Rashard Higgins saw the goal line and the touchdown that would put the Browns right back in the divisional playoff game. He lost sight of the coaching point not to reach the ball toward the end zone.
When Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen went low and put his red helmet into the side of Higgins’ plain orange helmet, Higgins was vulnerable and the ball popped loose from his outstretched arms. It propelled forward, hopped three times in the end zone and squirted out the right side before diving tight end David Njoku could corral it.
An old but controversial rule awards a touchback to the defense on a fumble through the end zone, so the 25-yard completion to the 1 turned into a crushing momentum killer at the end of the first half in Kansas City, Mo.
The Browns had opportunities after Chiefs superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes exited with a concussion in the third quarter, but those slipped through their fingers, as well.
Chiefs 22, Browns 17.
The surprising, scintillating season was suddenly over. No Battle of Lake Erie vs. the Bills in the AFC championship game. No more dreaming of the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
“It is just unfortunate for us to come up short,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “It sucks because we believed in it.”
Dirty Dan loves making plays in the playoffs 😏
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 17, 2021
The Chiefs will host the Bills on Sunday as they continue their quest to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
The Browns, down 22-17, got the ball with eight minutes left after safety Karl Joseph intercepted an ill-advised heave by backup Chad Henne in the end zone. They got a first down, then faced fourth-and-9 at their 32 with 4:19 and one timeout left.
First-year coach Kevin Stefanski trusted his defense to stop Henne, the 35-year-old whose only start in the last five years came in the regular-season finale when the top-seeded Chiefs rested their starters. Jamie Gillan punted, and the defense folded.
Henne scrambled for 13 yards on third-and-14 coming out of the two-minute warning after a Myles Garrett sack. Coach Andy Reid went on fourth-and-1, with Henne throwing a short pass to Tyreek Hill for 5 yards to seal the win. Reid improved to 8-0 against the Browns, and the Chiefs didn’t punt all day.
“They would rather take their shot than have to play on their back foot and give us another shot at going to the end zone,” Garrett said. “I know they are confident on offense and rightfully so. Chad made a great play.
“It came down to us on defense, and we let it slip. It was right in front of us, and this time we didn’t get it done.”
Higgins’ fumble with 1:34 left in the first half remained the turning point.
He caught a deep out route from Mayfield, stumbled a bit and held the ball out to cross the plane. Sorensen got to him a split-second before that could happen, taking away a potential seven points. To make matters worse, the Chiefs added a field goal to end the half with a 19-3 lead.
Sorensen led with the crown of his helmet and made helmet-to-helmet contact, which isn’t allowed, but a penalty wasn’t called.
“I have not seen the replay,” Stefanski said. “I will leave those things to the league.”
Stefanski coaches his players to “fight that urge” and not reach out the ball when it’s going to be first-and-goal. But he defended Higgins.
“Let me be very, very clear: Rashard Higgins is a warrior,” Stefanski said. “He has battled all season long. He has done everything that I have asked him to do from the moment we got together in July.
“I am never going to doubt that kid’s effort. He is a team player all the way.”
Stefanski deferred after winning the coin toss as he has all season, hoping for the double dip of touchdowns to end the first half and start the second. The Higgins’ fumble ruined the first part of the plan. Mayfield’s interception on a late pass over the middle — safety Tyrann Mathieu jumped in front of receiver Jarvis Landry — doomed the second.
But the defense held the Chiefs to a field goal try that missed, and the Browns showed the resilience that was a calling card throughout the season, which included an 11-5 record and a 48-37 wild card win last week in Pittsburgh.
Mayfield finished a 77-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Landry, and Kareem Hunt scored on a 3-yard run with 11:07 left to make it 22-17.
Mayfield went 23-for-37 for 204 yards, a touchdown, an interception, a sack and a 74.6 passer rating. Nick Chubb rushed 13 times for 69 yards and dropped three passes. Hunt rushed six times for 32 yards and a TD and caught a pass for 2 yards in his return to Kansas City.
Mahomes’ absence opened the door for a Browns comeback. He was the MVP in 2018 and the Super Bowl MVP a year ago.
The Chiefs scored two touchdowns and two field goals in four possession in the first half, totaling 293 yards as the Browns defense didn’t have any answers. Mahomes went 19-for-25 for 233 yards, a touchdown and a 117.6 passer rating.
He finished 21-for-30 for 255 yards, a touchdown and a 106.9 passer rating, leaving with 7:27 left in the third quarter after running a keeper on third-and-1.
Garrett said Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce accused linebacker Mack Wilson of headhunting after his tackle around the neck injured Mahomes, who was wobbly and couldn’t stand up without help. Garrett said his teammates, including Wilson, aren’t dirty.
Henne, a 13-year veteran who had never thrown a pass in the playoffs, finished the drive with a field goal, then threw the interception that gave the Browns a chance. The Browns couldn’t complete the comeback after digging a hole in the first half with sloppy play that included dropped passes and poor coverage of Kelce, who had a 20-yard touchdown against cornerback Denzel Ward, and Hill, who set up the first score with a 26-yard catch.
Hill had eight receptions for 110 yards and Kelce eight for 109.
The season was a success, as the Browns showed time and again they’re not the same old Browns. It just wasn’t the ultimate success, as they still haven’t won two games in the same postseason since 1950.
After beating the Steelers for their first playoff win in 26 years, the Browns couldn’t pull off a second straight upset as 10-point underdogs.
“There is a finality to this one when you do not get it done in the playoffs, and that really hurts,” Stefanski said. “I appreciate how our guys battled. They fought like they do every single week, and it just was not enough today.”
The future looks bright.
“We showed that we can go to the AFC championship,” Garrett said. “We were just one play away. We just have to make that play. They were able to get it done, but I like our odds next year just because we have a lot of guys here that are young and we can keep getting better.”