NFL

Bills-Chiefs finish evolution of 2-minute drill trend

Patrick Mahomes took over with 1:54 to go, with 75 yards to march and a three-point deficit to erase against the Buffalo Bills, and in the NFL of yore, this would’ve been it. One drive. One two-minute drill. One opportunity to add to his legend.

It was the type of moment on which NFL history has been built, and NFL history told us it would be singular. A superstar quarterback with fate in his hands would either succeed or fail. Mahomes would either extend his season, perhaps to OT, perhaps to the AFC title game; or he’d fall short and go home. That, for decades, was the binary that made playoff football so enthralling.

On Sunday, over seven of the wildest hours in recent memory, four great QBs buried it in the past, and replaced it with something even better.

Mahomes, Josh Allen, Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady engineered six scores in the final two minutes of regulation. On a single day, two divisional-round games produced 35 points after the two-minute warning, before overtime. Mahomes masterminded six more in OT to cap an improbable sequence of twists and turns that seemed, in the moment, as if it may never be equaled.

Or, perhaps, he christened a new NFL era, in which the improbable is more probable and liable to thrill than ever before.

NFL teams spent most of the past two decades scoring on less than 20 percent of drives that began inside two minutes with the offense trailing by one possession or tied. In 2021, they’ve succeeded on over 30 percent of those drives, according to Stathead Football data. The past two seasons have delivered the two highest success rates on record.

Data source: Stathead Football | Graph: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports

In other words, comebacks that once were rare are now significantly less so. And although Bills-Chiefs was a delirious outlier — the two teams combined to score 25 points in the final two minutes — it also foretold of back-and-forth drama to come.

Because it wasn’t an accident. The trend isn’t mysterious. It’s a product of football’s long-term evolution.

The primary explanation for it is the passing boom that has defined the past decade. Offenses, propelled by innovative schemes and multi-dimensional gunslingers, and enabled by NFL offensive-friendly rule changes, are more efficient than ever. That’s especially true through the air, which is how the two-minute drill forces them to operate. Over 85 percent of offensive plays in the above data set were passes, compared with less than 60 percent throughout the course of a game. Late-game comeback drives magnify passing proficiency.

Quarterbacks such as Allen and Mahomes are also increasingly comfortable in the two-minute drill because it’s nowhere near as significant a departure from their normal modes of operation as it was for their predecessors. 

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) is congratulated by offensive tackle Daryl Williams (75) and guard Ryan Bates (71) after throwing a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

Josh Allen and the Bills came up painfully short Sunday. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

But there’s likely something deeper here. For years, the defensive playbook in the two-minute drill relied on something bordering “prevent.” Defenses concede the middle of the field and underneath routes. They rarely blitz, for fear of getting beat over the top. And that’s precisely the type of scheme that, over the past two years, offenses have grown accustomed to picking apart.

More and more, defenses are dropping two deep safeties, whether in the fourth quarter or the first. Quarterbacks have responded by throwing downfield less and less. They’ve become expert dink-and-dunkers capable of ripping soft defenses to shreds. That just so happens to be what they often see late in games.

The Bills erred in the most extreme version of this situation on Sunday. After Allen’s second touchdown inside two minutes, up three with 13 seconds to go, the Bills put zero defensive backs or linebackers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Mahomes took advantage, dumping a pass underneath to Tyreek Hill for 19 yards that took just five seconds off the clock. Travis Kelce then darted up the seam for 25 more using just five more seconds. The Chiefs waltzed into field-goal range with little resistance, and set up Harrison Butker for the game-tying kick. 

Allen, who led two comebacks within two minutes, never saw the ball again, and won’t until September, because Mahomes and the league around him have recalibrated improbability.


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