Vahe Gregorian

‘Football at its finest’: Breeland’s alert fumble return saves Chiefs in crazy game

Out of chaos will come order, it’s been said. And for proof we refer you to the Chiefs’ 34-30 win over Detroit on Sunday at Ford Field, a game defined by the visitors concocting their own reality out of a frazzled mess.

If one series spoke to that, it was the inevitable, indomitable Patrick Mahomes orchestrating a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive in the final 2 minutes 6 seconds for the win.

If one sequence affirmed that, it was the first six minutes of the third quarter, when the Chiefs’ defense twice bristled to force turnovers after Mecole Hardman fumbled the opening kickoff of the half and Darrel Williams served up an encore turnover.

But one play illustrated it all and essentially encapsulated the day: Bashaud Breeland’s hyper-alert, ultra-hustling and uncontested 100-yard fumble return as, well, “everybody kind of dispersed,” as he put it.

“You know what? That’s why you play the game to the end of the whistle,” said tight end Travis Kelce, who laughed when asked how much that moment turned the game. “Something like that is huge. It completely flipped the momentum (and) put us in the advantage. …

“That’s football. That’s football at its finest. That ball is awkwardly shaped, and you never know which way it’s going to bounce.”

In this case, the second-longest fumble return in franchise history bounced with a certain charm for the Chiefs as the officials didn’t blow the play dead even as it seemed to be grinding to a halt.

In this case, it represented a 14-point swing, without which the final drive could have been a moot point.

“It was a moment of juice for us,” Breeland said.

So the Chiefs are 4-0 after a win over a previously undefeated foe in a game they were plenty vulnerable — giving up 447 yards, sputtering on special teams and with Mahomes throwing zero touchdown passes.

“At the end of the day, it shows your fight as a team …,” defensive end Frank Clark said. “You keep on going. You don’t know the results you’re going to get from that. The hope is that you come out on the good end with a (win), but you never know.

“What you’re coached to do is keep fighting. Never give up. Hold your ground.”

The ground was looking wobbly after a 26-yard run by J.D. McKissic was punctuated by a facemask call on Xavier Williams early in a bizarre third quarter that would feature five fumbles in a game overflowing with head-tilting quirks.

Moments after Derrick Nnadi had jarred the ball loose from Matthew Stafford and Chris Jones recovered at the Chiefs’ 5-yard-line, it was a big ask to think the defense could produce another stop, let alone a turnover, with Detroit lined up at the Chiefs’ 1-yard-line and a chance to take a 20-13 lead.

But Clark made just that ask, in a manner of speaking, gesturing the defense in around him and beseeching them to dig in.

He “told us, ‘It’s time for us to step up,’ ” Breeland said. “ ‘This is where we make our surge.’ ”

Who knew what it would look like?

The Lions’ Kerryon Johnson, who otherwise carried on for 124 yards, churned into the middle for a yard only to lose the ball in the clump of jousting linemen.

If what happened next was confusing to sort out via various camera angles, it was downright confounding in the eye of the scrum.

Chiefs’ defensive end Frank Clark was occupied, “fighting for my life in there” and didn’t know what was happening.

Stafford said, “I had no idea what was going on.”

Defensive tackle Williams, credited with prying it out, said he ultimately was “kind of lost on the play” and “super-confused.”

Initially, he thought linebacker Damien Wilson was the one who scored.

“I felt the ball hit my arm originally; I started looking for it,” Williams said. “I couldn’t tell if it fell out, but I started looking for it. I saw his hands reaching out for the goal line, so I just knocked it away.”

Then “kind of picked it up,” he’d add.

Then thought the play was dead — evidently along with linebacker Anthony Hitchens and safety Juan Thornhill, who lurked around the ball as Breeland swooped in.

For that matter, at least one Lion appeared to start to try to tackle Breeland before he backed off.

But the whistle never blew, and muscle-memory and/or coaching had kicked in. Coach Andy Reid and several players after the game noted that zooming in on and scooping up loose balls is a point of emphasis of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

“Coach Spags preaches that every day,” Breeland said. “Pick the ball up, whether it’s live or dead. You never know. We always just pick it up, and let the chips fall where they may.”

A defining snapshot could never have materialized.

The call could have been overturned, for instance. Or the officials might have blown the whistle prematurely. Instead, they saw it this way:

“The officials ruled on the field that they did not see the ball carrier down,” NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron told a pool reporter. “They did not see a body part other than the hand or foot down.

“The ball comes loose and then the ball was picked up by Kansas City, No. 21. He was not touched after he possessed the football. There was no whistle on the play, and he runs it back for a touchdown.”

Moreover, Breeland may have been less attentive.

“He could have been like 99 percent of the league and stopped the play,” Clark said. “Most guys stop. Most guys stop playing.”

The play “changed the game,” lamented Johnson, who owned up to the blame for losing the ball.

And restored order for the Chiefs, a team with legitimate designs on their first Super Bowl in 50 years that showed another side of itself by finding a way to win amid disarray.



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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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