The gamble was unavoidable. A gamble had to be made. The choice was which side to bet on – to punt or not to punt.
Stefanski kicked it. Reid didn’t. Kansas City won 22-17 to advance to the AFC championship game against Buffalo on Jan. 24.
Reid was celebrated for his courage. Stefanski faced questions about a lack of aggressiveness, even if that isn’t the best way to define it.
For Stefanski, the situation was as such: Trailing by five, with 4:19 remaining in the game and facing fourth-and-9 from Cleveland’s 29-yard line with one timeout remaining, do you punt or play?
He kicked, seeking to get a stop before Kansas City could earn two first downs and run the clock out. His reasoning was that fourth-and-9 was too unlikely of a conversion.
“That was probably just too long at that distance,” Stefanski said. “If it was tighter, without a doubt.”
This isn’t as simple as reviewing the analytics though, because there are too many variables at that point to form a firm mathematical conclusion.
On the side of kicking, for instance, was that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was out with a concussion, replaced by journeyman backup Chad Henne, who’d just thrown an interception. K.C. was less likely to be successful without its MVP QB.
On the other hand, Stefanski trusted his defense, even though star lineman Myles Garrett was hobbled with an injury. Plus, Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are known to be super aggressive – five of the seven non-victory formation plays they ran on the Chiefs’ final drive were passing concepts. Even with Mahomes out, K.C. wasn’t going to run just three fullback dives and be content killing clock before giving Cleveland another shot.
That was most apparent when the Chiefs were faced with fourth-and-1 from their own 48-yard line and just 1:14 remaining in the game. Go for the game-clinching first down or punt and play defense?
Reid held dear a strategy that Stefanski didn't – don’t give up the ball. Instead the Chiefs had Henne line up in the shotgun and complete a 5-yard, game-clinching pass to Tyreek Hill. It's the kind of play that’s deemed bold because it counters old-school conventional wisdom generally handed down by television broadcasters. Just 11 years ago, New England's Bill Belichick blew the NFL's mind by famously going for it on fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis. The Patriots failed to convert, but few would question such a decision these days.
Certainly not on Reid’s sideline, where the decision was simple.
“There was no doubt with anybody,” Reid said. “I just looked at EB, and I said, ‘You ready to roll?’ [Bieniemy said] ‘Absolutely.’ … To have a play that was ready to go, that everybody liked, there was no flinch on the play.”
That’s the Chiefs. And that’s why the Chiefs are going where the Browns are still trying to reach.
Let's be clear: Punting wasn’t a colossal coaching mistake. Stefanski’s reasoning made some sense. Fourth-and-9 is a low-probability situation. Somewhere along the way, though, guys like Reid coach enough that they realize these opportunities are fleeting.
The playoffs are never guaranteed and once there, anything can happen. Two years ago the Chiefs essentially lost a trip to the Super Bowl because one of their defensive linemen lined up offsides. You never know.
The biggest consideration in both decisions was how to value field position.
For Stefanski, once the Browns gave up the ball, they’d have to stop the Chiefs. So why not see if your offense could convert on fourth down?
If they went for it and failed, then Kansas City was in field-goal range even if it didn’t gain a yard. That could have made it an 8-point game, requiring the Browns to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to force overtime. That's a real variable. But at least they’d still be in it.
Reid gave field position almost no concern. If the Chiefs had failed on that fourth-and-1, Cleveland would have had a short field, just 48 or so yards from the end zone and in need of only a touchdown to win. It would have been a gift.
“We would have been set up,” Stefanski said. “So there was risk there.”
There was. Reid didn’t cower to it though. The risk, to him, was giving Baker Mayfield the ball at all, not where he gave it to him. He decided to control what he could control and win when he could win.
Reid, 62, has been a head coach for 22 seasons and was coaching his 30th playoff game. Stefanski, 38, is a rookie head coach in just his first postseason game on the sideline.
Maybe that mattered. Maybe this was experience or maybe it was analytics. Or maybe it was just an old coach who no longer doubts his instincts, but Andy Reid, who through the years had seen too many playoff games slip away, wasn’t going to give this one away without exhausting all options.
He didn't punt. He ran a play. And then won the game.
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