KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The football, spinning end over end, almost seemed to freeze in time as it cut through the frigid air headed toward the west end zone at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
A strong breeze, which had wind chills near 0 degrees at the time, slowed the ball’s progress after it left Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s foot around 9 p.m. on Sunday night in the closing seconds of the AFC Championship Game.
“I couldn’t even watch it, bro,” Kansas City Chiefs safety Bryan Cook said. “I was nervous, but I closed my eyes and just prayed.”
Butker, who missed a month early in the season with a sprained ankle, attempted fewer kicks (24) than any other season in his six-year NFL career. He still missed a career-worst six field goals.
Combined with three missed extra points, Butker missed nine kicks — the most he’s ever missed in a season despite playing only 13 games.
But with a berth in Super Bowl LVII at stake, Butker delivered from 45 yards out into a strong headwind for the game-winning points in the Chiefs’ 23-20 win against Cincinnati.
“This is definitely the biggest kick of my career,” Butker said. “When you add up the adversity that I’ve gone through this season to then be able to bounce back and make that kick, make the game-winning kick to go to the Super Bowl, it’s definitely the biggest kick of my career.”
It was an unusually tense few seconds for a relatively short kick given all the factors at play and all that was at stake.
“I didn’t want to celebrate too early,” Butker said. “Normally, if it’s going down the middle or inside the two posts, I’ll turn around or celebrate, but that ball — I just didn’t know if it had the distance.”
Running back Isiah Pacheco said he found some teammates and they all held hands for Butker’s kick.
“Nerve-racking,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “I can’t think of a different storybook ending for our game than coming down to But, who’s had his adversity over the season.”
Fellow defensive linemen Mike Danna soaked in all of the drama: “I watched it. I’ve got to see it. It’s something that you never forget. It’s a moment — it’s a timeless moment, that’s what it is. So, we’re going back to the Super Bowl. We’re going to Arizona and we’ve got to handle business.”
Butker was perfect Sunday against the Bengals on three field-goal tries and two extra points.
The Chiefs will now face Philadelphia in Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
“I'm glad we could come through,” Butker said. “(Holder) Tommy (Townsend) and (long snapper) James (Winchester) did a great job and the line did a great job blocking. We were able to make the kick and I’m glad the special teams was able to make that kick for us and get us to the Super Bowl.”
Butker said his range was only about 53 yards up to 55 yards in certain situations kicking toward that end zone.
“The ball was just not flying far for me going that direction,” Butker said. “I don’t know for (Bengals kicker) Evan McPherson, but 55 was about my limit in the warmups going that direction.”
Butker explained that NFL kicking balls are inflated to 13 psi inside before the game, but the psi plummets once the balls are taken outside on a day like Sunday with single-digit wind chills.
“The leather’s hard, but the ball is completely deflated,” Butker said. “I would love it if the balls got put at 13 at the outdoor temperature so you’re not hitting a flat ball. But thankfully it went through. ... Thankfully, it had enough distance. I just made sure that I hit that line that I wanted to and it just stayed there.”
Some of Butker’s teammates never had a doubt.
“The thing about Harrison is he puts in so much work and he’s truly a technician with his craft, so I went out with 100% confidence that he was going to make it,” Wylie said. “I knew it was good before the ball was snapped. Butker’s so lights out. I’m pretty sure I was one of the first people to start celebrating. I looked back ready to celebrate and Butker was still watching it go in.”