As Patrick Mahomes and his Kansas City Chiefs teammates pulled “AFC Champions” t-shirts over shoulder pads and whooped it up amid the fluttering confetti at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday evening, a camera zoomed in on a forlorn figure on the Cincinnati Bengals bench. Rookie defensive end Joseph Ossai was still in a state of shock — still attempting to make sense of a blunder that had cost him and his teammates a trip to the Super Bowl.
The two scenes offered a stark juxtaposing of victory and defeat; ecstasy and agony; jubilation and despair.
Minutes earlier Ossai had pushed Mahomes after the quarterback clearly was a few steps out of bounds. Mahomes went flying. So did a referee’s yellow flag. Ossai’s 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty following Mahomes’ five-yard scamper set up Harrison Butker’s game-winning 45-yard field goal. Without the penalty, the Chiefs would have been beyond Butker’s range and the game likely would have gone to overtime. No one knows what might have happened during OT. But there was absolute certainty that Ossai’s faux pas had sealed the Bengals fate.
While the Twitter cesspool piled on the 22-year-old defensive end, I couldn’t help but feel for the kid. He made a dumb mistake at the worst possible time, and now Ossai’s Shove will join Scott Norwood’s Miss and Bill Buckner’s Error as one of those defining agony-of-defeat moments.
Sports history, of course, is littered with many such moments. And each of them is remembered because they occurred in the waning moments of games. What we tend to forget is that there were mistakes by other players leading up to these regrettable occasions that decided the game, too. They just happened to have occurred earlier. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow threw two interceptions that contributed to the defeat. Cincy offensive linemen missed blocks that resulted in five sacks. Heck, even Mahomes, who played heroically on a bad ankle with a depleted receiving corps, made a bone-headed play, losing his grip on the football for a fumble that could have wound up costing his team the game.
When Ossai finally dragged himself into the locker room, he remained too distraught to speak to reporters who had gathered round his stall. After taking a shower and composing himself, he faced the music, with dignity and class, just like Norwood did after his wide-right field goal attempt decided Super Bowl XXV.
“I’ve got to learn from this experience,’’ Ossai said. “I’ve got to know how not to get close to that quarterback when he is close to that sideline, if it’s anything that could probably cause a penalty. In a dire situation, I got to do better.”
Fortunately, as was the case with Norwood back in 1991, Ossai’s teammates hugged him and offered words of encouragement.
“To know that they have my back,’’ he said, “it’s giving me peace right now, for sure.”
While we couldn’t help but feel for Ossai, we couldn’t help but marvel at Mahomes’ gritty, virtuoso performance. Gutting it out the way he did with a high ankle sprain – an injury that normally sidelines a player for at least three weeks – merely adds to this great and still young quarterback’s already amazing legacy. As Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt said afterwards, “Superman put on his cape.”
That he did.
Though limping throughout much of the game and unable to push off his ankle on many of his throws, Mahomes still managed to throw for two touchdowns and rack up 326 passing yards. What made the effort even more impressive is that by game’s end he was throwing to a bunch of third- and fourth-string receivers because most of his front-line targets had been injured.
I’m sure Buffalo Bills fans couldn’t help but notice as I did the performance by Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones. He did what the Bills defensive line couldn’t do against the Bengals depleted offensive line the week before. Jones led the Kansas City sack attack, and his takedown of Burrow late in the game, stopped a potential game-winning Cincinnati drive while setting up the possession that led to the Chiefs decisive field goal. It was the type of closing play Bills General Manager Brandon Beane envisioned the injured Von Miller making for Buffalo in the playoffs.
The inability to close out games has been a bugaboo for this year’s Syracuse University basketball team. The Orange failed once again Monday night to finish strongly in a 67-62 loss to seventh-ranked Virginia. Missed free throws down the stretch were key culprits in the defeat.
Syracuse has lost three straight and four of its last five, to sink to 13-10 and 6-6 in the much weaker-than-normal Atlantic Coast Conference. In addition to Virginia, the Orange took Miami and North Carolina to the wire, and almost completed a furious comeback vs. Pitt. Imagine if those four games had gone SU’s way? It would be 17-6 overall and 10-2 in the conference, and be in great shape to make the NCAA tournament and possibly even be ranked in the Top 25.
Freshman point guard Judah Mintz is talented, but still too jittery in those closer situations, and senior center Jesse Edwards and senior shooting guard Joe Girard III also have had some late-game issues.
As it stands now, Coach Jim Boeheim’s team is going to need a magical run like the one Gerry McNamara authored during the 2006 Big East tournament when he literally carried the Orange to four straight wins at Madison Square Garden and an NCAA berth. I just can’t see a similar scenario unfolding.
Pitchers and catchers will report very soon. Need I say more?
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.