Patrick Mahomes II was the story of the NFL season. He threw 10 touchdowns in his first two games, led the league (and tied Tom Brady’s career high) with 50 passing touchdowns, and will likely be named Most Valuable Player after his 2018 campaign changed what we thought was possible on a football field. Now his season has come to an end not because he was bested on the field by the Patriots, but because a coin flip and some bad K.C. defense forbade him from going onto the field at all.
The NFL overtime rule states that both teams must get the ball at least once—unless the team that starts with the ball scores a touchdown on the opening possession. In that case, the game is over immediately. It’s hard to see how this makes any sense. If a team scores a touchdown on the opening drive, the other deserves the chance to respond. It should go without saying why a football game, never mind one played in a league that exceeds $13 billion in revenue a year, would not want a game decided by a coin flip, but here we are. It’s particularly frustrating considering this season featured the highest percentage of drives ending in a score of the 21st century. Teams have never been more equipped to score immediately, which means winning the coin flip is the most powerful it’s been since 2012, when the league changed the rule that allowed games to end on a field goal on the first possession of overtime.
The overtime rules are illogical, but the Chiefs defense, not the rule book, blew the game, which the Chiefs lost, 37-31. Three times the Chiefs defense, coordinated by Bob Sutton, forced the Patriots into third-and-10. Three times they gave up first downs, two of which were called by announcer Tony Romo before the snap, in a game where the Pats converted 13 of 19 third downs (68.4 percent). Julian Edelman—who had a wild finish to the game that involved almost muffing a punt return and then tipping a Brady pass, leading to an interception—came up in the clutch for two of those three first downs.
The Patriots executed where the Chiefs could not, gaining 524 total yards and 5.6 yards per play, and steamrolled the Chiefs for 75 yards and a touchdown when it mattered most. Brady is the first quarterback to win three playoff overtime games. In all three of those games, the Pats won the coin toss and scored on their first possession. It’s the perfect distillation of the Patriots’ dynasty—when presented with an opportunity, they take advantage.
Yet the Patriots defense had not been playing much better, having just given up a five-play, 68-yard drive that ended in a Chiefs touchdown with just over two minutes to go and then allowed Mahomes to go 48 yards in four plays to set up a game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime.
The Chiefs led the NFL in touchdowns per drive this season, and the offense seemed to be rolling, as the Chiefs scored all 31 of their points in the second half, including 24 in a fourth quarter that seemed to go on forever as penalties real and imagined stretched the fabric of time. Mahomes passed for 230 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. He wasn’t perfect: He missed a touchdown pass to a wide-open Damien Williams on the final drive of the first half and then took a sack, knocking the Chiefs out of field goal range late in the first half. But for most of the second half, Mahomes looked every bit like the future face of the NFL. He rocketed a ball to Sammy Watkins down the field at the beginning of the second half to set up a touchdown on a four-play, 74-yard drive ...
… whipped a sidearm pass around defensive end Adrian Clayborn as Clayborn closed in for a big hit ...
Mahomes still capable of being Mahomes pic.twitter.com/99lArXB8Uc— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 21, 2019
… and got the Chiefs into field goal range to tie the game at 31 and send it into overtime.
By any measurement, Mahomes matched Brady’s heroics on the field Sunday, but he wasn’t given the chance to do it at the end of the game, because, uh—wait, why wasn’t the 23-year-old probable league MVP allowed a chance to tie the Patriots in overtime again? Mahomes was the story of the season, and if the overtime rules were different, he might have been the story of this game, too. Now the story feels incomplete.