A small, flat piece of metal spun in the cold Kansas City air Sunday evening, and the nearly 100 men dressed in football uniforms knew their Super Bowl fate was at stake. New England captain Matthew Slater, a special teams guru, called heads a split-second before the coin left referee Clete Blakeman’s hand. A sold-out crowd at Arrowhead Stadium embraced a collective silence.
As the coin finally hit the emblem-stained grass, the advantage in an AFC Championship Game was settled.
Heads, it was.
The overtime football belonged to the Patriots. Thirteen plays later, so did the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
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After winning the overtime toss, the Patriots scored on a 13-play, 75-yard drive for a 37-31 victory, preventing the Chiefs from even touching the football. They will play the Rams in the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
In the aftermath of Rex Burkhead plowing two yards into the end zone, Chiefs players slowly left the field, knowing the strength of its team was a non-factor in overtime.
“It’s how the coin tosses, I guess you would say,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
This is the sudden-death nature of the NFL overtime system. A trip to the Super Bowl swayed by the call of a coin.
Unlike college football, which guarantees both teams will possess the ball, the NFL allows for the possibility of just one team gaining possession. To have earned a shot at giving the ball to Mahomes, the league’s leading MVP candidate, the Chiefs would have to hold the Patriots to no more than a field goal.
The season ended with Mahomes and the offense watching from the sideline. The defense had three chances to get off the field on third-and-long situations, but the Patriots converted each time.
“We got the best quarterback in the league (and) the best offense in the league, and we gotta give him a chance,” Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said.
The shootout nature of the second half, and particularly the final four minutes of regulation, telegraphed the importance of the toss. The teams combined for 38 points in the fourth quarter.
The defenses weren’t exactly getting off the field.
Why would overtime change that?
“I liked our chances,” Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan said after winning the toss.
“Super confident,” Patriots safety Duran Harmon added. “I knew we were gonna score, man.”
In the televised postgame celebration, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made sure to credit Slater, the man who called heads.
Here’s the funny (or more painful) element: The coin toss had been so kind to the Chiefs this season. They won their first nine of the year, an incredibly improbable streak.
And then they lost the one they needed most. They will have an offseason to wonder, “What if?” Because the offense was rolling. The Chiefs scored 24 points in the final quarter. When they were offered only 32 seconds to find a game-tying field goal, they got one. Mahomes had 230 yards and three touchdowns after halftime.
Asked if he thought they would score had they received the ball first, Mahomes said, “No doubt at all. That’s just ifs and buts. You can’t look at that. But at the same time, I feel like we were rolling. It didn’t go our way and then stuff happens.”
Added Chiefs lineman Cam Erving: “I feel like we would’ve won, but that’s one for the imagination right now.”