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The moment the football reached Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis in the end zone, a celebration erupted on the visiting sideline inside Arrowhead Stadium, countering a stillness that had engulfed the majority of its spectators.
Buffalo had taken a three-point lead against the Chiefs in last Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round playoff game, leaving quarterback Patrick Mahomes with just 13 seconds to answer.
Seated in Section 122 at the stadium, Ben Miles turned to his younger brother, Marcus, and interrupted the silence.
“This is gonna be a long ride home,” he said.
The two youngest Miles brothers had traveled to Kansas City from Des Moines, just shy of a three-hour drive, earlier that morning, and sat in their father’s seats.
For more than 40 years, their dad had used one of his two season tickets for himself, but a cancer diagnosis last summer has made walking stairs difficult, so he watches from his living room in Iowa now. He asked his sons to buy into the season package this year for the first time. Wanted to keep the tickets in the family.
On Sunday night, standing in front of a seat usually reserved for his dad, Marcus turned back to his older brother.
“We’re staying until the end,” Marcus said, and Ben recalls the way it felt as though Marcus just knew what awaited.
Like an improbable comeback.
One of the NFL’s best all-time postseason games.
And Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs were offered a 9% chance to win at one point. Mahomes was offered 13 seconds.
He completed one pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill for 19 yards. And then another to tight end Travis Kelce for 25 more. And just like that, with three seconds to spare, Harrison Butker was kicking a game-tying 49-yard field goal.
The Chiefs would win in overtime, inevitably scoring on their first possession, to earn a spot in their fourth straight AFC Championship Game.
All set up by 13 seconds that will live forever in Chiefs history — held higher if the next two games unfold as some think they might.
The Chiefs’ players, coaches, fans — heck, anyone involved in Sunday’s thrilling finish — absorbed the peaks and valleys of sports in a 13-second snapshot. This is the perspective of them all. From their anguish to their exhilaration.
In 13 seconds, Arrowhead Stadium broke from a funeral and turned into the party those lucky enough to say they were there will never forget. Ben and Marcus Miles high-fived each other, shouted as loud as they can remember shouting and hugged complete strangers in the stands. After walking back to their car in the stadium lot, Ben left the vehicle in park as he pulled out his phone.
There was someone he needed to call.
“Usually a call with him lasts about two minutes,” Ben said, “But no one wanted to hang up the phone.”
The final drive of regulation started with the Chiefs at their own 25-yard-line, taking the field to a hushed and nervous crowd, needing to gain about 40 yards to give Butker a shot.
They had 13 seconds to do it. Have we mentioned that?
Inside the stadium, most would later admit they thought the game was over. The Chiefs were done. Jeff Carlson, a 41-year-old fan, began digging into NFL Draft prospects.
But Chiefs players swear that feeling never trickled onto the field. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire would later laugh in recalling how he knew the Bills gave Mahomes too much time. They have video evidence of their conviction.
Before that final drive, tight end Travis Kelce began crafting a game plan. A solution. On the sideline as they waited on the kickoff to sail through the end zone, Kelce sought out teammate Tyreek Hill.
“Hey, 10, they might man you up,” Kelce said. “I’m saying go outside and come back in, like you’re running a route outside. That way when you come back in, I can get in the way.”
Tucked into his left sleeve, Mahomes wore a device called WHOOP that tracked his heart rate during the game. For the final 28 minutes in real time, his average heart rate remained above 144 beats per minute. It spiked as he stood on the sideline, watching the Bills’ go-ahead touchdown drive.
But as he approached the huddle with 13 seconds left, shortly after Kelce’s conversation with Hill, his heart calmed. Mahomes felt less anxious with the ball in his hands than he did with it out of his control.
In his mind, he recalled previous games in his career. He’d successfully led the Chiefs to a field goal in similar circumstances against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game three years earlier.
“When it’s grim,” coach Andy Reid said of the situation confronting Mahomes, “go be the Grim Reaper.
“He just does that effortlessly.”
Mahomes began this huddle like any other drive.
Let’s do it. Let’s finish the game the right way.
“He’s locked in and focused on the thing at hand. Once he comes in the huddle, he’s demanding the attention,” wide receiver Mecole Hardman said. “He’s demanding the respect and letting you know that it’s not over until the clock hits zero. Once he comes in there with that persona and that demeanor, it makes you straighten up a little bit.
“You know what? If he’s in, we’re in it, too.”
West Wilson felt a light tap on his shoulder, and there was his father leaning in for a quick hug.
“Love you,” he said.
And then, gone.
With only 13 seconds left, figuring the outcome was determined, Wilson’s father walked up the concrete stairs and exited the stadium. Wilson had traveled in from New York City on a quick turnaround, but his dad couldn’t bear to soak up the numbing setting that Arrowhead Stadium becomes after a playoff loss. He’s seen it one too many times.
