It’s rare for opponents to be in position to put together a game-winning drive against the Kansas City Chiefs, but that’s just where the Cleveland Browns found themselves with two minutes left in Sunday’s divisional-round contest. The Chiefs led by five when they faced third-and-14 on their own 35-yard line. Usually in these situations, there’s little reason to be concerned about Kansas City, but star quarterback Patrick Mahomes had been ruled out of the game after entering the concussion protocol midway through the third quarter, and backup Chad Henne helmed the offense in a crucial spot. The Browns defense just needed a stop, but Henne ripped off an incredible scramble to set up fourth-and-inches before making a stunning short completion to receiver Tyreek Hill to convert the first down, sealing Kansas City’s 22-17 win and sending the reigning NFL champions to the AFC championship game.
Entering the game’s pivotal sequence, the Browns were down to one timeout. Logic suggests that the Chiefs would have run the ball, draining as much clock as possible in the event they didn’t pick up the first down and needed to punt back to Cleveland’s offense. But Kansas City lined up in a four-wide set, and Henne dropped back to throw. The 35-year-old Henne stepped up and rolled to his left, then darted into open space before he dove head-first toward the first-down marker.
A measurement ruled Henne’s scramble came just short, and the Chiefs appeared to be in position to punt with just 1:14 left. But, in the midst of a postseason underscored by conservative decisions haunting the coaches who’ve made them, Kansas City’s Andy Reid kept his offense on the field. Henne lined up in shotgun, with a three-receiver formation; Byron Pringle lined up tight to the left side of the formation, Hill lined up tight to the right, tight end Travis Kelce positioned himself in the slot, and Demarcus Robinson split out wide. Running back Darrel Williams stood to Henne’s right, and as the ball was snapped, Henne rolled out to the right, and Hill juked cornerback M.J. Stewart Jr. off the line by faking an inside move then sprinting out right, creating plenty of separation for Henne to complete a game-clinching 5-yard pass.
As CBS’s Tony Romo exclaimed over the broadcast: “Only Andy Reid gets in shotgun on fourth-and-an-inch and throws the ball with his backup quarterback! There’s no way! He shocked everybody!” And because of that confident-if-stupefying decision, Reid’s Chiefs are on the doorstep of reaching a second straight Super Bowl.
“There was no doubt,” Reid told reporters after the game on his decision to go for it. “No doubt.”
Perhaps Sunday’s ending felt more stunning because it never seemed that Kansas City would find itself in such an adrenaline-inducing scenario. The Chiefs offense looked sharp out of the gate, showing no signs of rust after two weeks on the shelf. They began the game with a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Mahomes touchdown run, then engineered a seven-play, 75-yard drive finished with an impressive 20-yard touchdown catch by Kelce. Kicker Harrison Butker nailed a 50-yard field goal late in the second quarter to give Kansas City a 16-3 lead. Mahomes looked a bit gimpy because of a toe injury, but it wasn’t enough to put the Chiefs offense out of sync.
The Browns showed some fight. Cleveland, which last week won its first playoff game since 1994, quickly drove into Chiefs territory and was set to pull within one possession just before the half. However, when quarterback Baker Mayfield connected with Rashard Higgins inside the 5-yard line, Higgins dove and stretched out for a touchdown, but was hit by Chiefs safety Dan Sorenson and fumbled the football through the end zone. The play was ruled a touchback, however replay showed that Sorensen made helmet-to-helmet contact with Higgins prior to the wideout spilling the ball—a fact that isn’t reviewable.
The second Sorensen makes — obviously illegal — helmet to helmet contact, Higgins completely loses control over the ball. Officiating shouldn’t be altering the outcome of games and seasons but it does every single week. pic.twitter.com/Tz1U3PK68k
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 17, 2021
The fumble essentially resulted in a 10-point swing for the Chiefs. It took nine plays before Mahomes guided Kansas City inside the Browns’ 10-yard line, setting up a 28-yard field goal from Butker to extend the Chiefs’ advantage to 19-3 going into halftime. “Honestly, I didn’t see the replay,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said of the play afterward. “I was told about it, but I’ll let the league handle those types of things.”
The Chiefs appeared in position to put the game away after safety Tyrann Mathieu picked off Mayfield on the third play of the second half, setting up Mahomes and Co. at Cleveland’s 19-yard line. But Butker missed a 33-yard field goal, and the Browns answered with their first touchdown drive of the game, pulling within 9 midway through the third quarter. Then disaster occurred for the Chiefs—facing third-and-short near midfield, Reid dialed up the same speed option call they’d scored on earlier. Except this time, Mahomes was tracked down and crunched by Cleveland’s Mack Wilson. He stumbled trying to stand up and left the game before being ruled out with a concussion.
Henne, the 2008 second-round pick who hadn’t seen meaningful snaps since the 2014 season, was abruptly pushed into the biggest game of his career Sunday. He helped set up a 33-yard Butker field goal to give the Chiefs a 22-10 lead, and after the Browns responded with a touchdown to pull within 5, Henne drove Kansas City into Cleveland territory. Then he heaved a pass into the end zone that was nowhere near his intended target and picked off by Browns safety Karl Joseph.
The Chiefs defense bailed out that mistake, forcing Cleveland to punt with four minutes left. That set up their offense with a chance to exhaust the rest of the clock, and led to the crucial sequence in which Henne redeemed himself and put the game on ice. Henne’s heroics weren’t expected, but on Sunday, he got the job done, much to Mahomes’s delight. The massive question hanging over the Chiefs going through next week will be whether or not Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, will be available to play after going through concussion protocols.
“He’s doing great right now, which is a real positive,” Reid said. “[He] passed all the deals that he needed to pass, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”
The Chiefs have been the NFL’s most dominant team this season in large part due to Mahomes’s magic behind center. With him in the lineup, Kansas City has been the attacker. On Sunday, Reid showed that even without him, that will remain the mentality. With Mahomes, that’s proven to be sustainable; without him, it came down to Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s schematic acumen and confidence. That was enough Sunday. Next week, the Chiefs will face a Bills offense capable of keeping up with Kansas City’s own high-octane offense, and having Mahomes in the fold will be all but necessary for them to continue their march toward capturing a second title. But regardless of whether Mahomes or Henne start next week, Kansas City’s win over the Browns showed that Reid won’t allow his opponent to dictate how the next chapter in his team’s story will go.