Sean McDermott plays it safe with with field goals against touchdown-happy Chiefs

Jason Owens
·4 min read

If you’re trying to beat Patrick Mahomes, settling for field goals isn’t the best strategy.

But it’s a tack the Buffalo Bills took repeatedly in Sunday’s AFC championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Bills twice faced fourth-and-short inside the 10-yard line with a chance to cut a two-score deficit to one with a touchdown. They twice kicked gimme field goals instead.

Bills play it safe before halftime

The first opportunity arrived at the end of the first half. With Kansas City leading 21-9, the Bills ripped off a 73-yard drive that advanced to the Kansas City 2-yard line. There they faced fourth-and-goal with 13 seconds remaining before halftime.

Head coach Sean McDermott faced a choice.

Play it safe and get almost guaranteed points? Or go for it with his potent Josh Allen-led offense with the upside of cutting the Kanas City lead to five points?

He played it safe. Tyler Bass kicked a 20-yard field goal, and the Bills went into halftime trailing 21-12.

Sean McDermott took the conservative route in Buffalo's biggest game of the season.(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Sean McDermott took the conservative route in Buffalo's biggest game of the season.(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Buffalo found itself in a similar situation in the third quarter. This time, a 67-yard drive stalled at the Kansas City 8-yard line, where Buffalo faced fourth-and-3. Like the previous situation, they trailed by 12 points, this time at 24-12.

Like the previous situation, McDermott played it safe. Instead of giving his Pro Bowl quarterback a chance to make a play, the Bills coach sent Bass out to kick a 27-yard field goal. Bass converted. The Bills still trailed by two scores, 24-15.

You don’t beat the Chiefs with field goals

This time, the Chiefs almost immediately made them pay. On their second play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, Mahomes connected with Tyreek Hill on a 71-yard catch-and-run that led to a Travis Kelce touchdown catch three plays later. Kansas City led 31-15 late in the third quarter of the AFC championship game.

This is what the Chiefs do. They have the most explosive offense in football. They won’t be beaten by field goals.

The age of analytics has led to a reduction in NFL coaches playing scared. Whereas unstable job security has historically led to a scourge of sure-thing field goals even though gambling for a touchdown was the better decision, coaches in 2021 can point to data that backs up rolling the dice in certain situations.

Analytics said go for it

In the case of Buffalo’s red-zone field goals, the data said go for it both times.

LaFleur played it safe and lost too

But with the stakes at their highest, McDermott ignored the seemingly obvious decision to give his team its best chance to win in the name of playing it safe. Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur made same mistake in Sunday’s NFC championship loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bills were likely losing to the Chiefs on Sunday regardless of McDermott’s field goal decisions. They were outmatched. That doesn’t change the fact that those decisions hurt Buffalo’s chance to win.

McDermott admitted as much while talking with reporters after the game.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd probably go for one of them."

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