It was just past 4 p.m. Eastern on a chaotic N.F.L. Sunday and the entire A.F.C. playoff landscape looked as if it was about to be startlingly upended. Worse, for those who wouldn’t mind a little unpredictability, the future suddenly looked all too familiar.
The Kansas City Chiefs, the kings of the conference for months in this changing-of-the guard season, were losing at home.
More to the point, the New England Patriots, whose A.F.C. dominance seems to date to the leather helmet era, had a reasonably comfy lead in their game in Miami.
If those results held, with only weeks to go in the regular season, the Patriots would once again be poised to have home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
That would make them a Super Bowl favorite.
It wasn’t hard to see all the way to late January and another frigid Foxborough conference championship game, after which workers would wheel out a stage of celebration where Bill Belichick would stand with confetti in his hair and awkwardly force a smile.
Late Sunday afternoon, it all seemed to be falling into place for the Patriots.
And then the unimaginable happened. A Belichick team collapsed and lost in a way that is virtually unprecedented in the modern history of the N.F.L. Shortly after, the Chiefs (11-2) rallied late and won in overtime against the Baltimore Ravens to maintain their status as the top playoff seed in the A.F.C.
But nothing was as stunning as what happened in the closing seconds of the Patriots-Dolphins game.
Trailing by five points with seven seconds left in the game, Miami snapped the football at its own 31 and tried a play that was imaginative in the 1980s but has since grown tiresome — the catch and lateral and lateral and hope for a miracle dash through the defense.
Ever since the University of California used a similar play in the final seconds of an upset of Stanford in 1982, teams around the nation have employed it in desperation. It almost never works.
Except it did on Sunday, when Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw to wide receiver Kenny Stills, who caught the football over the middle at his own 45. Stills, who was surrounded by three Patriots, held the ball briefly before pitching it to DeVante Parker.
Parker flipped the ball to running back Kenyan Drake, who snatched it with two Patriots defenders within an arm’s length of him. But neither Patriot could get Drake on the ground.
In fact, he was barely touched as he sliced through the rest of the New England defense. Most comically, the Patriots’ 6-foot-6 tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was probably on the field to bat down an anticipated Hail Mary, had the last good chance to stop Drake. Gronkowski instead chose the wrong angle to chase him, and with lumbering strides he clumsily missed the tackle and stumbled to the turf.
Drake’s 69-yard touchdown gave Miami a 34-33 victory and was the longest play from scrimmage to win a game with no time remaining in the fourth quarter since the N.F.L.-American Football League merger in 1970.
“It came down to one play,” Belichick said, “But there were a lot of things besides that.”
Belichick said that the Patriots, like all teams, practiced how to defend the multiple lateral, end-of-the-game play.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t do a good job on it today,” he said. “That’s not what we want to do. In the end, they made one more play than we did.”
Gronkowski said afterward, “I’ve never really been a part of anything like that.”
The loss dropped the Patriots to 9-4, and they will now need help from others if they want to be assured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Five of the last seven A.F.C. championship games have been hosted by New England, including the last two.
The Los Angeles Chargers, who defeated Cincinnati on Sunday, have a 10-3 record. The Houston Texans, who were upset at home by Indianapolis, are tied with New England at 9-4.
The loss to Miami overshadowed a vintage performance by Tom Brady, who threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns. But Patriots place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski left the door open for the Miami comeback by missing a 42-yard field-goal attempt and an extra-point try.
The Chiefs were led from behind against Baltimore by their sensational first-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whose 5-yard touchdown pass to Damien Williams tied the game, 24-24, with 57 seconds in the fourth quarter. In overtime, Mahomes completed six passes on Kansas City’s only possession to set up the game-winning, 35-yard field goal by Harrison Butker.
The victory clinched a playoff berth for Kansas City. The Patriots will need another victory to earn their 10th consecutive A.F.C. East championship — a title that should lead to the playoffs visiting Gillette Stadium again next month.
But by the time the N.F.L.’s early games had finished around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, the A.F.C. path to the Super Bowl was still scheduled to go through Kansas City.
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