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NFL

'It felt like a movie': Chiefs-Rams scoring outburst still holds indelible place in NFL history

Of the 272 NFL regular-season games played each year, maybe a handful deserve the “circle this matchup before the season starts” tag upon the schedule’s release. Even fewer pan out to be worthy of that distinction by the time the game rolls around. Still fewer live up to the hype once the game is played.

The 2018 “Monday Night Football” matchup in Week 11 between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs that ended with a 54-51 Rams victory is an example of that exception.

“It was set to be in Mexico, right?” said Andrew Wylie, the Chiefs’ right tackle in the game.

That is, indeed, accurate. Six days before the game, the league announced that the game would not be played in Mexico City because of the playing surface conditions at Estadio Azteca. A Rams home game on the schedule, it moved to their domicile – then the Coliseum as the $5 billion SoFi Stadium was being constructed.

The Coliseum, one of the most hallowed venues in American sports, had not hosted a "Monday Night Football" game since 1985. It was the Rams' third season back in Los Angeles, and they had not seen this level of on-field success since their return.

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Eric Bieniemy, then in his first season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, can’t believe the five-year mark of the game is approaching.

“Is it really?” he says.

Does it not feel like that long?

“It doesn’t,” the first-year offensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders replied. “Wow.”

For some, it can still be difficult to wrap their head around the reality of it all.

“It’s still like a surreal night,” said Amazon Prime Video analyst Andrew Whitworth, who was the Rams’ left tackle that night. “Even to now, it’s almost like that feeling of, ‘Was I dreaming all that?’”

Unending challenges

The Rams were not in Los Angeles when they learned the game would be played there. Prior to playing the Seattle Seahawks the week prior, some players had evacuated their homes due to the wildfire. The Rams were already spending the week of practice before the game at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the original plan to prepare for Mexico City’s altitude. Most had their families with them, since Rams owner Stan Kroenke chartered a second plane to keep everyone together.

Then came the ice storm as the Rams prepared for their final walkthrough in Colorado. It was time to head home.

“The bus can’t leave,” Whitworth recalled. “The bus is sliding down the mountain because of the ice on the road.

“Then the plane’s delayed for hours to get the runway cleared.”

All Whitworth could think: “How are we going to get to this game?”

Adding to the emotional weight of it all was the Nov. 7 shooting.

It was a long two weeks.

“We’re canceling practice,” Whitworth said. “We’re hardly even meeting. So it’s just chaos. And then you finally get to that game, and it’s the magic that everybody wanted.”

'Like a boxing match'

The first quarter of the game featured 20 points scored between the teams, a mere setup for the fireworks that came over the final three quarters. The Rams found the end zone twice and jumped out to a 13-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game. On the ensuing Chiefs drive, Mahomes found receiver Tyreek Hill for a 25-yard touchdown.

“A lot of offense,” Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller, now with the Commanders, said. “I remember it being a night game. Great atmosphere. A lot of offense, just two good teams going back and forth.

“Good for offenses. Defenses probably didn’t enjoy the day.”

The scoreboard is a deceiving indicator of how the defenses performed, though. Kansas City forced two turnovers, while the Rams racked up five by the final horn. The teams traded field goals in the second quarter before Mahomes, making his 12th career start in his first MVP season, connected with Hunt to give the Chiefs their first lead of the night at 17-16. And that just the first lead change of the evening.

“My biggest memory was probably that constant, ‘They did this, now we’re going to do that,’” Whitworth said. “It was more like a boxing match. It was like ‘Oh, he won the first round. Then he came back and won the second round … and they dropped him in the fourth, and then he beat him in the fifth.’”

With 1:50 left in the first half, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald sacked Mahomes and forced a fumble. Samson Ebukam scooped the ball and strolled 11 yards into the end zone for the first defensive touchdown scored against the 23-year-old in his NFL career. It wouldn’t be the last – that night.  

“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a game where both defenses were scoring that much,” Wylie said.

But Mahomes responded with a drive down the field – aided by three completions to Travis Kelce, the pair’s uncanny connection in its nascent stage – that ended with a Chris Conley touchdown catch 13 seconds before halftime. Kicker Harrison Butker missed the extra point, and the score was tied at 23 at halftime.

“Watching Pat, Kareem Hunt, Kelce, Tyreek … all those guys played their tails off. That was a very fun game to be a part of,” Bieniemy said. “Obviously, we came up on the losing end. But it showed a lot of character of who we were at that particular time or where we were going.”

Aaron Donald makes his mark

Less than 90 seconds into the second half, Donald was at it again. The seven-time first-team All-Pro executed another strip-sack on Mahomes, and the Rams were in business in Chiefs territory.

“He had a helluva game against us that night,” Bieniemy said of Donald. “He did some damage.”

Goff capped the drive with a 7-yard rush to put Los Angeles back in front. But it was Donald who had lived up to his reputation of wrecking this part of the game.

“I mean, that defensive line was full of first-rounders,” Wylie said.

In addition to Donald, the Rams’ front seven was bolstered by Ndomakung Suh, Dante Fowler, Michael Brockers, Ebukam and others.

“Aaron Donald, during that season, got to pick the guard he would go against that week,” Wylie said. “So he would game plan you all week and then you’d show up on Sunday, you’re like, ‘All right, what guard did he pick?’”

Luckily for Wylie, Donald had his sights set on left guard Cameron Erving. He still had his hands full with Suh.

“Just an incredibly talented defensive line those guys had that year,” Wylie said.

The Chiefs answered with another touchdown, this time Mahomes finding Kelce for 33 yards for the chunk play of the drive and then again for a 4-yard touchdown to even the proceedings at 30. Los Angeles scored the next 10 points, though. With the Rams leading 33-30, Ebukam pawed a Mahomes pass out of the air at the line of scrimmage and returned it, lowering his shoulder and landing on Mahomes to slide over the goal line for his second touchdown of the game.

