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The Bengals’ Season Came Down To One Late Hit

8:58 AM EST on January 30, 2023

Joseph Ossai hits Patrick Mahomes late in the AFC Championship game
Screenshot: CBS

With a shot at a second straight Super Bowl appearance, the Cincinnati Bengals turned back into the Bungles at the worst possible time.

Cincinnati came out flat against Kansas City in Sunday's AFC title game, trailing 13-3 late in the first half, and doing somehow less than that score line would suggest. While Kansas City was able to get some magic out of one-footed Patrick Mahomes, the Bengals' offensive line got blown up by the Chiefs' pass rush, which sacked Joe Burrow four times in the first half. It looked bleak, but the Bengals got it together at the end of the first half, and they came back with a fury, scoring 17 of the next 24 points to tie the score at 20-20 at the start of the fourth quarter.

After a lot of back and forth with nothing to show for it, that's where the score stood with 17 seconds left. Facing third-and-4 at the Cincinnati 47, with likely one more play to try to get the Chiefs into realistic field goal position, Mahomes took off after the pocket collapsed. As Mahomes ran wide to his right, he picked up the first down yardage, and snuck an extra yard before stepping out of bounds.

If the play had stopped there, at the Bengals' 42, then Harrison Butker would have about a 59-yard field goal on his plate. That's doable but not easy, though he did hit a 62-yarder this season. Fortunately for Kansas City, Bengals edge rusher Joseph Ossai was chasing Mahomes and got to the Chiefs' QB just late enough with a shove to send him, and penalty flags, flying:

There's no way to sugarcoat this: That is as brutal a penalty as an NFL player can commit. Ossai simply got there a split second too late, just late enough that it was pretty clear that Mahomes was out of bounds by the time Ossai shoves him.

Screenshot: CBS

That is going to get flagged 100 percent of the time, especially on a quarterback scramble, and doubly so when it's Mahomes in Kansas City. The 15-yard penalty moved the ball up the field to the Cincinnati 27, and Butker hit the 45-yard game-winner right down the middle, sending Kansas City to the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles, who barely broke a sweat in the other championship game:

The Bengals can't really complain about that one particular call, but that doesn't mean that the officials didn't seemingly botch a handful of calls in Kansas City's favor in the fourth quarter. While the nullified play weirdness midway through the quarter was more confusing and enraging, it didn't lead to any real movement from Kansas City afterward. The bigger issue Cincinnati will likely have with the refereeing came a few plays before Mahomes' scramble: On the 29-yard punt return by Skyy Moore that set Kansas City up near midfield, there were two blocks that could have been flagged as blocks in the back. First, Joshua Williams seems to push Stanley Morgan in the back at the start of the return, and then Darius Harris knocks over a Bengals player as Moore runs by:

There were moments where Cincinnati could have seized the game even with the calls against, and if the offensive line could have protected Joe Burrow better throughout and especially on the Bengals' last offensive play of the game, then it's probable no one's talking about Joseph Ossai today except in the context of the pass-rushing havoc he wreaked. In a way, Ossai's late hit was just a drop in the bucket. But in another, more glaring way, the way of cause and effect, Ossai's hit was the single biggest swing in the game.

You could argue that he shouldn't have even touched Mahomes there; that is what Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt appeared to be furious about after the game.

But in the heat of that particular moment, Ossai's mistake wasn't that he hit Mahomes; it was that his hit was a baby's breath too late to be legal. That's how fast things can turn in this chaotic sport, with impossibly fast players forcing game-deciding decisions for referees. In this case, they got it right, and only the cruelties of football are really to blame for the way Cincinnati lost its season.

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