Sean McDermott Made the Right Decision by Kicking in the AFC Championship Game

A strange coincidence developed on conference championship Sunday. Both games featured the trailing team deciding to kick a field goal on fourth down while deep in the opponent’s territory. Neither of those teams won their respective game.

Both decisions were roundly criticized by fans and pundits as overly conservative and cowardly, but they weren’t quite under the same circumstances. While Packers head coach Matt LaFleur’s decision to kick deserves such scrutiny, the Bills’ Sean McDermott made the right decision for his team.

Sean McDermott was in a difficult spot

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To begin with, the Buffalo Bills were overmatched from the very beginning against the Kansas City Chiefs. Even though he had just gotten out of the concussion protocol from the previous week, Patrick Mahomes was unstoppable in the first half. He tore apart the Bills’ pass defense for 325 yards on the day, with two different receivers passing the century mark.

The Bills actually led 9-0 in the first quarter, with their first touchdown coming directly off of a muffed punt. However, kicker Tyler Bass missed the extra point, and the Bills lost all momentum after that. Buffalo would not score another touchdown until 4:08 remained in the fourth quarter. By then, the game was already out of reach.

The Chiefs played a nearly flawless game offensively and were just good enough on defense, outgaining Buffalo 439-363. In all, the Bills failed to improve substantially from their previous experience with the Chiefs — a 26-17 home defeat in October.

McDermott’s dilemma

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott
Head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills looks on in the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs during the AFC Championship Game | Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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McDermott’s decision, which became the focus of much of the post-game conversation, came late in the first half. By then, the Chiefs had taken a 21-9 lead off three straight touchdown drives. With 33 seconds left in the half, the Bills were at the Chiefs’ eight-yard line and were ready to cut into that deficit.

The next three plays didn’t work out in the Bills’ favor. On first down, T.J. Yeldon reached the four-yard line. On second down, Josh Allen threw an incomplete pass. Finally, on third down, he hit tight end Dawson Knox, who could only gain two yards before going out of bounds to stop the clock.

With 14 seconds left until halftime, McDermott and the Bills faced a critical decision. Everyone knows what happened next.

Kicking may not be great for morale, but losing sure isn’t

As Sean McDermott said after the game, he made his decision to kick on fourth down out of concern for the team’s morale.

I really felt like morale was a big piece to that. They had momentum, they were getting the ball after half as well, and I felt like we needed to come away with points at that one. Even though sometimes analytics may say one thing, whether it said it or not on our chart, I think there’s a human element to the game at the end of the day and I felt like we needed to come away with points.

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott, via NBC Sports

Regardless of his reasoning, social media roasted McDermott for his decision. It certainly didn’t help his case that the Bills performed no better after halftime. But in his defense, the Bills weren’t exactly playing inspired football before that point, either.

Critics of the decision operate under the assumption that Buffalo would have a 100% chance of scoring that touchdown on fourth down from the four-yard line. That is far from the case. After all, the Bills had come up short on the previous three plays. Buffalo was only five-for-14 on third-down conversions for the game, which may also have contributed to his thought process.

In short, Sean McDermott’s play call didn’t sink the Bills’ AFC Championship hopes. The Chiefs did a good enough job of that simply by being good.

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.