On a night he set a career high for touchdowns in a game with and threw for 478 yards, the first-year starter also threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles. The experience in that game was crucial for Mahomes' development into a two-time Super Bowl winner, Bieniemy said.

“It was huge. We always knew what Pat had in him – just the personality of the kid, and the way he carried and conducts himself. He’s always been a leader,” Bieniemy said. “The thing about it, that was just one of the highlights of his career that basically got the world’s attention. He’s held onto it since.”

A frenzied finish

The Los Angeles Rams defense celebrates cornerback Marcus Peters' (22) interception in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The pass was intended for Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley (17).

With 12:04 left in the game, the ESPN broadcast – Tessitore handling play-by-play duties, Jason Witten and Booger McFarland joining him in the booth – welcomed viewers back from a commercial back, with Tessitore saying “what is shaping up as an all-time classic ‘Monday Night Football’ already.”

“It had a feeling that was far different than just another regular-season game being played,” Tessitore said. 

There were plenty theatrics to come.

Hill had just streaked 73 yards – and received a taunting penalty on his way – to the end zone on a play-action pass that left him wide open, bringing the Chiefs back within a field goal at 40-37. Then it was their defense’s turn to score. Justin Houston sacked Goff, the ball hit the ground, and Allen Bailey returned it 2 yards for a touchdown and the lead.

Then the Rams answered one minute, 29 seconds later on a Gerald Everett touchdown catch.

“I remember people chirping on the bench, ‘I can’t wait to go home, let’s get this party going on the plane.’ And then had that feeling taken away, like, two times,” Wylie said. “I’m not one of those guys that tends to celebrate early, but that was one of those instances.”

The teams traded punts. Kansas City got the ball back with 6:33 left and four minutes later Conley had his second touchdown catch of the game. The Chiefs led again, this time 51-47 with 2:47 to go.

“Just a quality game – an instant classic,” Wylie said. “But I just remember that’s the most tired I’ve been on a plane ride home in my life.”

Goff drove his team up the field and on the first play out of the two-minute warning, he floated a perfect pass to Everett running a go route down the near sideline. The ball dropped into Everett’s hands and the tight end, now catching touchdowns for the other Los Angeles team, tightroped into the end zone for the game-winning score.

“You remember just being in the game, ‘This is crazy,’” Fuller said.

Bieniemy forgot the final score to time. Was it 54-53? No, 54-51, he’s reminded.

“Dang,” he said. “I can’t believe we lost that one.”

If anybody brings up the game to Wylie, he’ll usually reply with something along the lines of: “The game where we scored 51 points and lost?”

“That’s what stands out to me the most,” he added.

For Whitworth, it’s something else. The Rams donated 3,000 tickets to first responders battling the Woolsey Fire and invited well as victims of the Thousand Oaks shooting. After the game, some were allowed to interact with the players on the field.

“We were able to hug all of them and thank them,” Whitworth said. “People were crying. There was a lot going on. Crazy game. And crazy emotional, special moment afterward.”

Epilogue

On the occasions Tessitore's channel surfing takes him past NFL Network, he has seen the game being replayed quite often.

"One of the all-time classics in the history of the league," he said.

The sheer amount of offense was emblematic of offenses evolving into explosive units.

“It definitely gave a different version of how you win in this league,” Whitworth said.

By that point, Fuller said, offenses had the tools, personnel and rules to put up what would have been previously unrealistic statistics.

"I think that was just kind of the fruit of where offenses were already at," he said. "I think offenses (had) already taken that step.” 

But 50-point games did not become the norm. In 2020, the league had its most prolific offensive season, with an average of 50.4 points per game (although most stadiums' lack of or limitation on fans decreased home-field advantage and led to a record level of offensive success for away teams). Scoring has decreased in the past two seasons.

Players think about averaging a certain number of points to be a playoff team, Wylie said.

“That number, I would say, has grown in players’ heads over the past five years," he said. "Score 51 points and losing – before, I remember 24 points was a lot in NFL games.

“I feel like since that game five years ago, that number has gone up. Offenses do need to score more to win.”

Bieniemy thinks any reactions to that game changing football at the pro level were overblown. The tides of change bubble at levels far beneath the NFL, he said.

“It ain’t so much what took place that game," Bieniemy said. "I think the trend has been changing for years now based on what they’re doing with these kids at the Pop Warner level, all the independent coaching that’s taking place at the high school level.”

In 2018, both teams had their deep postseason runs ended by the New England Patriots – the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, the Rams in the Super Bowl.

Mahomes was the MVP of the 2018 regular season and earned the honor again last season. The Chiefs ended a 50-year Super Bowl drought in 2019, and Reid hoisted the second Lombardi Trophy of the Mahomes era in February. Kansas City has played in five consecutive AFC title games. Kelce is dating a musical superstar. The franchise is as stable, and successful, as ever.

The Rams got their Super Bowl, too, three years later inside Kroenke's marvel of a stadium. But they didn't do it with many of the key contributors from that November night. McVay and Donald remained, but the Rams traded Goff to the Detroit Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford before that championship season in 2021. Gurley's knee gave out, and his last game in the league came in 2020. The emergence of Cooper Kupp, injured for the Chiefs game, as one of the league's best receivers over the past five years helped the Rams get back to the Super Bowl and win it all.

Two championship stories, intertwined by one of the greatest games and most drama-filled moments in NFL history.

"You get very few of those – two teams, playing awesome football, and they get to go toe-to-toe and it’s everything you wanted," Whitworth said. "It doesn’t end up with a bad game. It is literally firepower on firepower.”

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