Some teammates surrounded Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, four of them in all, but they could do nothing to tame the response.
We haven’t seen anything quite like what unfolded in the waning seconds of the Buffalo Bills’ 20-17 win against the Chiefs, and I’m not referencing the flag, though I’ll get to that.
This is about the reaction. That’s going to be the gist of this column, because it’s more telling than whether a yellow cloth should or should not have departed a referee’s front hip pocket.
Mahomes lost it on every official within earshot or eyesight, trying to break through 300-pound men to make sure he was heard and seen. Moments later, as part of his post-game exchange with Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Mahomes couldn’t help but remark it was the “worst (bleeping) call I’ve ever seen,” before muttering something similar to himself as he paced the field.
It would carry on.
A mandatory cooling period did anything but, and half an hour later, Mahomes and his head coach, Andy Reid, wanted to talk about little other than the point of contention: Kadarius Toney was penalized for lining up offside, a rare call that wipe out his own go-ahead touchdown after taking an improvised lateral from Travis Kelce. It would have been not only the Chiefs’ most remarkable touchdown of the season — not to mention remarkably-timed — but one of the best in all of the NFL.
A shame it didn’t count, really. Reid called the flag “a bit embarrassing to the National Football League” in a three-minute news conference in which he tossed aside questions about every other topic. Mahomes would gripe that it robbed the game of “a legendary moment that we really did not get to witness.”
We’ve seen Mahomes the competitor.
We’ve not yet seen this side of Mahomes.
The one that has reached a boiling point.
A team that once needed only 13 seconds to complete what it cannot seem to complete in any full fourth quarter preached patience to those outside the building. Well, it’s their own patience that has run out.
With officials? Sure. With more than that? Sure seemed like it.
This isn’t the first questionable call to rob the Chiefs of a chance to win a game. It isn’t the first questionable call to rob the Chiefs of a chance this month. It is, however, the first time it’s prompted that kind of reaction. Truthfully, they were probably on better ground just a week ago after the no-call against Marquez Valdes-Scantling in Green Bay. You couldn’t find an honest man in Lambeau who agreed with the absence of a flag.
The flag on Toney? Well, check social media to see if you can find unanimous opinion. He did appear to be lined up offside ... by a literal foot. I understand the frustration with a lack of the typical warning for his alignment and the point about lack of real impact on the play. I understand the frustration about the rarity with which such a rule is even enforced. (Toney is just the fourth wide receiver to receive that flag in 2023.) And I understand the frustration the referees placed themselves at the center of two straight weeks.
But I also understand that the response is quite different from anything we’ve seen from this group in the past.
The had-enough-of-this-(junk) reaction is the best example yet that this isn’t the same team as the one Mahomes has led for the past five seasons. It’s no longer just me or you saying that. It’s no longer all of the relevant statistics suggesting it.
It’s their actions. Or their reactions.
They’re frustrated. Can’t hide it anymore. We saw a sequence of images of a quarterback who has just plain had it. Mahomes said his late-game outrage was about one flag, and he pointed out his consistency in wanting the refs to allow the players to decide the game. All of that makes sense. But for a person who has never shown that type of outrage toward one person in particular — with maybe the exception of “you woke up the wrong (gentleman)“ — it’s sure hard not to believe there wasn’t a little something more brewing there, whether he realized it in the moment or not.
Like, you know, the irritations of an entire season.
It’s not within his playbook to be caught yelling at Toney for yet another example of a lack of discipline. (Shouldn’t Toney have received some of the blame?) Same as it’s not within his playbook to publicly chew out Valdes-Scantling for dropping a go-ahead touchdown just three weeks earlier. Or Jawaan Taylor for committing penalty after penalty after penalty. Or any receivers for not interpreting a coverage correctly.
The referee didn’t escape the wrath. Because, well, a dent in the checkbook is better than a dent in the locker room.
It’s not that something went against the Chiefs on Sunday. It’s that yet one more something went against the Chiefs on Sunday.
And therefore here’s what else should have started to sink in during those final moments: This Chiefs loss ended just like their other four did. They fell behind, mostly because of their own familiar mistakes, and a team that once laughed off deficits became crippled by them once more. They have now started 13 possessions in the fourth quarter when trailing this season, and those 13 drives have produced three points.
We’ve been here before in 2023, in other words. The final sequence wasn’t the only time the cameras caught some frustration from Mahomes. That’s notable. Wasn’t the only mistake from Toney, either, who dropped an easy catch.
What’s most lost in the penalty conversation is the drive that preceded it, when the defense forced a punt, gave the offense a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and the offense responded with a three-and-out.
The Chiefs are still yet to erase a fourth-quarter comeback in five tries. I’ll say it again: I get that they believe their chance was swiped from them. Really, I do. And I’ll add that they offer themselves some credibility after staying silent a week ago. That has to be part of the boiling point, too.
But how can their own play not be a contributor, as well? How can we not put the reaction in that context?
It’s a group that has not experienced a season quite like this one. They have already matched their highest-loss total in the Mahomes Era. He’s lost four of six for only the second time in his career.
In the end, the most memorable moment of a Chiefs season will not be a flag. And thanks to the flag, it unfortunately won’t be the miraculous play, either.
But if it’s up to them if it will be their reaction to it.