Bills’ touchback aided Chiefs’ comeback in playoff stunner

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A friendly suggestion if you count any Buffalo Bills fans among your friends and family.

Give them donuts or other comfort food today. Just don’t tell them they have 13 seconds to eat it.

The Bills — a smart, sharp team boasting the NFL’s top-ranked defense — somehow lost a playoff game Sunday night despite kicking off with a three-point lead and just 13 seconds on the clock.

Buffalo’s defense melted like a snowball in Gila Bend. The Chiefs flew down the field on two passes, far enough to kick a 49-yard field goal that sent the game into overtime.

Given the football by the coin flip, Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce hustled up a game-winning touchdown that advanced coach Andy Reid’s program to its fourth consecutive AFC title game, all in Kansas City.

Instead of returning to Buffalo to face the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bills packed up for the winter. They’d seemed capable of seizing the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy next month in the Kroenke Dome. Now, even with the prospect of quarterback Josh Allen, 25, leading them back to several more Super Bowl tournaments, the Bills will need time to regroup from Sunday’s stunning reversal.

At the risk of piling on, here’s an assertion Bills coaches may want to consider in addition to diving into film of the game-tying drive: The decision to kick the ball into the end zone, instead of forcing the Chiefs to field a kickoff with 13 seconds left, it was a mistake.

Admittedly, the touchback dangled a not-small reward: It couldn’t be returned for a long gain.

Starting from their 25, the Chiefs had to pick up some 35-40 yards just to try a field goal. Although Mahomes had three timeouts, the odds were stacked in Buffalo’s favor.

On the other hand, a highly lofted kick to between the 10 and the goal line or a squib kick would’ve forced the Chiefs to make a decision.

They could allow the ball to land if they believed it would go out of bounds — advancing them to their 40 if it did — or into the end zone. Regardless, none of the 13 seconds would elapsed.

They could make a fair catch, freezing the clock but also planting them there.

Or they could’ve run with it, raising the potential of a lengthy return.

Any return, however, would’ve started the clock. Chipping at those 13 seconds — in comparison to Mahomes having an extra play — seemed highly attractive.

It’s scary how fast today’s good NFL offenses can gobble up chunks of ground, if necessary. That threat prompted my column Sept. 27 about weaponizing the kickoff. Back then, two former San Diego Chargers — special teams coach Kevin Spencer and kicker Nick Novak — said it may make sense to kick fewer touchbacks. The 60-yard range of many NFL kickers today furthered that case.

It’s well and good to raise these questions, but Bills coaches know better than anyone else what their players can or can’t do.

Will the kicker avoid kicking the ball out of bounds if he’s trying to induce a return?

You: Yes, of course, I will. The field is 53 1/3 yards wide.

Me: Did you watch the Bucs-Rams game Sunday? The Bucs’ Bradley Pinion — who owns a Super Bowl ring won 12 months ago — kicked the ball out of bounds. Twice.

Only the Bills coaches know if they feared a long return by the Chiefs’ Byron Pringle, who stood near the goal line.

Pringle returned to kick 102 yards in 2020.

If the Bills had allowed him a big gain, the howls back in Buffalo would’ve been louder than Niagara Falls.

Pringle’s career average in 37 returns: 26.6 yards. In eight postseason returns: 25.6 yards.

“Buffalo definitely needed (to) squib that last kickoff in regulation and force KC to return it,” said Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy of NBC. “That would have given the Chiefs just one play.”

six things

  • Two gold stars go to Eric Weddle, who not only logged 61 snaps Sunday but also drew a good game grade from Pro Football Focus analysts after making four tackles (two assisted) and defending passes (and committing one nearly enormous penalty). Coinciding with Weddle’s return, prompted by injuries to both starting safeties in the Rams’ season finale, a more cohesive pass defense has shown up in playoff victories against Arizona and Tampa Bay.
  • In comparison to Weddle’s other playoff game opposite Brady—the 2007 AFC championship match—his team enjoyed better health and matchups. The 2007 Chargers were without Patriots nemesis LaDainian Tomlinson (knee) in that 21-12 defeat. Both Philip Rivers (torn ACL) and Antonio Gates (dislocated big toe) were severely reduced. (In fairness, Brady was limited by a back injury the Pats had understated). This time around, Weddle’s star teammates were healthy and productive, while Brady sorely missed RT Tristan Wirfs, whose dominant rookie year — in which he played every snap in the team’s 20 games — was a factor in Brady winning a seventh title.
  • The Rams getting WR Odell Beckham, Jr. for no draft picks or significant money represents one of the best in-season additions by any Super Bowl contender. The Rams, who lost valuable receiver Robert Woods one day after signing Beckham on Nov. 11, wouldn’t be headed to Sunday’s NFC title game without Beckham.
  • The Cleveland Browns are catching heat for not getting more production out of Beckham after acquiring him from the New York Giants in March 2019. Second-year coach Kevin Stefanski and QB Baker Mayfield deserve some criticism, but keep in mind Beckham had reconstructive knee surgery during the 2020 season and that it often takes more than a full year for a player to return to consistent peak form. Also, the Rams are more talented at QB (Matthew Stafford) and WR (Cooper Kupp). Kupp commands double teams, benefiting Beckham, who has six TD catches in 10 games with LA
  • Thriving in cold Green Bay, the “San Diego Niners” drew a big game Saturday from 2020 All-Pro LB Fred Warner (San Marcos Mission Hills) and another solid outing from RG Daniel Brunskill (Valley Center and San Diego State). Signal-caller Warner, playing six days after an ankle injury sidelined him for the final seven minutes of the victory at Dallas, played all 56 snaps. He had three tackles, forced a fumble and was crisp in pass defense. Brunskill took part in all 54 offensive snaps and ably protected QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Once again, a roster assembled by coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch (Torrey Pines) showed reliable depth. Nine linemen had at least 11 snaps for a defense that held Aaron Rodgers to 169 passing yards in the 13-10 victory. A blocked punt by long-armed backup DE Jordan Willis, claimed off waivers from the Jets two years ago, created a tying TD in the final minutes.
  • WR Keenan Allen made a salient point on social media, in response to critics of the NFL rule that a touchdown on the first possession of overtime decides the game. Allen’s post: “FYI…these OT games are not decided by a coin toss! Defense wins championships…don’t ever forget it!” Allen was seventh in the NFL this season with a team-high 106 receptions for a Chargers offense that placed fifth in scoring. But with a defense that finished 29th in points and last in both third-down success and fourth-quarter points, Team Spanos fell short of the playoffs.