As his pass sailed into the arms of Houston safety Tashaun Gipson, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes began pointing some 15 yards in front of him, his index finger following an all-important nullifier.
A penalty flag.
Shortly into his route, tight end Travis Kelce had been grabbed and thrown to the ground, impeding his ability to complete the play. The ensuing flag prevented Mahomes’ first interception of the season.
But then the yellow marker vanished.
The referees picked up the flag, with head ref Shawn Hochuli announcing, “After discussion, the contact that was potentially a hold was while the ball was in the air. It is not pass interference because it was not on the receiver that caught the ball.”
Kelce was in the intended receiver, Mahomes said in his news conference after the Chiefs’ lost 31-24 Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The design of the play tasked Kelce with running a double move — faking an out to the sideline and then running a fly on the back end of the route.
The contact turned a double move into essentially no move. And Mahomes overthrew Kelce by 20 yards.
“The play was designed where Kelce was doing a double move and I was letting him work it, knowing it was man coverage,” Mahomes said. “I saw him getting ready to do his move. I went to throw it to the spot and give him a chance. He wasn’t there. After you looked at it, you realize he kinda got tackled, so that’s the reason he wasn’t there.”
Mahomes, Kelce and Chiefs coach Andy Reid argued the decision. Asked if he received any further explanation on the reversal, Kelce replied, “Nah.” Reid said Hochuli’s explanation over the public address system matched the one he was told individually.
But it still didn’t fit the way the sequence unfolded, the Chiefs believed.
Replay showed the holding occurred before Mahomes unleashed his pass. If the ruling had been holding or illegal contact, the call would have stood — the vicinity of the throw is irrelevant for those infractions.
Instead, the call of defensive pass interference prompted the officials to determine whether Kelce was the intended receiver. But as Mahomes explained, they whiffed on that judgment.
“We were trying to get an explanation from the referee of why they picked up the flag and what was the reasoning,” Mahomes said. “They said I had thrown the ball when he was getting held, which it’s a rule (that) if it’s uncatchable, you can’t call pass interference. But ... him running the double move was the reason he fell down and it was uncatchable. It shook me.”
Asked if he received an explanation that “made sense,” Reid said, “Well, they gave me an explanation. You take what they give you and you try to get going again. There’s no use in arguing about it more than what we did. You gotta move on”
They didn’t. Not statistically, anyway.
Before the sequence, the Chiefs led 17-9, and that first-down snap came at the Texans’ 32-yard line. A two-score lead seemed on the horizon.
After the no-call, the Texans outscored Kansas City 22-7 — with undoubtedly several more significant factors in play than the response to a flag’s disappearance, namely the defense’s inability to find anything to slow the Houston offense.
“You have to move on. You have to play,” Mahomes said. “You have to find a way to play better after that flag and find ways to win the game.”