Then Kansas City’s Alex Smith hit tight end Travis Kelce for a 19-yard gain with 5:31 left in the fourth quarter, and chaos ensued. Kelce was tackled by Arizona safety Deone Bucannon, the ball popped loose and Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel recovered.
But it wasn’t as cut-and-dry as that.
The play was initially ruled a completion, which would’ve put the Chiefs at the Cardinals 22 with a little more than five minutes left. According to referee Craig Wrolstad through a pool report, Kelce lost control of the ball before any part of his body hit the ground. The ball then came to a stop while it was loose on the field and that’s when Bethel recovered it.
Had Kansas City retained possession, either a field goal or a touchdown would’ve been inevitable. In the Cardinals’ coaches box Mike Disner, Arizona’s director of football administration, was the first to see the ball pop out of Kelce’s hands, coach Bruce Arians said.
On the field, Bethel felt it was a fumble. Linebacker Sam Acho saw the replay and was overtly animated in his desire for Arians to throw the red flag for the play to be reviewed.
“Nothing special,” Acho said. “I have two eyes and I looked.”
Arians challenged and the completed pass was overturned, giving the Cardinals the ball at their 16 with 5:23 left in the game.
“At this point in time, that timeout isn’t worth a damn thing,” Arians said. “If we lose this challenge, we’re losing a timeout. That challenge was huge and it was the correct call.”
The most important part of the sequence was Bethel picking up the fumble.
Every week, outside linebackers coach James Bettcher gets in front of the team during a team-breakdown meeting and goes over rules, regulations or any recent examples that involve both. A point of emphasis last week, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, was making sure the defense picks up any loose ball. That way, if a play is ruled a fumble, the defense has possession. If neither team is in control of the football, possession stays with the offense.
“When he flipped over, I saw him still fighting for it, so my first reaction when I saw it roll around was just pick it up, whistle or not,” Bethel said. “If you think you see a fumble, pick it up because you never know what can happen. And it worked out for us.
“If I wouldn’t have picked it up, they would’ve had the ball. It would’ve been theirs. Just you see a ball on the ground, you pick it up.”
Arizona took control and ran off 4:09 late in the game to secure the win.
Another call that changed the course of the game was an offensive pass interference on Kansas City’s Anthony Fasano that erased a 19-yard touchdown pass to him with 5:47 left in the third. On the next play, Cardinals linebacker Alex Okafor picked off Smith.
Arizona’s Larry Foote, who Fasano pushed off of to earn the offensive pass interference call, said he was cracked in the side of the helmet. At first he thought it was a running play because of the type of hit. When he looked back after the hit, the official was throwing the flag.
“I looked around but then I seen the quarterback scrambling,” Foote said. “So, I got up and started running.”