There was no way Sunday’s duo of conference championship games was going to end without a smattering of controversy. It’s just how the NFL works. In high-pressure situations, flaws in the system of rules the league have procured come to the surface with every action having dream-realizing consequences. The NFL got off easy in the afternoon NFC clash thanks to the San Francisco 49ers not having a quarterback capable of throwing the ball consistently more than 10 yards. It wasn’t so lucky in the nightcap.
For a majority of Cincinnati Bengals’ players, those dreams of getting to a second straight Super Bowl will have to stay only in their minds, regardless of how the game shook down. As a neutral supporter, it’s easy to see why Cincinnati would have a hard time swallowing this loss. And it had nothing to do with the herculean effort of Patrick Mahomes, which needs to be recognized. The trouble digesting this AFC Championship game loss comes mainly from the zebras. And the route for the Chiefs to be favored in the league office, and communicated to the officials, isn’t hard to conceive. Kansas City is one of the model franchises in the NFL with one of the game’s biggest stars under center. The Chiefs’ fan base made it through painstakingly cold weather (I lived in Missouri for four years — it sucks) to see its team play its final home game until September.
Let’s get one thing clear before moving on. Bengals’ defensive lineman Joseph Ossai played a phenomenal game for the first 59 minutes in Kansas City. And Cincinnati’s final defensive play of the game was called 100 percent correctly by the officials. There were no scrums on the line worthy of the play being called back for holding. It would’ve been offsetting penalties due to Ossai’s personal foul for unnecessary roughness, which was clear as day. Mahomes had both feet out of bounds and was pushed over. It was the easiest 15 yards most of these refs will ever tax a defense with.
Having that yellow flag fly into the air after the way the entire fourth quarter was called must’ve felt like yanking a final tooth after the rest of your chicklets had already been pulled. Without anesthesia. Instead of trying to focus on any holding calls before Ossai nearly shoved Mahomes into a metal bench, focus your attention on the ticky-tack pass interference call on Mike Hilton with five minutes to go. That drive ended up leading to a Kansas City punt, but precious time came off the clock. The correct non-call would’ve given Cincinnati about two added minutes, which is a millennium in a game of that magnitude. The intentional grounding call on Joe Burrow on the Bengals’ final offensive possession was correct, just explained horribly live by the officials. And CBS did its best to clean up the mess on air. The ball didn’t reach the line of scrimmage despite falling at the feet of Samaje Perine.
And then there was the universally panned Chiefs’ redo on that 3rd and 9. Were the rules of the game technically adhered to? Sure. Did the slight adjustments deemed necessary by the officials matter one iota? Nope, which is why the canceled play and the one after the do-over looked eerily similar. Critical thinking was needed from Ron Tolbert’s crew at that moment, and we received none of it. The call came in late and the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium was too loud for those whistles to matter. Mistakes happen, and that’s understandable, but not ones of that magnitude. If such changes to the play were that crucial, why weren’t they recognized and instituted sooner? If players need to be at their best with the stakes of a Super Bowl on the line, the officials need to be as well. That was an unacceptable mistake all around and it only fuels the flames that the fix was in for the Chiefs to win this game.
At least the WWE is honest about the results being predetermined. We had Travis Kelce give us a huge sign about the NFL’s need to deny a return trip to the Super Bowl for Cincinnati at the trophy presentation. He quoted one of The Rock’s most popular sayings to lambast Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval, who last week proclaimed Sunday as “They Gotta Play Us Day,” and included in the proclamation a joke about Burrow taking a paternity test to see whether he’s Mahomes’ father, pointing to the Bengals’ recent trio of wins over the Chiefs. There was also this non-call on Kansas City defensive lineman Frank Clark for a late hit and no block in the back flagged on Skyy Moore’s 29-yard punt return that set up the game-winning field goal.
When the NFL trains its next generation of officials, I would have Sunday’s Chiefs-Bengals game as must-watch material, teaching upcoming officials what not to do. I’m sure the league wants its second most important day of the season to be pristine and present its product as the superior sports brand. While Mahomes, Burrow, and company did their part, the officials didn’t. The Chiefs are worthy of playing in the Super Bowl, regardless of Mahomes’ ankle. They didn’t need the referees’ help to get to Arizona. There’s little doubt Cincinnati got screwed along the way.