Facing a fourth-and-2 at the Kansas City 45-yard line early in the third quarter, Chiefs coach Andy Reid waved his offense back onto the field.
The Chiefs had a four-point lead over the high-scoring Falcons at that point during Sunday’s game, so there was no point in playing it safe. It would take more scoring to win a shootout against one of the league’s most explosive teams, and Atlanta coach Dan Quinn knew this — which is why he took Reid’s fourth-down threat seriously and promptly called a timeout to adjust.
What the Chiefs did next not only helped them grab momentum, it also set off a chain reaction by Quinn that ended up making the difference in a razor-thin 29-28 victory by the Chiefs before an announced crowd of 69,879 at the Georgia Dome.
“Something that we just put in,” said receiver Albert Wilson, one of many Chiefs with Georgia roots who starred in Sunday’s game.
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With the Falcons now ready to play defense, Reid instead sent his punt squad onto the field. But while he had successfully forced the Falcons to waste a timeout, a punt was not in the offing.
Instead, Reid had looked to special teams coordinator Dave Toub, who had given him the “secret” nod for a fake punt. Center James Winchester snapped the ball directly to Wilson, a Georgia State grad who sprinted through the Falcons’ defense and chugged into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown that put the Chiefs ahead 27-16.
“I just had to worry about catching the snap,” Wilson said. “I knew that it would be a big play.”
After that score, the stunned Falcons started chasing points, a decision that would repeatedly come back to haunt them. It started almost immediately too, as they marched to the Chiefs’ 10 on their next drive and decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 instead of kicking a field goal ... only to see quarterback Matt Ryan’s pass for running back Devonta Freeman fall incomplete, thanks to some tight coverage by outside linebacker Frank Zombo.
Missed points continued to haunt the Falcons even after they put together an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive to open the fourth quarter. After Freeman’s 1-yard plunge, the Falcons — who trailed 27-22 — decided to go for two. And Ryan’s pass to Freeman again fell incomplete.
The Chiefs had a chance to put the Falcons away on their next drive, but on third-and-2, quarterback Alex Smith overshot wide-open Spencer Ware down the sideline, and the Chiefs were forced to punt.
Smith played a nice game otherwise. He completed 21 of 25 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Travis Kelce was his favorite target again, catching eight balls for 140 yards, both career bests. But that missed scoring opportunity came back to hurt the Chiefs, as Atlanta put together another scoring march, this one capped off by a 5-yard throw from Ryan to Aldrick Robinson.
That’s when the Falcons, who led 28-27 with 4:37 left, again decided to chase the points. Safety Eric Berry, another Georgia native who played the hero on Sunday, intercepted his second pass of the day and returned it all the way for a game-saving safety that put the Chiefs ahead by 1.
“My dad always told me the most important point of the game is the extra point,” said Berry, a Fairburn, Ga. native who enjoyed an emotional return to the city in which he conquered cancer two years ago. “A lot of people take that play off; like I said, it’s an opportunity to make something happen, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
He certainly did, frustrating Atlanta’s star quarterback in the process.
“(The reaction was) a lot worse than ‘Oh darn,’” said Ryan, an MVP candidate who completed 22 of 34 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown and an interception (Berry’s safety did not count). “I’m not sure you can print it. You’re (ticked).”
Yet, the play wasn’t necessarily a death knell for the Falcons, provided they could force a Chiefs punt on the ensuing drive and get the ball back to an offense that can put points up quickly.
Smith, however, rose to the occasion for the Chiefs, delivering a 10-yard strike on a slant to Wilson on third-and-6 that gave the Chiefs a first down and allowed them to run out the clock.
“Coach put together a great game plan; that was a good example of us isolating Albert, and he hit the walkoff right there,” Smith said.
It was a fitting, thrilling end to a game that had the look of a track meet early, as both offenses marched up and down the field for most of the first half. The Falcons racked up 14 first downs in the first quarter alone and jumped out to a 13-6 lead early in the second quarter that could have easily been more, were it not for the Chiefs’ stingy red-zone defense.
“We didn’t stop them much,” Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said with a smile, “but at times we stopped them at key moments, and it paid off.”
The creases the Falcons continually found in the middle of the field shriveled up in the red zone. Overall, they rushed for 128 yards on 30 carries, but they managed just 12 yards on seven carries inside the Chiefs’ 20. The coverage also tightened as the field condensed, which allowed the Chiefs to win more one-on-one battles.
“They did a good job in the tight red zone, and really, inside the 10,” Ryan said. “They played us with tight man-to-man coverage; we just couldn’t come away with touchdowns there. That probably cost us today.”
The Chiefs soon made the Falcons pay for their inability to find paydirt, as Reid’s decision to open up the offense against the league’s worst passing defense paid off. The Chiefs essentially operated out of the shotgun formation the whole game, and while their running game was only marginally successful — eliminate Wilson’s 55-yard run and they scratched out only 68 yards on 21 carries — they still managed to tie it on their next drive. That touchdown came on a 3-yard play-action throw from Smith to Ware on a gutsy fourth-and-1 call at the Falcons’ 3.
“We knew we were playing one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League, if not the most explosive, and we had to be on our ‘A’ game offensively and trade blows with them,” Reid said of the decision to eschew a field-goal attempt at that point.
With a little less than a minute remaining in the first half, Atlanta tried to mount one last scoring drive, only to see Berry jump Ryan’s pass over the middle and return it 37 yards for his second pick-six of the season.
The Falcons cut the deficit to four, at 20-16, before the break, courtesy of a franchise-long 59-yard field goal. But by then, the tone of the game had been established; if the Chiefs could keep moving the football while forcing the Falcons to settle for field goals, they would win.
And they did just that, improving to 9-3 heading into a crucial Thursday night showdown against the AFC West-leading Oakland Raiders.
It could be tempting to look beyond that game. The AFC West crown and a possible first-round bye are within reach. The Chiefs final four games feature three teams they’ve already beaten once (Oakland, Denver and San Diego), plus a home game against 6-6 Tennessee.
But the Chiefs insist focus won’t be a problem against archrival Oakland, which improved to 10-2 with a win over Buffalo on Sunday.
“For us, everything is on Thursday — not looking past that,” Smith said. “How could you? (It’s) Raider week.”