They went after each like Ali and Frazier had in the Thrilla in Manilla a half-century ago. Only instead of haymakers in a boxing ring, these two heavyweights traded spirals on a football field. And moments after this epic clash ended with the Kansas City Chiefs outlasting the Buffalo Bills, 42-36, in overtime Sunday night, Patrick Mahomes cut short his sideline celebration with teammates and coaches and sprinted downfield to find his counterpart. When he reached Josh Allen, the two gladiators embraced. It was one of the few times that night that a member of the opposing team had gotten a hand on either of them.
Mahomes and Allen were physically exhausted and emotionally spent by that point. With good reason. The two had staged perhaps the greatest quarterback duel of all-time. Not only did they combine to complete 74 percent of their passes for 707 yards and seven touchdowns. They also ran the ball 18 times for 137 yards — a scintillating 7.6-yards-per-carry average — and one score.
Their “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” performances resulted in three lead changes and 25 points scored in the final two minutes of regulation. They brought out the best in each other — during and after the game.
Allen was touched that Mahomes sought him out to congratulate him and offer words of encouragement.
“I have a lot of respect for Pat,’’ Allen said. “He threw the winning TD, and he comes sprinting and finds me. To be in that situation and do that, that was pretty good of him.”
Their admiration is mutual.
“Josh played his ass off, pardon my language,’’ Mahomes said. “It was a great game between two great football teams … We’re going to play this team a lot of times in games like this. With that quarterback, with that coaching staff and the players they have, there’s going to be a lot of battles. I’m glad we got this one.”
Mahomes is right. This was just an appetizer in a mano-a-mano that could become this generation’s version of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Mahomes and Allen already have faced off four times in their young careers, with Mahomes holding a 3-1 edge. And there will be many more clashes between the two, starting with another scheduled regular-season game between the Bills and Chiefs in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium this fall. That is likely to be followed with a matchup in the playoffs for the third straight season.
Sunday’s divisional-round games were great theater, with all four passion plays decided by walk-off scores. In addition to being riveting, they signaled a passing of the guard, or, more specifically, a passing of the quarterback. Two of this generation’s standard-bearers (Brady and Aaron Rodgers) both lost to lower-seeded teams. Meanwhile, 26-year-old Mahomes, 25-year-old Allen and 25-year-old Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals emphatically stated their cases as the new faces of the NFL. Toss in 23-year-old Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, who barely missed the playoffs, and you realize we are witnessing a new, golden era of quarterbacking.
Mahomes already possesses things (a Super Bowl ring and a league MVP award) that the others want to obtain. The Kansas City wunderkind’s legacy was only enhanced by the comeback he engineered with 13 seconds remaining in regulation and his team trailing by three points Sunday night. In a decision that came back to bite Bills head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Buffalo opted not to jam Chiefs receivers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and Mahomes made them pay with a 19-yard completion to Hill and a 25-yard completion to Kelce to set up the tying field goal by Harrison Butker as time expired in regulation.
After Allen guessed tails rather than heads in the coin toss before overtime, the Chiefs received the ball, and Mahomes carved up the fatigued Bills defense, capping an eight-play, 75-yard drive with an 8-yard scoring toss to Kelce. Mahomes clearly saved his best for last, completing 10-of-13 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns following the two-minute warning and into overtime.
Sadly, Allen never got a chance to respond because of the NFL’s unfair overtime rules. Mahomes and the Chiefs could empathize. Three years ago, the Brady-led New England Patriots did the same thing to them after winning the coin toss and driving for the winning score in OT, denying Kansas City a shot at the Super Bowl.
The league’s competition committee reportedly is going to take a serious look at the rule. I hope it doesn’t opt for something ridiculous like the college rule, where you wind up with seven overtimes and foolish basketball-type, final scores. I’d rather see each team allowed at least one possession in OT, and if the score remains knotted, then just go to sudden death with the next team that scores getting the win.
Sunday night’s bitter finish was another gut-punch for a Bills franchise that’s been defined by such nightmares during its cursed, six-decade-long existence. This ending conjured the horrors of “Wide Right” in Super Bowl XXV and “Home Run Throwback” in that 2000 playoff game in Tennessee. Had the Bills beaten the Chiefs, they would have hosted the AFC title game and been favorites to win the Super Bowl.
With nine touchdown passes in two playoff games, Allen had been unstoppable. And when he rifled that pass to Gabriel Davis to give the Bills the lead with 13 seconds remaining, you couldn’t help but think it was over. But, as we learned again, 13 seconds is an eternity for the magical Mahomes. Suspect coaching decisions (Should McDermott have squib-kicked the ball to drain some more seconds off the clock?) and that stupid coin flip rule gave Kansas City new life. Mahomes took full advantage of it.
The good news for Bills Mafia is their beloved team’s future appears radiant. Allen has shown remarkable improvement, busting his tail to develop from suspect draft pick to elite quarterback. The scary thing is that he is just entering his prime. He and the Bills will be back. And so will Mahomes and the Chiefs. Should be a lot of fun for years to come.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.