George Karlaftis knows how close the Kansas City’ Chiefs defense was to a third-and-11 stop that would’ve given the offense one more chance to rally Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
He felt it. Literally.
The rookie defensive lineman was a spy on Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow for that third-and-long play with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter, dropping back and waiting, waiting, waiting for the Bengals quarterback to throw it.
When Burrow did, Karlaftis tried to time it right. He leaped off the ground, raising both hands above his head.
And, as he tells you in front of his locker following Cincinnati’s 27-24 win Sunday, he honestly felt like he tipped it.
“A little bit,” Karlaftis said, “but I don’t know whether it was the air or the actual ball.”
That was the separation Sunday night between success and failure. Karlaftis could feel the velocity of Burrow’s 14-yard pass to Tee Higgins over the middle, yet was a finger-length — maybe less — from disrupting the play that secured the win for the Bengals before they ran out the clock.
More details in those six seconds also swung Cincinnati’s way at the most critical of moments.
And in the end, both teams left Paycor Stadium saying basically the same thing about the biggest fourth-quarter pass play from Sunday:
The Bengals won by having two players execute flawlessly at game point.
“If we had to call it again, we’d do the exact same call. We were very close on it,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “Football’s a game of inches.”
Here was the setup:
The Chiefs — following the two-minute warning — decided to go with man coverage with two safeties playing deeper. Safety Juan Thornhill was shaded toward No. 1 receiver Ja’Marr Chase, admitting he was attempting to “take away one side. He’s one of the key players. Take him out and make someone else make a play.”
That ended up being Higgins ... but not without pressure.
Chiefs defensive lineman Mike Danna beat the block across from him and brought heat immediately, allowing Burrow only 2.7 seconds to throw it according to Next Gen Stats. Rookie cornerback Joshua Williams — matched up on Higgins in man coverage — also was within two yards of Higgins every step past the line of scrimmage, with Higgins only gaining a half-yard of separation when he eventually made the snag over the middle.
“Our corner played really good technique. The receiver ran a great route, Burrow made a great throw, and Higgins made a great catch,” Thornhill said. “That’s all I can really say about that play.”
Burrow also said that defensive look — post-snap — gave him a lot to process. When asked if he was searching for the best one-on-one matchup, the Bengals quarterback admitted that he wasn’t exactly sure.
“There were a lot of people in the middle of the field,” Burrow said. “I just found a window for (Higgins).”
One that was so tight that even Bengals coach Zac Taylor wasn’t exactly sure how the pass got completed.
Because he had the two-minute warning to think about his play, Taylor said he changed his mind on what to run “probably three times.” In the end, he said he went for a simpler call while trusting his receivers to win an individual matchup.
Higgins came through, and right after the game, Taylor acknowledged he still didn’t know how Higgins held onto the football.
“I can’t wait to watch that clip on tape,” Taylor said, “and see how they won us that game.”
CBS TV cameras showed Williams frustrated with himself on the sideline after Higgins made the catch. Teammates afterward, though, said the rookie had no reason to be discouraged at himself.
That included Thornhill, who criticized Chiefs fans on Twitter after the game while asking them to be “(expletive) respectful here… we play our ass off each and every week for y’all and if a player give up a play or we lose a game y’all bash us. Come on now. We need people to lift us up not join the opposing team and drag us down.”
In the locker room, Thornhill said his message to Williams after the game would simply be to keep his head up.
“He played his ass off all game. You can’t ask for more for a rookie like that,” Thornhill said. “He stepped up, made the plays when he had to make a play.
‘And like I said, the (other) guys, they get paid just like we do. They get paid. They play in the NFL. They’re good receivers, and the guy made a great catch. So that’s all I can say about that.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid, when asked about rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Williams afterward, commented that both did a good job against Cincinnati.
“They competed. And they’re going to be better for that,” Andy Reid said. “This game right here — they’ll be better for it. They can learn from this. It’s very important that we do that as you know — as a team, and for those young guys.”
In the end, the Chiefs had chances on the third-and-11 to get off the field.
Tight coverage that wasn’t quite enough. A rusher who came within a step of a sack.
And a defensive lineman so close to a deflection that the football shook his hand as it went by.
“Great player. He played his butt off today. Great pocket awareness,” Karlaftis said of Burrow. “He’s one of the best.”