It’s unusual for the Kansas City Chiefs to say that special teams played the key difference in a win. But their 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals was propelled by a Skyy Moore 29-yard return and a game-winning field goal from Harrison Butker.
There were other incredible storylines, from Patrick Mahomes’ clearly still-injured ankle preventing him from making his best plays to the Bengals figuring out how to slow down and even stall the same Chiefs offense that put up 44 points against the league-leading San Francisco 49ers defense.
Injuries played their own role, and there’s going to be a lot of workshopping the Bengals will need to do in the offseason to come back as even more serious contenders for the AFC crown, but the back-and-forth, sometimes exciting and sometimes stultifying, was broken in the final moments by the most unpredictable type of play in the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs Special Teams Had Their Redemption
While officiating controversies will tamp down the gutsiness of the Chiefs’ performance, it’s fair to say that the Chiefs demonstrated the kind of team they can be when the chips are down.
Moore entered the game ranked last in the NFL in yards per punt return, with three fumbles and three muffed punts – leading the NFL in total muffed punts and muffed punts per return attempt. Butker entered the game ranked 31st in field goal percentage, an artifact of an injury-shortened season and uneasy return to the lineup.
In a titanic clash between two of the most exciting offenses and dynamic defenses in the NFL, those two – and the special teams unit overall – turned out to be the difference.
The Chiefs ranked last in the NFL in expected points gained from special teams, a product of a number of miscues that resulted in poor punt returns, bad kickoff returns, poor kickoff coverage, and the occasional blunder when they themselves punted the ball. They couldn’t make their kicks, and they were better off going for it on fourth down.
Andy Reid further exacerbated this problem with some baffling calls late in games, including a decision to punt on a short field with just over two minutes left in a tied game in makeable field goal distance – one that nearly gave the Bengals a win.
Butker made all five of his kicks, turning in an 11-point performance. Punter Tommy Townsend put three of his four punts inside the 20 without a touchback, and the coverage units didn’t allow any gigantic returns that put them in harm’s way.
These redemptive moments from the special teams unit, especially Moore, mirror the redemption the Chiefs must feel after finally putting away a Cincinnati Bengals team that had their number — so much so, that Bengals players and fans started calling Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs and one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL, Burrowhead Stadium.
In the War of Attrition, the Kansas City Chiefs Came Out on Top
The only reason Moore had a chance to return any punts at all was because of an injury to Kadarius Toney, the first-round pick for the Giants that the Chiefs traded for, in part because of New York’s frustration with his injuries. Toney wasn’t the only receiver injury the Chiefs had to overcome.
Mecole Hardman and JuJu Smith-Schuster were both also injured over the course of the game. In addition to Justin Watson, who was inactive due to injury, that accounts for 22.5 percent of the receiving yards that the Chiefs had generated this year and 38.1 percent of the receiving yards they had generated since the trade for Toney in Week 9.
It was a depleted receiving corps, one that had to lean on Marquez Valdes-Scantling more than any other wide receiver, supplementing their true top receiving threat Travis Kelce with tight end Noah Gray along with receivers Valdes-Scantling, Moore, and Marcus Kemp.
On top of that, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and nickel corner L’Jarius Sneed were injured during the game, and that forced backup rookie cornerback Joshua Williams into the game – the same corner the Bengals targeted six times for 77 yards in their Week 13 matchup.
Were it not for the incredible performances of rookies Bryan Cook, Jaylen Watson, and Trent McDuffie, Cincinnati may have been able to torch Williams for much more.
But, as the Bengals’ offensive line showed, multiple injuries to the same unit are the biggest issue. The Bengals would claim no sympathy for the Chiefs’ injury woes, forced to play three linemen that they didn’t intend to start the season with, as right tackle La’el Collins had hit injured reserve and both right tackle Jonah Williams and right guard Alex Cappa were too hurt to play.
That thrust Hakeem Adeniji, Max Scharping, and Jackson Carman into the starting lineup against a pair of high-level performers in Chris Jones and Frank Clark, who has more playoff sacks than anyone not named Bruce Smith or Willie McGinest. He surpassed Reggie White and Terrell Suggs in this game.
It’s a testament to Joe Burrow that he was able to keep the game close despite these problems, even as he took 5 sacks to do it.
In fact, he didn’t take any sacks in the second half – until there were 41 seconds left in the game. That allowed Moore to make the final, meaningful, big play.
Patrick Mahomes Plays Outlandishly Well While Injured
There are some completely healthy games that Mahomes has played that inspire more awe and wonder than this one, played on one healthy ankle without much mobility. But it’s difficult to find examples of quarterbacks playing brilliantly regardless of circumstance.
Mahomes was clearly limited to in-pocket play, but that’s not as big an issue as people might seem to think. While Mahomes’ most magical plays seem to come on impossible scrambles with ridiculous arm angles and cartoonishly small windows, the reason Mahomes is the top quarterback in the NFL is because he’s the best quarterback in the NFL inside the structure of the play.
Even when static in the pocket, Mahomes knows how to improvise and how to throw a receiver open into a route that they had never run before and wasn’t in the playbook. His sense of the field – knowledge of where every receiver, defender and blade of grass is on the football field – is why he’s a great on-the-move player. But it translates perfectly to what he does in the pocket, and it’s a big part of the reason why the Chiefs won.
Of course, the final play wasn’t that. It was classic Mahomes magic, scrambling on a dwindling clock without any timeouts. On an injured ankle that he was limping on all game, one that prevented him from moving in the pocket or scrambling for more yards, Mahomes moved the ball into field goal range without any open receivers while still finding a way to stop the clock without any time outs.
A penalty on Joseph Ossai added another 15 yards, which perhaps reinforces the plot armor Mahomes has built up for himself, but the ability to reserve the most dangerous plays for the most important moments – to endure extraordinary pain for a few more yards, knowing how much they matter – that adds to the Mahomes legend as much as any no-look pass.
Mahomes finished with a passer rating of 105.4, throwing for 7.6 yards per attempt on 43 attempts, with two touchdowns and no interceptions – that last one perhaps more luck than skill. But his throws and decisive scramble matter more than just the yards on the field. They moved the chains more consistently than even most Chiefs’ offenses do. That’s why he finished with 0.070 EPA per play, the fourth-most of any opponent against the Bengals this year.
There’s not much about Mahomes that makes him an incomplete quarterback. The defense that had done perhaps the most to solve him over the years came up short. Mahomes isn’t the best quarterback in the NFL because he has the strongest arm, the best accuracy, or the most functional athleticism.
It’s because the job of the defense is to create problems for quarterbacks to solve, ideally multiple problems at once. The issue is that there is seemingly no problem Mahomes can’t solve.