He wasn’t the only one.
Across the stands, 26-year-old Brandon Winfield left behind a group of seven high school buddies. The game was over, he told them, and in a flash, he made it through the exit gate.
The crowd’s booming roar told him he’d made an enormous mistake. A rule prohibits re-entry once a fan has exited the stadium, so Winfield considered bum-rushing the security manning the gates — seriously, he says now. Instead, he decided, “Why turn one mistake into two?”
“But now you’re standing there outside the gate, in cold weather, remember, (and) the place is going nuts,” Winfield said. “And almost immediately you’re thinking, What the hell did I just do?”
On Friday afternoons, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy runs a weekly meeting outlining late-game situations.
It’s detailed, purposeful, repetitive and, well ...
“Those meetings are boring,” wide receiver Tyreek Hill said.
That too. The Chiefs’ offense runs through the gamut of late-and-close possibilities. Assistant coach Joe Bleymaier will sometimes supplement the meetings with two-minute video explanations. When to use timeouts, when to fall to the ground to save time rather than fighting for extra yards, when to get rid of the ball quickly versus letting a route develop. And on and on and on.
How exactly did the Chiefs execute those final 13 seconds so flawlessly? They’ve executed those situations all year, behind closed doors.
In boring meetings.
“It’s like a baby. You gotta change a baby’s diaper every day. It’s the type of thing (where you say), ‘Man, I’m tired of doing this. Can they get older and be potty-trained?’” Hardman said in explaining those meetings. “E.B. does it because he knows those situations are eventually going to come up. I think he hammered it on us so much it’s second nature to us.”
The Chiefs gained 19 yards on the first snap of the drive, and the seemingly impossible became perhaps only improbable. Some 75,000 fans signaled for a timeout, offering help to a sideline that had figured that part out already. Kelce was right, by the way. The Bills left Hill open on the first play, and after Hill caught Mahomes’ pass, he used Kelce as a blocker.
OK, maybe it’s not over yet. After the play, the Chiefs’ chances of winning the game improved to 9%, per ESPN’s win-probability model.
After sulking in his stadium seat, Jason Kelley stood up to watch the finish.
During an ensuing timeout, Kelce had one more thought. He noticed the Bills were positioned to defend the sidelines, abandoning the middle of the field, even though the Chiefs were flush with timeouts.
“Hey, hey,” he said to Mahomes during the break. “(If) they play it like that, that seam is open.”
Back to the snap.
Kelce lined up to Mahomes’ left, in the slot. They each spotted the same thing — the Bills looked as though they would play soft coverage, taking away the sideline but allowing space over the seam.
“Do it, Kels!” Mahomes shouted. “Do it. Do it, Kels!”
Ryan Cook sat with his 10-year-old son, Weston, in the lower bowl of Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. They happened to be surrounded by Bills fans.
When Davis scored his fourth touchdown of the game to give the Bills a 36-33 lead with 13 seconds left, several nearby fans were FaceTiming their families back in Buffalo, overjoyed at the outcome. Cook overheard one conversation about securing tickets to the AFC Championship Game between the Bills and the Bengals.
He couldn’t blame them.
His 10-year-old son knew better. Weston asked his dad to look at Mahomes on the sideline.
“He’s never nervous,” Weston said.
Ryan Cook grew up with the Chiefs. The 25 years of playoff heartbreak. He’s among a generation of fans who trained themselves to expect the worst.
Weston is of a different generation.
A generation that has experienced a Super Bowl title and back-to-back appearances in the final game.
A generation of Mahomes.
“My son had more trust in Mahomes and the Chiefs in the last 13 seconds than I did — that’s for sure,” Ryan said. “He looks up to Mahomes as a superhero. And after that game, I would have to agree.”
In an honest moment, kicker Harrison Butker will acknowledge he thought what most of you thought:
The Chiefs were likely going home early.
But just in case, after the Bills produced the go-ahead touchdown, Butker walked over to the kicking net on the Chiefs’ sideline and got to work. He had punter Tommy Townsend hold a couple of practice kicks. Behind him, long-snapper James Winchester twirled a ball into the net.
Kelce was right again, by the way. On the second play of the drive, the Bills defended the sideline, leaving his seam route open. Mahomes found him quickly. The play went for 25 yards.
The Chiefs were in field-goal range.
Butker jogged onto the field. Best he could, he ignored the magnitude of the kick — that if he missed, the season would be done — and focused instead on what he calls his mental cues. Basically, as he does before other attempts, he considered all the reasons he’s missed a kick in the past, including one from a similar spot on the field earlier that night.
It’s an exercise in what not to do.
