KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whatever could go wrong for the Cincinnati Bengals in the final minute of the AFC championship game, did go wrong.
Joe Burrow was flagged for intentional grounding. A few snaps later, he was sacked. The punt coverage broke down and allowed a 29-yard return. A hobbled quarterback, Patrick Mahomes escaped from the pocket on third down and ran for a first down.
Then came the penalty. After Mahomes ran out of bounds at the Cincinnati 42-yard line, Bengals linebacker Joseph Ossai delivered a late hit that drew a 15-yard flag, setting up Harrison Butker’s 45-yard field goal with three seconds left.
It was the worst mistake at the worst time.
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“You just can’t have it,” Bengals cornerback Eli Apple told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s crucial. Crucial. Of course, the field position ... tack on 15 yards. It wasn’t just that play. It was a lot of other plays. You don’t want to put it all on him. But obviously, that’s something you can’t do.”
No, the Bengals were not only defeated by Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in coming up short in their bid to repeat as AFC champs, they were also beaten by Murphy’s Law.
The Bengals (12-5) had their 10-game winning streak snapped and lost to the Chiefs for the first time in four games over a 13-month span.
The final penalty was so significant on a chilly night at Arrowhead Stadium when stiff winds limited range and accuracy. If the Chiefs didn’t gain another yard after Mahomes’ 5-yard scamper, they would have faced a 60-yard field goal attempt.
Butker told USA TODAY Sports that his range at the west end of the stadium was 53 to 55 yards.
After tying the game early in the fourth quarter with a 2-yard Samaje Perine TD run that was set up by a 46-yard completion from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase on a gutsy fourth-and-6 call, the Bengals hurt their own cause with several penalties in crunch time. Cincinnati committed five of its nine penalties (71) in the fourth quarter. Kansas City was flagged four times for 55 yards.
The Chiefs (15-3) also caught a break early in the fourth quarter when a third-and-9 play that ended with Travis Kelce stopped way short of converting for a first down, was replayed after referee Ronald Torbert announced that the play had been whistled dead to sync the clock and play-clock. It was a weird sequence. The Chiefs had their punt team on the field when Torbert made the announcement. When the offense returned, Mahomes was sacked ... but a holding penalty on Apple extended the drive.
Controversy was avoided after the Chiefs were ultimately forced to punt. But the unusual sequence raised the question of whether the Bengals were undone by the breaks.
When Chase was asked whether Cincinnati received a fair shake, he replied, “Not really. I think we had three 3rd-and-9s, three in a row, actually.”
Added Apple: “They beat us, fair and square. That’s a great team over there, no matter what the officials do. It’s going to be like that every year; there’s always going to be bad calls. At the end of the day, they fought hard. And they won.”