’ win for the ages last week over the Buffalo Bills.
Few watching thought Patrick Mahomes could drive 40-plus yards with only 13 seconds remaining. But we’ll bet dollars to donuts that Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was among the few who did. His actions against Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 17 proves it.
There was no “Catch” moment to cap that game in Cincinnati. Instead, it was a coy and clever game of keep-away that prevented Mahomes from 13-seconding the Bengals. Maybe we should call it the “Latch” — Cincinnati did everything it could to keep the backdoor from swinging open.
Asked this week whether his approach to the Week 17 game was going through his mind while he watched the ending of Bills-Chiefs, Taylor deadpanned: “It wasn’t not going through my mind, I’ll tell you that.”
Process or luck? Bengals had both working in closing out Chiefs last time
Mahomes drove the Chiefs methodically down the field on what would be their final drive in Week 17 against the Bengals — 11 plays, 52 yards, lasting 5:32, no gain longer than 11 yards. They chipped away before stalling and settling for a field goal to tie the game, 31-31.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals took over at their own 25, one timeout left, 6:10 left. Realistically, it’s probably a two-for-one situation, with the Bengals likely knowing that draining the rest of the clock was going to be hard. So would stopping the Chiefs another time. It’s risky, but it’s Mahomes.
Burrow came out throwing, which is what you’d expect from a team believing this was their penultimate drive, not their last one. And while they milked two play clocks to 5 seconds and under the first few plays (even drawing an offsides), they also went quicker a few snaps.
It felt like the Bengals were playing it halfway at this point.
The first quicker snap (11 seconds left on the play clock) came on a 35-yard dart to Ja’Marr Chase. It was an all-out blitz, and Burrow seemed to be licking his lips.
The Bengals were at the Kansas City 24 with more than four minutes left. Seeping the rest of the clock here felt virtually impossible, so you might as well be aggressive.
But after a holding penalty, a sack and an incompletion, the Bengals were in a bad spot: third-and-27 at the 41. Throw a screen, pick up a few yards and hand it over to a rookie kicker, even one as impressive as Evan McPherson?
Nope. Not against Mahomes.
It’s strange to say, but the Bengals’ three straight negative plays made them more aggressive. They went for the big play — against the same blitz they saw a few plays earlier. Just like on the last one, Chase was singled up and once again he roasted K.C., this time for 30 yards.
Taylor knew then that settling for a long field goal and giving Mahomes the ball back with three minutes, down only three points, with all three timeouts was no bueno.
But there were still three minutes to kill. Want to cut off the head of the dragon? Unfortunately for the Bills, they left it hanging by the final tendon. They should have drawn inspiration from the Bengals, who managed to sever it clear through.
Three straight runs gained a first down and put the ball at the Kansas City 1-yard line, under the two-minute warning and the Chiefs with two timeouts left. Burrow was stuffed twice on QB sneaks, each followed by timeouts.
Were the Bengals trying to score? Should the Chiefs have let them score?
This was the wild mentality of the moment, fueled by the kinetic potential of Mahomes. Remember, this was before anyone knew what “13 seconds” would mean.
“This is a really interesting scenario right here, Jim,” Romo said. No kidding.
Then after Burrow was banged up, it was Joe Mixon’s turn. Remember, it’s third down. It’s a tie game. There’s 1:46 left on the clock. Wouldn’t you try to score here? After all, fourth down could mean you kick a field goal with around 58 seconds remaining.
Mixon looked like he was trying to score, but he was stopped. And that’s when Taylor quickly calculated the fourth-down math; he’d have rather tried to go up seven (and risk failing) than to take the three, kick off and watch Mahomes gut them. Because he probably would have.
Taylor called timeout and sent the offense back on the field.
“The call of the year right here,” Nantz said.
The Bengals’ first attempt drained 8 seconds thanks to offsetting penalties that negated Burrow’s checkdown to Mixon. A weird but small stroke of luck for Cincinnati regarding the clock, although replay angles show Mixon possibly breaking the plane of the end zone.
But there was no turning back now, no veering off course. It was touchdown or bust.
And then more luck for the Bengals, this time far bigger: On their second attempt, the Chiefs were called for illegal use of hands, giving the Bengals a fresh set of downs.
It would be malpractice to ignore this fortune for the Bengals. That they were then able to drain the remainder of the clock — with backup QB Brandon Allen after Burrow got hurt — came down to the referee’s whistle, one of five flags that day against the Chiefs’ secondary, three of them in the fourth quarter (not even counting Charvarius Ward’s offsetting penalty a play earlier).
But we can’t overlook Taylor’s approach. He went for the carotid artery. Taylor knew that if Mahomes was getting the ball back, it was either going to be down seven points after a kickoff or in a tie game backed up 6 inches from his own goal line.
Brilliant stuff. Passive mixed with aggressive. Not letting the opponent strike back. Watching Mahomes pace on the sideline, it must have been similar to the feeling Josh Allen had on Sunday once the Chiefs won the overtime coin flip.
Even factoring in luck and circumstance, there’s also merit deserved for the cause and effect of the Bengals’ approach.
Chiefs won’t be surprised by Bengals’ approach this time around
By now, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid knows how opponents will play his team. If they were aggressive and unconventional prior to “13 seconds” because of Mahomes and the team’s firepower, they’re certainly not going to dial it back now.
The Bengals understand the mentality it requires to beat Kansas City. “They did the right thing,” Reid said of the Bengals’ end-game approach.
Reid must also know that his team played an uncharacteristically bad final 30-plus minutes at Cincinnati.
The Chiefs led by 14 points at three different junctures, despite working without both starting offensive tackles for all but six plays. They twice missed on chances for points in the final minute of the first half, including a kickoff-return TD negated by penalty, one of 10 Chiefs flags in the game. That’s the second-most penalties against a Reid-coached team since the Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay.
The Chiefs also scored only three points and gained 122 yards in the second half. K.C. allowed Burrow to hit Chase outside the numbers time and time again.
“Cincinnati did a heck of a job, but when you have the lead, you want to keep the lead,” Reid said Monday. “We stalled the first couple series on the offensive side and we had too many big plays on the defensive side.”
On the Chiefs’ final drive, which they surely couldn’t have assumed would be their last one, they were too passive and likely assumed Mahomes would have one final shot after that.
On the Chiefs’ final defensive stand, they lived and died by press-man coverage after Burrow diced them up earlier against soft zones. Burrow beat the two late blitzes and found Chase singled up outside.
“They made big plays on us on both sides of the ball,” Reid said. “They were able to slow us down and then pick it up on the offensive side. So we’ve got to do a better job all the way around, special teams included. Every phase can be better.”
Knowing that the Bengals’ urgency was more than justified well before the Chiefs beat the Bills the way they did, the Chiefs go into the rematch with clear eyes on the approach they need to beat Burrow and Taylor.
“They beat us,” Reid said. “It wasn’t a fluke.”
Reid said the team’s urgency immediately kicked up after beating the Bills on Sunday, knowing they have “to get busy” in the AFC championship game.
McPherson has been a rookie playoff hero, making all eight of his postseason FG tries — and the Bengals needing every single one. But in a perfect world for Cincinnati, he might seldom see the field Sunday. You’d imagine Taylor is taking only three points when he feels he must.
The Chiefs likely will adopt a similar mentality facing Burrow, who has already shown he’s capable of doing to them what Allen almost pulled off on Sunday. There’s also the matter of not wanting to leave the game in the officials’ hands, even if AFC championship crew chief Bill Vinovich is notoriously tight-whistled.
Are we in for another “last pass wins” game this weekend? If recent history is any indication, both teams will enter the AFC championship with that frame of mind.