It’s 16 minutes after the Chiefs lost in Green Bay, a defeat with some potentially significant consequences, and Travis Kelce is trailing Patrick Mahomes in the locker room hallway.
The environment is as quiet as you’d imagine, so Kelce gently taps Mahomes on the shoulder before speaking. When his quarterback turns around, the two teammates bump fists.
“Keep playing, dawg,” Kelce says, softly. “Don’t beat yourself up over it, dawg.”
The root of the brief exchange — the reason for it — is the play that will draw the most attention from the Chiefs’ 27-19 loss to the Packers on Sunday Night Football. You know, the one that might’ve had you screaming at your TV.
The one that it would be overly kind to call controversial because it wasn’t controversial. It was clear.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling got mugged. Carrington Valentine was draped on him like the backpack with which he departed the locker room. Yet, no flag.
So that’s the play — or one of them — that prompted the post-game exchange between the Chiefs’ quarterback and tight end.
But one thing I should note: That whole no-call argument? It had nothing to do with it.
“If I get the ball out there, then he scores a touchdown. That’s what I’m saying,” Mahomes would later say. “You don’t want flags, man. I gotta make the throw.”
The Chiefs lost a football game at Lambeau Field because of the things they could control every bit as much as the thing they could not.
They stunk in the fourth quarter, and none of the nine referees on the field are to blame for most of it. Mahomes completed four of 13 passes on the final three drives combined, all in the final dozen minutes, with those 13 attempts covering 36 yards and an interception.
That passer rating: 8.17.
We are still waiting on the Chiefs’ initial fourth-quarter comeback of the season, and if it doesn’t arrive in the next five weeks, it will be the first such year in which Mahomes hasn’t completed one. Had four of ‘em last year.
Remember what it was like to just know you couldn’t afford to put the ball in that guy’s hands with the game on the line? The opportunities have been there. Detroit. Philadelphia. And oh so many of them in Green Bay.
For starters, Mahomes is right. He had Valdes-Scantling open. He underthrew it by a tick. That’s precisely why the trailing Valentine found himself draped over the back of a receiver. It’s become the most frustrating penalty in the NFL, but it’s also one of the most consistently called.
The refs missed this one, even if head referee Brad Allen wouldn’t say as much in a pool report.
The Chiefs missed several, as in several opportunities. And, hey, as it turns out, they are much more willing to acknowledge it.
“I ain’t gonna blame this thing on anyone but ourselves, man,” Kelce told me.
Let’s cover those three final drives alone — and I’ll even stop to note that the Chiefs played pretty good offense for three quarters. The total numbers don’t reflect that, but the Packers held the ball awhile, and the Chiefs advanced into the red zone on each of their first four possessions. They were rolling.
Then came the fourth.
On their initial full possession of the quarter, Mahomes had Valdes-Scantling running down the seam inside the numbers. Saw him, too. Valdes-Scantling drifted his route slightly toward the middle of the field. Mahomes threw it wide into the more evident space. Incomplete.
Familiarly incomplete, I should say. In fact, it’s the Chiefs’ most preferred kind of incompletion — those with missed connections, in which you and I are left with only educated guesses as to how the play should have unfolded.
“I ran up the seam. He threw it a little bit outside, trying to keep me away from the safety,” Valdes-Scantling said. “And that was pretty much it.”
Oh, but it wasn’t.
Next drive, with the Chiefs at midfield, Mahomes correctly spotted the Packers’ man-to-man defense and switched to a check. It was a rub route, they’ll call it, to spring open Skyy Moore. Our lingo: A pick play.
It’s built for man-to-man coverage, except cornerback Keisean Nixon noticed Mahomes’ tell for the audible, a tap on the knee, he would later say. And Keisean ran Moore’s route better than Moore did. Mahomes threw it anyway. Got picked off.
This is the play, not the one without a flag, that had the biggest effect on the win probably of the game, a 20% swing, per Ben Baldwin’s model.
“That’s a mistake on my part that you can’t make in that situation,” Mahomes said.
What he left out: His receiver didn’t help him much. Didn’t attack the route. Didn’t put up much of a fight for the ball in the air.
Maybe a back shoulder throw would have worked, Mahomes said, on second thought.
Because that’s so frequently what the Chiefs’ offense has been lately: a collection of second guesses.
It is not surprising that’s been a piece of the Chiefs’ story this season. They went young at key spots, after all. But it’s quite disconcerting that it’s still very much a part of the story in December. The main story, once more, on Sunday.
The Chiefs had two drives to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and one more to potentially tie it.
Three things within their control. The game in their hands.
Even if the flag wasn’t.