Leading up to this week’s classic between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills in the AFC’s Divisional round, I had a bit of a reckoning. I wasn’t finding the playoffs all that entertaining. Sure, there were close games, but something was missing. I remember thinking to myself during the Rams versus Bucs game, “I should be having more fun right now.” In fact, I’d been feeling this way for a few weeks. I was bored.
Perhaps it’s the spoiled Chiefs fan in me. When you root for a team expected to win at least 12 games and to go on a deep playoff run, individual victories don’t pack the same punch. The wild card win over the Steelers was gratifying, but, again, expected.
Or maybe this sense of boredom had nothing to do with the Chiefs. Perhaps, when you watch enough football, log enough hours in front of Red Zone, absorb roughly seven NFL podcasts religiously (including the great Arrowhead Addict podcast), there isn’t a sense of “newness.” Whereas, when I first started watching football and knew nothing, everything was exciting. There’s less to see when you’ve seen a lot.
The Chiefs won a classic over Buffalo in this week’s divisional game. Let’s reflect and wax poetic about what made it great.
That slog, that feeling of muddling through this NFL season, snapped with a thunderous gusto this weekend. The elixir? A magical, maddening, staggering poem, 42-36, co-authored by a couple of great artists, one called Mahomes, the other, Allen.
I could list some reasons why this game was great. Mahomes and Allen were perfect, for one. Each signal-caller played with a kind of measured desperation, each prolific and unique in style. Mahomes navigated the pocket as if it was a book he’d read a thousand times. Whether it was stepping up in the pocket, running to either side, or tucking and running, his pocket awareness was scintillating. Allen played with brutish brilliance. Where he sometimes veers on the side of recklessness, he controlled his chaos—his best weapon—running Chiefs defenders over and delivering strike after strike. Each, brilliant in their lane, fought to the final gasp.
It was Mahomes and the Chiefs, however, who made the most of their last gasp. A stunning field goal drive with just 13 seconds left sent the game to overtime, where Mahomes and co. put the Bills to a shocking rest.
But listing the reasons the game was great falls short of fully capturing the essence of the game. This game was more than a high-magnitude victory. There was something, dare I say, transcendent about the game. The game was as much about the Chiefs and the Bills as it was about the meaning of sports, football in particular.
To understand what I’m getting at, consider this question posed by the late Chris Wesseling, former writer and podcaster for Around the NFL. “If I could ask one question to an aspiring sportswriter it would be this: how do you reconcile the essential meaninglessness of sports? How do you reconcile watching grown men bang into each other to advance an inflated pigskin across marked territory?”
I don’t think there is any singular way to answer Wesseling’s question. But here’s my shot: a house becomes something more than just a physical structure thanks to the family inside and the shared experiences within that context. A home evokes a sense of meaning beyond what it physically is, a principle that applies to football. A football game becomes meaningful when the participants treat the game as something significant, as more than just a mission to advance an inflated pigskin.
This week’s game was a perfect snapshot of what makes football meaningful, of what makes the three-hour experience far more than just moving an inflated pigskin up and down the field.
Case in point: Mahomes finding Travis Kelce at the end of regulation and the life-or-death urgency by which the team handled those fragile thirteen seconds meant something. The body blows exchanged between Mahomes and Allen meant something, if only because you could tell how much it meant to them. Josh Allen’s (to our chagrin) gutsy 4th down conversions, or even the look of relief he had when he mistakenly thought the game was over. How about Nick Bolton’s maniacal pursuit of the ball-carrier?
The game’s gravity came not from the heady storylines and hype but via the players’ urgency and commitment. For sixty minutes, every player told us that the game meant something beyond the obvious through their actions.
Perhaps every football game is just an attempt at giving life to something inherently inert. In that case, this week’s game was as alive as football has ever been.