“When they go up by three with 13 seconds, I can’t dwell that our season’s over. Those are not good thoughts to have,” Butker said. “But as humans, most people, at least I have those thoughts. It’s about how quickly you can get those out of your head and focus on your execution, focus on what you can control. For me, that’s getting to the net, getting ready mentally and physically to go out there and do what I need to do.”
In Section 302 of the upper deck at Arrowhead Stadium, Matthew Schmidli removed his iPhone from his pocket and began deleting a few apps.
His favorite sports podcast? Gone.
The app he uses to check scores every day? Deleted.
And then he texted a few friends.
“Don’t text me,” he wrote. “I need to detox from this.”
Schmidli, an assistant professor at Rockhurst University, attended the game with his wife, Kelly, who is 26 weeks pregnant and joked that its conclusion sent her into labor.
“If she was further along,” Schmidli said, “that might’ve been accurate.”
In a personal twist, Schmidl actually thought the Chiefs trailed by four points, not three, after the Bills scored what would be their final touchdown. He’d read the scoreboard incorrectly. He watched in confusion as the Chiefs’ field-goal unit trotted onto the field after a couple of completions, a clue to his error. But even when he realized the margin was actually three, he couldn’t stand to watch the game-tying kick.
“I was in the fetal position in my chair the entire drive,” he said.
His wife patted him on the back. Then, through deafening crowd noise, she yelled into his ear.
We’re going to overtime!
From his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama, Matt Kilpatrick had already explained to his three sons that postseason heartache is part of being a Chiefs fan. He even felt it might be a good time tell the Lin Elliott story.
Then, 13 seconds.
His oldest son booted a football through their home’s front picture window in celebration. The dog chased after it, getting loose in the front yard.
From inside a bar he owns called Casey’s in Buffalo, New York, Vincent Garofalo swears he felt the place shaking. The only Chiefs-backers’ bar in the city had welcomed a split crowd for the game. “We cried,” he said. “Both Chiefs fans and Bills fans.”
From their Kansas City home, Nathan Byrd told his wife the game was over and left to fill up his car with a tank of gas. He returned in time for one play — Kelce’s game-winning touchdown in overtime. “To say I was stunned,” he said, “would be a complete understatement.”
From Dublin, Ireland, Fionn O’Sullivan had been relegated to the basement to watch his beloved Chiefs. His parents worried he might be too loud for a game that ended after 2 a.m. They were wrong. He sat too shocked to speak.
From her home in Kansas City, Taryn Hodison watched with her wife. She’d spent the week thinking the Chiefs might lose and even talked to her therapist about how to prepare for it. They used a technique called “coping ahead.”
Perhaps aided by Patrick Mahomes.
At the onset of these playoffs, Mahomes talked to offensive lineman Mike Remmers about a particular postseason game in which Remmers had played: the Minneapolis Miracle, when the Vikings scored a 61-yard walk-off touchdown as time expired.
Mahomes wanted that feeling. Wanted to experience that kind of response from a home crowd.
And then he gave it to them.
Gave it to himself.
With 62 seconds left, he led a go-ahead touchdown drive, hitting Hill over the middle.
With 13 seconds left, he’d led the game-tying field goal drive.
In overtime, he marched the Chiefs 75 yards on their initial possession for the game-winner, an 8-yard pass to Kelce.
For the walk-off he sought.
“I’ll remember this game for the rest of my life,” Mahomes said.
His heart rate for the game-winner: 169 beats per minute.
Outside the stadium, realizing he had no way of watching that ending, Brandon Winfield joined a group of about a dozen others at a nearby tailgate. They, too, had left early, figuring the outcome was decided, and were now relegated to watching on a small TV.
“It’s the best game I’ve ever been to,” Winfield, 26, said. “And I watched the ending on a 19-inch TV screen in the parking lot with a bunch of morons.
“And to be clear, when I say morons: I’m one of the morons.”
Inside the stadium, from his lower-level seat in Arrowhead’s northwest corner, West Wilson pulled out his phone to document the final play of overtime. His dad had long since left by then, and he thought he might want to see the view and pretend he was there. Kelce secured the game-winning touchdown catch a mere 40 feet below him.
The place turned to chaos. A fever pitch overwhelmed the stadium. Fans jumped up and down in front of their seats and embraced strangers who stood next to them.
At one point, someone got Wilson’s attention.
Where’s your dad? they asked.
“He left early,” Wilson responded.
Ten minutes later, Wilson popped open his family’s group text.
“Guess who left early,” he typed.
“Classic,” his mom replied.
After a couple of minutes, Wilson received a picture in response.
A selfie from his father.
There he was, standing in the parking lot, Arrowhead Stadium in the background. A cloud of smoke hovered over the top deck, remnants of fireworks celebrating the best game the venue has housed.