Sunday’s AFC championship game featured one of the most bizarre, controversial sequences of the NFL season.
With the game tied at 20-20 early in the fourth quarter, officials awarded the Kansas City Chiefs an extra down following a failed third-down effort that would normally have led to a punt. But this time it didn’t. Here’s how it went down alongside the NFL’s postgame explanation.
Chiefs get a second shot after failing on 3rd down
With 10:29 remaining, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw an incomplete pass targeting Jerrick McKinnon on second-and-9. On the ensuing third-and-9, officials paused play to correct the spot and for referee Ronald Torbert to make an announcement.
“Please reset the play clock to 10 seconds, please,” Torbert said over the stadium’s public address system. “The play clock and game clock will start on my signal.”
Torbert then signaled for the clocks to resume, which they did. The Chiefs then snapped the ball, and Mahomes completed a third-and-9 pass to Travis Kelce that came up four yards short of the first down marker. The Chiefs then sent out their punt unit. But they didn’t punt. Torbert took to the mic again.
Referee: Failed 3rd-down play didn’t count
“Before the ball was snapped, the play was shut down,” Torbert said. “The clock should not have started.”
Torbert then provided instructions to set the game clock back to 10:29 and for the clock to start at the snap, not on his signal. The Chiefs punt unit returned to the sideline, and Mahomes led the offense back to the field for another shot on third down. They got what looked like a do-over thanks to a clock error. It worked out in their favor.
Mahomes was sacked on the ensuing play. But officials flagged Bengals cornerback Eli Apple for holding in the defensive backfield, a penalty that granted the Chiefs a fresh set of downs.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was understandably upset.
The series inspired confusion on social media, for fans at home and in the CBS broadcast booth. Nobody was clear on what just happened. An overhead view of the play later shed some light on what went down.
So, what exactly happened?
After Torbert instructed the clock to start on his signal, the field judge ran in from his post deep in the defensive backfield in an effort to stop the play, apparently aware that the clock shouldn’t have started when it did. But nobody involved in the play noticed the effort or heard the whistle, and the initial failed third-down play carried on.
Officials then corrected the clock and ordered the play to be run again, resulting in a Kansas City first down. The Chiefs didn’t capitalize on their good fortune. They ran three more plays before facing another fourth-and-9. This time they actually punted. There was no third-down do-over.
Kansas City eventually prevailed thanks to a 45-yard Harrison Butker field goal with 3 seconds remaining secured the 23-20 win and a Super Bowl berth.
Despite Kansas City’s failure to capitalize directly, the sequence still generated plenty of controversy and questions for the NFL to address. After the game, Torbert provided an explanation to pool reporter Ben Baby. It’s customary after games for the referee to answer questions from a single pool reporter.
“On the previous play, there was an incomplete pass,” Torbert said. “We spotted the ball, but the line judge came in and re-spotted the ball because the spot was off. We reset the play clock, and the game clock started running. It should not have started running because there was an incomplete pass on the previous play.”
Remember, Torbert was the one who initially instructed the clock operator to start the clock on his signal instead of the snap.
“The field judge noticed that the game clock was running,” Torbert continued. “He was coming in to shut the play down so that we could get the clock fixed, but nobody heard him, and the play was run.
“After the play was over, he came in and we discussed that he was trying to shut the play down before the ball had been snapped. So, we reset the game clock back to where it was before that snap and replayed third down.”
Asked if this was protocol in a situation where officials couldn’t stop a play in time, here’s what Torbert said:
“If we were trying to shut down the play and we couldn’t, we would shut it down and go back and replay the down.”
It’s an explanation that’s not likely to satisfy Bengals fans or anyone who believes that officials showed the Chiefs favoritism with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
Fortunately for the NFL, the sequence did not directly impact the outcome of the game. Had the Chiefs gone on to score on the same drive en route to a win, this would be an entirely different controversy that would not soon be forgotten.