You have quite possibly seen this multiple times by now, but just in case: Kansas City sealed its 22-17 division round playoff victory over Cleveland when backup QB Chad Henne — in for the concussed Patrick Mahomes — stunned broadcaster Tony Romo and a lot of the rest of us by throwing the ball on 4th-and-inches to pick up a first down.
Failure on that play would have given Cleveland the ball at midfield with a little over a minute left with a chance to score a touchdown and win the game. The most cautious thing would have been a punt, which would have left the Browns a long way to go with no timeouts. A QB sneak when only needing a foot for a game-ending first down would have been an option.
To Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, one thing was certain: punting was not an option on 4th-and-1, even with a backup QB in the game and a lot to lose if it didn't work.
"There was no doubt. I think everybody knew we were going to go for that play on our side," Reid said. "I'm not telling you that in the world here, but on our sideline, guys just went, 'Hey, there's no tomorrow. Let's go. Let's roll.' So I think that's important."
That attitude and decision stood in stark contrast to what transpired on the other sideline just a few minutes earlier. Trailing 22-17 with a little over 4 minutes left, the Browns faced 4th-and-9 from their own 32.
Game on the line. No tomorrow. And the trailing team ... punted?
They really did.
The Twitter feed of "Surrender Index," which tracks punting decisions, considered it to be very much on the "cowardly" side of the scale.
Rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator who is a candidate to be coach of the year after guiding the Browns to an 11-5 season, flat-out choked on that whole drive — and particularly with his decision to punt.
First off, the entire drive lacked urgency. Cleveland got the ball with 8 minutes left at its own 20 after Henne's bad interception in the end zone. They then proceeded to run seven offensive plays — including Baker Mayfield converting a short 4th-and-1 QB sneak — that used up more than 3:30 and netted just 12 yards.
If they had shown more urgency and arrived at that 4th-and-9 decision with, say, six minutes left a punt might have been more defensible. But with a little over four minutes left and just one timeout, the math said two first downs would likely seal the game. Even with a backup QB in the game — yes, even one who had just thrown an interception — a dangerous Chiefs offense getting two first downs is a reasonable task.
"Nah, it was just probably just too long there, Tony, that distance," Stefanski told Browns reporterTony Grossi postgame. "If it was tighter, without a doubt."
Getting nine yards isn't easy. The conversion rate for 3rd-and-9, to the best that I can find, is around 30%. So there was a good chance Cleveland would have failed had it gone for it.
But even failing to make it wouldn't have been the end of the world. Remember, Cleveland was trailing by five. If the Browns would have gone for it but failed and turned the ball over on their own 32, they still could have forced a field goal attempt with a stop. And even a made field goal would have only pushed the Kansas City lead to 8 — still within striking distance to tie with a TD and two-point conversion.
Stefanski instead took the ball away from his best unit — and they never saw the ball again. Per Football Outsiders, the Browns were No. 9 in offensive DVOA this season. They were just 25th on defense. Conversely, Kansas City was No. 2 on offense but just No. 22 on defense. If you are going to put the game on the line, do it with your strength against an opponent's weakness.
Sometimes what seems like the bold move is also the smart move.
"Hey man, that's why we love Big Red," safetyTyrann Mathieutold CBS after the game. "He's always on time. He's like our spirit warrior out here, you know, behind the scenes, he's always firing us up. We always know he's got one play in the chamber."