Mack Wilson is an otherwise nondescript Cleveland Browns linebacker who proved how swiftly the remaining football season could be ruined. Not that he actually ruined it, but he moved “concussion protocol” to the central core of the Kansas City Chiefs’ future.
Wilson’s tackle of Patrick Mahomes halfway through the third quarter of Kansas City’s 22-17 victory over Cleveland removed the Chiefs quarterback from the game with what CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz declared from distance to be “a concussion if I’ve ever seen one.” It didn’t change the game so much as it changed the nature of the postseason. Suddenly there is a scenario in which Mahomes isn’t playing, and therefore a scenario in which the Chiefs aren’t repeating.
Up until that moment, the game had been a deep-dish, cheeseless pizza of a playoff matchup, as taste-deficient and topographically featureless as either of Saturday’s offerings. Mahomes was bulletproof, Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield looked cornered, the score was 19-10 with no sign of narrowing. Then Mahomes, in search of a yard on a third-and-1 near midfield, was hit first on his shoulder with Wilson’s helmet and then his head by the ground, did not get up for a few seconds, and then wobbled uncertainly to his feet before being protocol-ed from the game. Suddenly, the Chiefs became the most vulnerable team left in the NFL postseason.
How vulnerable? You needn’t ask, but the Chiefs were 42-9 in Mahomes’s starts, and in his time behind center they went from early playoff exits interspersed with 4-12 seasons to the most effervescent team in football. And now? They have Chad Henne, whose great moment up until now has been getting to watch the 2017 AFC Championship as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ backup to Blake Bortles.
Put more charitably, Mahomes could bend solids, defy mundane physical laws, and crush the wills of mere humans. Chad Henne was Chad Henne except for one 13-yard scramble on third-and-14, and a subsequent ballsy completion to Tyreek Hill that killed the game, which is as much head coach Andy Reid being all-in all the time. Kansas City limped to a harrowing victory that was once a hunch rout in the making, and leaves significantly diminished hopes for another parade.
The Chiefs are now 15-2 this season, but their last eight victories have been by two, four, three, six, six, three, three, and now five points. If you’re a gambling sort, the putative best team in football has covered in only one of its last nine games, and that open road to Tampa looks downright problematic now. Sunday was a game with many potential turning points that reduced itself to two quarterback rushes, one which saved a game and one which jeopardized the Chiefs’ chances to win two more.