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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill O’Brien is getting more grief than the power plant workers at Chernobyl, but the cause of this Houston Texans meltdown is being completely misdiagnosed. It’s not the much maligned fake punt that saw Justin Reid stuffed, setting up the Chiefs’ second touchdown, that doomed Houston’s hopes of hosting the AFC Championship Game.
That’s a fine aggressive call — an attempt to stop Kansas City from stealing away the momentum.
Instead, it’s O’Brien electing to kick a field goal rather than go for it on fourth and less than a yard deep in Chiefs territory earlier that changed everything. With the Texans rolling and Andy Reid looking more stunned than a fish caught on a hook, O’Brien blinks.
And the Texans are set up to buckle.
Deshaun Watson appears to be begging O’Brien to go for it, to keep going for Kansas City’s throat. It looks like the Texans are going to go for it at first, too. Then, O’Brien hesitates, calls a timeout and sends Ka ‘imi Fairbairn trotting out for the field goal try.
From that point on, Arrowhead Stadium turns into a Texans’ house of horrors. From a 24-0 lead to a blowout loss. From making plans for the biggest Houston party ever next weekend at NRG Stadium to becoming the first team in NFL history to lead 24-0 and still end up trailing at halftime.
Momentum has already shifted by the time that the fake punt is called. The fake punt is actually a smart attempt to seize it right back and catch the Chiefs napping. The direct snap to Reid does not work. But that does not make it a bad call.
“We really wanted to find a situation where we could steal back momentum,” Reid says. “Hats off to 49 (the Chiefs’ Daniel Sorensen). He did a great job making the play and stopped me.”
Houston fans have been screaming for O’Brien to be more aggressive for six seasons now. With his team a huge underdog in Kansas City, he finally is. The fake punt inside his own 40-yard line is a bold call, a good call. If Reid gets the first down, everyone howling about O’Brien’s stupidity now would be waxing poetic over his guts and moxie.
“I thought Bill did a nice job with that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says of the fake punt surprise. “From a coaching standpoint, that was a good time to call that.”
O’Brien goes for it, gives his team every chance to seize the game. Except for one crucial fourth down call.
In that one critical moment, the Texans coach reverts to his more natural tendencies. And his team pays for it.
O’Brien is aggressive from the coin toss on — until fourth-and-short and the game’s turn.
“I just felt like we didn’t have a great play there for the fourth down at that point in time,” O’Brien says of kicking the field goal and going against his own aggressive approach to the game. “. . . That is a fair question, but I just felt like it was better to kick the field goal there.”
That’s the strange decision in a sea of good ones.
The Texans break from their norm and elect to receive the opening kickoff — and Watson is masterful on the drive. When he finds Kenny Stills wide open (there are lavish Texas ranches that offer less room than Stills has) for a 54-yard touchdown strike to make it 7-0 Houston, the crowd at Arrowhead sags.
Less than a half hour into the game, they’ll be absolutely stunned. By the end of the first quarter, it’s 21-0 Texans thanks to a blocked punt touchdown and a Tyreek Hill muffed punt catch attempt that sets Watson and company up at the Kansas City 6-yard line.
O’Brien’s instinct that this is not enough is right. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ basketball-on-grass attack ends up putting 48 points on the scoreboard by early in the fourth quarter. The Texans have a flawed defensive team and no one understands this better than the coach.
“We felt like we needed 50 points,” O’Brien says afterwards. “And we weren’t able to do that.”
The fake punt decision shows O’Brien knows he needs more than 21-0 and 24-7.
The fourth and short field goal switch does not. This is where Bill O’Brien fails the Texans with so much on the line, with the franchise’s first title game in clear reach.
To be ultra conversation on one call and ultra aggressive on the next one makes little sense. O’Brien needed to commit to the idea that Texans needed to go for broke all game long. He almost did. But he kicked that field goal — and everything changed.