Nobody ever could have, or would have, predicted that one play could cost multiple teams playoff spots and Super-Bowl winning coaches their jobs and change the course of NFL history.
But it did.
Go back to the San Diego Chargers-Kansas City Chiefs game on Dec. 14, and the NFL’s most significant play of the season.
With 1:13 remaining in a game that San Diego trailed 21-16, Chargers punter Mike Scifres — did he have an incredible season or what? — attempted an onside kick. It bounced into the usually sure hands of Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe — and bounced out.
And history changed.
If Bowe held onto that onside kick, Kansas City would have won the game. Instead, Bowe dropped it, Chargers wide receiver Kassim Osgood recovered it and San Diego pulled out an improbable 22-21 victory.
If Kansas City had won the game, it’s very likely that Chiefs president Carl Peterson wouldn’t have resigned the next day, opening the job that went to Scott Pioli.
If Bowe held onto the onside kick, San Diego would have lost and Denver would have clinched the AFC West title that day, meaning Broncos coach Mike Shanahan wouldn’t have been fired and Josh McDaniels wouldn’t have been hired in his place.
If Kansas City had won that game, San Diego would have traveled to Tampa Bay the next Sunday as a team eliminated from the playoffs instead of a rejuvenated and dangerous one, meaning the Buccaneers likely would have won the game and clinched a playoff spot. But San Diego won, and Tampa Bay continued its tailspin that led to the firing of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen and the hiring of Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik.
If Tampa Bay had beaten San Diego, the Philadelphia Eagles would have been eliminated from the playoffs and wouldn’t be playing in the NFC Championship Game.
It all goes back to one play. One single play. If Bowe holds on, Shanahan stays, San Diego goes home, Chargers coach Norv Turner might be in trouble, Gruden advances, Philadelphia sits and history changes. Now history changes in an entirely different way on the basis of the result of one play. One single play.
Hollywood gives us sliding doors, and so does the NFL. But in football, it takes a little time before anyone realizes it.