They hyped this as the game of the year and then somehow it was even better. A team scored 50 points and lost, and that never happened before. You could say the same about so many things that happened in this game.
They packed this place, a makeshift game put on with seven days’ notice after the game was moved from Mexico City, and they all had a small part in making it the best night of the NFL season so far. If anyone left before the final gun they had a clear drive home, a rare moment here without traffic because nobody wanted to miss a second of this one.
The concourses packed in the moments after the Rams’ 54-51 win over the Chiefs here at the L.A. Coliseum went final, fans still screaming the same Rams WHOSE HOUSE?!?! chant that filled much of the insane previous four hours or so.
The NFL built the greatest empire in American sports because nobody else is as good at such moments, at memories, but even in that context this was something different entirely. The men who make these games are serious, with losses feeling a little like deaths. Here, it felt more like a hell of a fun night.
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“This is going to be an all-timer,” Chiefs lineman Mitchell Schwartz said. “I’m sure we’ll look back on it in a few years with some perspective and feel lucky to be part of that. Man, crazy.”
This is the kind of experience that pushes boundaries, perhaps the NFL’s best two teams essentially perfecting what we know football to be in 2018: 1,001 yards of offense, 14 touchdowns, seven turnovers, and 164 total plays (not counting touchbacks) of balletic violence, controlled violence and uncontrolled intrigue.
If this really is the Super Bowl prequel, the oral histories will post early in the hype cycle before the game in Atlanta — the memories of L.A.’s Aaron Donald wrecking the Chiefs’ line, Tyreek Hill wrecking the Rams’ secondary and the two coaches and offenses that best illustrate what offenses at all levels are searching for in 21st century football.
The stories might focus on Patrick Mahomes, too, the outrageously talented Chiefs quarterback who has already injected swagger into a fan base that’s mostly known disappointment.
He was his full self here, too, on the biggest stage on which he’s played so far in a career that continues to challenge what a sober person might think possible.
He found a touchdown to Chris Conley out of nothing, threw at least 63 yards in the air to Hill on another score, and made five turnovers that can be blamed on at least five factors — Donald is a freak, Samson Ebukam made one of the greatest plays you’ll ever see and Mahomes’ dropbacks are sometimes too deep, the ball in his hands too long, the ambition in his heart too impatient.
Mahomes completed 33 of 46 passes for 478 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions — all of it matching or exceeding his previous highs. His final passer rating of 117.6 was higher than anyone who’d ever thrown that many interceptions. Since the merger, only 18 men had a higher rating with two interceptions.
It’s a bit of mathematical semantics, perhaps, but sometimes sports challenge the ability to explain. That’s what happens when sports are at their best, anyway. And this was close.
Here’s another way to explain the craziness: Mahomes, in his first year as a starter with a yardage and touchdown total matched only five times in NFL history, essentially apologized for his performance.
“I think I gave them 21 points, pretty much, through turnovers,” Mahomes said. “Just like I said after the New England game: you can’t give good teams points turning the ball over.”
This was essentially a coin flip’s outcome, and that’s without getting into a long list of bizarre calls or misses by the officials. Mahomes had seven turnovers in his previous 10 starts. If he keeps it to just four in this one, the Chiefs probably win.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick tracked a pass by Rams quarterback Jared Goff into his hands with just over 2 minutes left, and the Chiefs up four. If he holds onto it, the Chiefs probably win.
Put it this way: The Chiefs committed five turnovers, including two that led to defensive touchdowns, and were penalized 13 times (and called for a few more) and still had two chances with less than 2 minutes left to win the game or at least go to overtime on the road against the best team in the NFC.
The Chiefs began the night believing they could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Nothing happened to change a reasonable mind, including the fact that they still hold homefield advantage with their hardest games in the past.
“I think we feel optimistic,” Conley said. “It’s not the outcome we wanted, or the outcome we played for ... but the fact we were still in that game with the mistakes we made and the turnovers we had speaks a lot to the team we can be.”
This was a game unlike any in the league’s history, the kind that marks a season that still might have some magic in it. When the story of this game is retold, the focus will almost certainly be on the points and touchdowns and stars. The details will be largely lost, because that’s what happens, but for now a thought lingers.
If the Chiefs can make that many mistakes and nearly win anyway, their quarterback throwing for historic numbers and still taking the blame for a loss, then imagine what this might look like when it’s good.