Before the blocked field goal, and before the Titans marched 61 yards down field in 58 seconds for a touchdown, and even before the botched snap on the first kick gone awry, the Chiefs had a chance to cement a win Sunday in Nashville. A chance to line up in victory formation. A chance to prevent all of those final sequences from ever taking place.
The requirement: a single first down.
The situation: third down. Two yards to go.
The Chiefs called for a screen pass to tight end Blake Bell, who is rarely used in their passing game. Bell has just three catches for 10 yards in 10 games this season.
The play didn't work. Bell was covered. Patrick Mahomes was sacked. The Chiefs settled for a field goal attempt that never came, thanks to a snap that came too early.
So, failed play or failed play call?
"I hope Coach doesn't get any criticisms for play-calling there," right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said.
Well, too late for that.
Couldn't the Chiefs have just run the ball? Well, yes. It even worked on the previous two snaps. Couldn't they have let Mahomes, their best player, simply drop back and try to make something happen? Yes, that, too. Either might have worked. Smart football minds and writers can -- and have --stated that case.
But Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has made a living operating in the element of surprise, both in play design and the timing of his calls. And never more so than in these situations. Patrick Mahomes converted the third most third-and-short situations in the NFL in 2018, and the only two players who converted more had more attempts. Even before the Bell target Sunday, Mahomes was 6 for 8 this season when dropping back on third down with fewer than three yards to go, a percentage that ranked fifth in the league. The Chiefs have been quite good in these spots.
On Sunday, it doesn't represent a reach down the play sheet to target Bell. That was by design. To take the Titans by surprise. It's unquestionably a risk, though, essentially banking on the defense being out of position.
Let's delve into the potential logic behind it:
1) History. It's worked before. Even earlier in the same game. On fourth down, after initially sending out the punt team, the Chiefs called a play that provided Mahomes one clear option with which to throw the ball. Tyreek Hill? No. Travis Kelce? Nope. It was running back Damien Williams. Ten yards. First down.
But no situations are identical, of course, and late clock-killing circumstances can sometimes be the oranges in the analogy. Trace back to seven weeks ago, and the Chiefs found themselves in a more similar spot, needing a first down to seal a win against the Baltimore Ravens.
They called a screen pass to Darrel Williams, who has just 12 catches in 10 games. This time, the element of surprise proved effective. Williams rumbled past the first-down marker, and that was that. Nobody said boo ... because of the end result.
The Chiefs didn't target Hill or Kelce there. It wasn't Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson or Mecole Hardman, either. They gave Mahomes one option to throw the ball. And Williams was open that time.
2) In late-game, clock-killing conditions, defenses sell out to stop the run. Baltimore did, even though that play came on third-and-9. On Sunday, the Chiefs gained eight yards on the initial two running plays. On the one hand, that's an argument for sticking with it. On the other, the optics suggest the Titans thought the same. They lined up 10 men within four yards of the line of scrimmage. Pressed the Chiefs' receivers.
Hence the screen, a call designed to beat defenders overzealously attacking the line. Two of the three Tennessee linebackers darted toward the halfback immediately after the snap.
"I think he thought they were probably in cover-zero or something similar," Schwartz said. "We were at the line of scrimmage and everyone was in the box. Typically, in those situations, you get one guy blocked, and the guy's wide open. It's something that's execution, obviously."
One problem here. Two of three Titans linebackers fell for the fake. The third did not. Rashaan Evans stayed home. Never budged at the misdirection. So when Mahomes looked toward Bell, he had nowhere to go with the football.
"They covered it well," Mahomes said. "We were trying to hit (Bell), let him get up the field and get the first down and essentially win the game there."
Bell wasn't open. That was part of the risk.
But a calculated one.