Fans of the Chiefs and Bengals waking up for their morning coffee and reading the headlines are marching to the different beats of a drum. The Kansas City Star headline says in big bold words, “Kansas City Chiefs Headed Back to Super Bowl After Finally Taking Down Burrow, Bengals,” with an image of Patrick Mahomes raising the AFC championship to their adoring fans at Arrowhead Stadium. 588 miles from Kansas City, and directly east of the Mississippi River, the Cincinnati Enquirer is beating its drum on a dismaying and dreary note with the headline saying, “Broken Hearted Penalty Sends Bengals Home, Chiefs to Super Bowl,” with an image of Joe Burrow being sacked by Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones.
Indeed, Super Bowl 57 will be headlined by the emerging Chiefs dynasty and the feisty Philadelphia Eagles that embodies the city's quintessential fighting spirit, but before we look ahead to the duel in the desert for the next two weeks, let’s take a step back and look back at the events that transpired at the AFC championship game. Why you may be asking? Well, it’s in the Cincinnati Enquirer morning headline, and that one word in the headline is putting a sour taste across fans from the Bengals and the league alike, the word, “Penalty.”
The AFC championship game between the Bengals and Chiefs was a tightly contested matchup between two foreseeable powerhouses, with the Chiefs winning on a Harrison Butker field goal. Nobody is questioning the legitimacy of the Chiefs and the damage they can inflict on a team, but people are questioning and fuming over the continuous missed calls that seemed to turn the tide in this game and prevent the Bengals from booking their tickets to a second straight Super Bowl in Phoenix.
The first egregious call of the night came at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Patrick Mahomes threw an incomplete pass for Jerick Mckinnon on third and nine, resulting in a turnover on downs. The Bengals came up with a massive stop until the referees drew the previous third-and-9 play dead, due to an erroneous clock and granted the Chiefs another opportunity to convert the third down. The Bengals defense would come up with another huge stop, but Bengals cornerback Eli Apple was called for a defensive holding and advanced the chain of downs for the Chiefs. In the aftermath, Zac Taylor was livid with the officiating crew and voiced his concerns on the sideline by shouting at the refs.
The first call at the beginning of the fourth quarter would set off a chain reaction of ineptitude by the officiating crew to call the correct play on the field in such high-stake moments within the final 8 minutes of the game. With 37 seconds left in the game, the Bengals punted the ball away with the game tied at 20-20. Chiefs receiver Skyy Moore took the punt return 29 yards and set up Mahomes with the golden opportunity to win the game. During the return, the officials missed a blatant illegal block in the back that assisted in Moore’s big gain.
Fans of the Bengals and the NFL had many gripes with the previous missed calls, but the biggest one that has stirred controversy throughout the league has to be the late hit on Mahomes that set the Chiefs up for the game-winning field goal. With 17 seconds lefts in the fourth quarter, and the Chiefs staring down the barrel of another 3 and out, Mahomes ran for a first down, where Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai proceeded to shove Mahomes out of bounds and draw the refs to throw a flag for a late hit on the play and the rest is history.
Bengal fans and fans around the league will continue to harp that the late hit on Mahomes was not the correct call on the field, but according to the league rulebook, it was the correct call. Despite that, the referees missed multiple roughing-the-passer calls on Burrow. If the officiating crew is going to throw the flag for Mahomes on a blatant late hit, then why aren’t they throwing the flag for Burrow and the Bengals? The argument to be had is not with the flags themselves, but the lack of consistency that is shown to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship and countless games throughout the season. The dependability of the refs to call the correct calls on the field when the Chiefs are playing has dramatically diminished since Mahomes' rise to stardom. If the NFL doesn’t address this issue with the officials and Chiefs, then fans across the league will begin to question the greatness of the Andy Reid and Mahomes duo, which is unfair to them. However, the lack of consistency shown by the officiating crew in the AFC Championship, unfortunately, cost the Cincinnati Bengals a chance to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history.