KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The balloon, which spun from end to end, seemed to almost freeze in time as it cut through the frigid air heading towards the west end of GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
A strong breeze, which at the time had wind chills near 0 degrees, slowed the progress of the ball after it left the foot of Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker around 9:00 pm Sunday night in the closing seconds of the AFC Championship Game.
“I couldn’t even look at him, bro,” said Kansas City Chiefs safety Bryan Cook. “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-best six field goals.
Combined with three dropped extra points, Butker missed nine kicks, the most he has ever missed in a season despite playing in just 13 games.
But with a berth in Super Bowl LVII on the line, Butker delivered from 45 yards into a strong headwind for the game-winning points in the Chiefs’ 23-20 win against Cincinnati.
“This is definitely the greatest kick of my career,” Butker said. “When you add up the adversity I’ve been through this season to then be able to pick myself back up and make that kick, make the game-winning kick to go to the Super Bowl, that’s definitely the greatest kick of my career.”
It was an unusually tense few seconds for a relatively short kick, given all the factors at play and all the stakes.
“I didn’t want to celebrate too soon,” Butker said. “Normally, if it goes into the center or inside the goalposts, I turn around or cheer, but that ball – I didn’t know if it had distance.”
Kansas City Chiefs field kicker Harrison Butker, center, hits the game-winning field goal against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half of the NFL AFC Championship playoff football game Sunday, January 29, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo.
Running back Isiah Pacheco said he found a few teammates and they all held hands for Butker’s kick.
“Unnerving,” said defensive end Carlos Dunlap. “I can’t think of a different storybook ending to our game than But, who had his hardships throughout the season.”
Defensive linemates Mike Danna soaked in all the drama: “I saw it. I have to see it. It’s something you never forget. It’s a moment – it’s a timeless moment, that’s what it is. So, let’s go back to the Super Bowl. We’re going to Arizona and need to take care of business.
Butker was perfect Sunday against the Bengals with three field goal attempts and two extra points.
The Chiefs will now face Philadelphia in Super Bowl LVII on February 12 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
“I’m glad we were able to pull it off,” 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 do football and I’m glad the special teams were able to do that for us and get us to the Super Bowl.
Butker said his range was only about 53 yards down to 55 yards in certain situations kicking towards that end zone.
“The ball wasn’t flying far for me going that way,” Butker said. “I don’t know about Evan McPherson (the Bengals kicker), but 55 was my limit in warmups going in that direction.”
Butker explained that NFL footballs are inflated to 13 psi indoors before the game, but psi plummets once the balls are brought out on a day like Sunday with single-digit wind chills.
“The leather is tough, but the ball is completely deflated,” Butker said. “I would like it if the balls were put at 13 outside temperature so you don’t hit a flat ball. But luckily it worked out. … Fortunately, he had enough distance. I just made sure I hit that line I wanted and it stayed there.
Some of Butker’s teammates never had any doubts.
“The thing about Harrison is that he puts in so much work and is really technical with his craft, so I walked out with 100% confidence that he was going to pull it off,” Wylie said. “I knew it was good before the ball was snapped. Butker is so lights out. I’m pretty sure I was one of the first to start partying. I looked back ready to celebrate and Butker was still watching him enter.