Sunday’s AFC Championship Game featured one of the strangest and most controversial sequences of the NFL season.
The game was tied 20–20 early in the fourth quarter, and officials gave the Kansas City Chiefs an extra down after a failed third-down attempt that would normally lead to a punt. But this time it wasn’t. Here’s how it all went, along with an NFL postgame briefing.
Chiefs get second shot after failing third down
With 10:29 remaining, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw an incomplete pass targeting Jerick McKinnon in the second and ninth. On the third and ninth that followed, the referee suspended play to correct the spot, and referee Ronald Taubert made the announcement.
“Reset the play clock to 10 seconds,” Torbert said over the stadium’s public address system. “The play clock and game clock start on my signal.”
Torbert then signaled to restart the clock, which they did. The Chiefs then snapped the ball and Mahomes completed his third and his ninth passes to Travis Kels, reaching four yards short of him from his marker on first down. The Chiefs then sent out a punt unit. But they didn’t punt. Torbert picked up the mic again.
Referee: Failed 3-down play did not count
“Play was stopped before the ball was snapped,” Taubert said. “The clock should not have started.”
Torbert then instructed the game clock to be set back to 10:29 to start the clock on the snap rather than on his cue. The Chiefs’ punt unit returned to the sidelines, and Mahomes fielded the offense back for another shot on third down. They looked like a start over thanks to the clock error.
Mahomes was sacked on the ensuing play. But officials flagged Bengals cornerback Eli Apple for holding in a defensive backfield, giving the Chiefs another downset.
Bengals head coach Zach Taylor was understandably upset.
The series caused chaos on social media, fans at home, and the CBS broadcast booth. No one knew what had happened. An overhead view of the play revealed what happened later.
So what exactly happened?
After Torbert instructed the clock to start on his signal, the field judge ran up from a post deep in the defensive backfield to stop the play and said the clock should not have started when it started. I was clearly aware of that. However, no one involved in the play noticed the effort, never heard the whistle, and the first botched third-down play ensued.
After the redo, the Chiefs were unable to capitalize on their luck. He ran three more plays before they faced another four and nine. I actually punted this time. There was no undoing the third down.
Kansas City eventually won thanks to a 45-yard Harrison Butker field goal to secure a 23–20 victory and a Super Bowl berth with three seconds remaining.
But it still created a lot of controversy and questions for the NFL to deal with. Explanation to Pool Reporter Ben BabyAfter the game, it is customary for the referee to answer questions from one pool reporter.
“On the previous play, we had an incomplete pass,” Taubert said. “We found the ball, but the line judges came in and re-spotted it because it was out of spot. When we reset the play clock, the game clock started running. The pass-on was incomplete, so we didn’t have a move.” Shouldn’t have started… previous play.”
Remember, Torbert was the one who first instructed the clock operators to start the clock with their signal instead of the snap.
“The field judges noticed the game clock running,” continued Torbert. “He had come to stop the play to fix the clock, but no one heard him and the play was going on.
“After the play was over, he came in and we discussed trying to stop the play before the ball was snapped. So we reset the game clock to where it was before the snap and replayed the third down. .”
Asked whether this was protocol in situations where officials were unable to stop play in time.
“If I tried to stop the play and it didn’t work, I would stop, go back and do the down again.”
That’s an explanation that’s unlikely to satisfy Bengals fans or anyone who believes officials did the Chiefs a favor by betting on a Super Bowl spot.
Fortunately for the NFL, umpire and clock miscues did not directly affect the outcome of the game. Had the Chiefs continued to score on the same drive en route to victory, this would be an entirely different controversy that will not be soon forgotten.