With 27 seconds to go in the first half on Sunday at Heinz Field, Chiefs coach Andy Reid abruptly had a momentous decision to make.
He made one too admirable to condemn, even as it crumpled … and even if there might have been a better scheme within his choice.
It was only one play, of course, but it was in that select handful that can heavily influence, if not determine, the outcome of a game.
In this case, it was all the more crucial because this game was his team’s last chance to dictate its playoff ambitions.
Beat the Steelers here, and the Chiefs would have been able to clinch a wild-card spot by beating San Diego next week, with no dependence on other scenarios.
But lose, as they did 20-12 to drop to 8-7, then beating the Chargers becomes only part of a labyrinth of moving parts that must align for them to salvage a berth.
So here was a moment of considerable urgency and consequence, with the Chiefs trailing 10-6, sputtering in the red zone (even after a successful fake field goal inside the 10-yard line) and having just had an apparent first down overturned by replay.
A field goal attempt would have been practical, maybe even advisable.
You can’t say it would have been wrong, really, to take the conservative approach.
But at some point, football is just this, isn’t it?
“You’ve got that type of distance right there: You go get it,” Reid said. “There’s a certain mindset that we’ve been working with here the whole season …
“When you’re put in that situation, man, you strap it on and let’s go get the thing.”
Reid shrugged off this part of the equation, but this had to inform his thinking, too:
When your team struggles to score touchdowns (more than two just twice in the last seven games) … somehow has not produced a wide-receiver touchdown all season … and allowed the quarterback to be sacked 45 times.
Playing against a Steelers team, it might be added, that hadn’t allowed fewer than 20 points in its previous nine games and tends to score big itself.
Time for a touchdown, not another puny field goal.
So it was no surprise on the other sideline when Reid opted to go for it on a play that would serve as a microcosm of a defeat marked by a gazillion unfulfilled opportunities.
“Coach Reid is an aggressive guy,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He doesn’t live in his fears. He’s always been that guy.”
Reid had so many reasons to go that way that he offered an unusually thorough and impassioned explanation of his rationale.
“Hindsight, now you’d say we probably should have kicked it,” he said. “(But) I knew a couple things there. I felt like we had a lot on the game-plan sheet there to take advantage of the red zone.
“We had a pretty good bead on what they were doing at that point: We’d been down there and seen kind of how they were operating, and so I figured we could get inches.
“It wasn’t even a yard; it was about the length of the ball, if that. And I thought we had a nice short-yardage play right there. Felt very good about it.”
At least until Jamaal Charles was waffled to the ground at the point of attack on the left side of the line.
“We just couldn’t get it,” Charles said. “The Steelers’ defense wanted it more than us. Somebody came free, and we just didn’t execute on it.”
Said left guard Jeff Linkenbach: “Coach Reid put a lot of faith in us to get it done on fourth and one, and we came up short. Got a good look for the play and just didn’t get it blocked the way we should have. (Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison) flew over the top and made the play.”
Now, maybe the play call itself was something to quibble over.
On a day when the Chiefs could only run for 39 yards, and the Steelers already had demonstrated a certain dominance of the trenches, the Chiefs seemed ill-equipped to convert in the pits.
“Nothing special in terms of stopping it, to be honest with you,” Tomlin said. “Just played good, sound football.”
That produced a game-turning play that was perhaps most aptly, or at least most uniquely, described by Tomlin: “That fourth-down stop was big in the football game from a big perspective.”
Had the Chiefs converted, they had one timeout remaining and would have taken a shot or two at the end zone, quarterback Alex Smith said.
Had they simply gone for the field goal, and made it, too many of the dynamics of the game would have shifted to be able to say it would have come down to the same final scene.
Moreover, there were a lot of other things that went wrong for the Chiefs on Sunday, of course.
But if you just deal with the simplistic knowns, it would have looked like this at the end if they had kicked the field goal earlier:
Instead of attempting a 23-yard field goal with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter to cut it to 20-12, they already would have been trailing 20-12 and going for it on fourth and 3 at the Pittsburgh 5.
Would they have made that, and the two-point conversion, or fallen short and left us wondering what would might have been if they’d only had the guts to go for it on fourth and one at the 12 in the first half?
Better to be left losing by going all-in than to shrink at the idea of buckling up and going after it … and be left thinking, ‘What if?’