KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Joseph Ossai stood in front of his clean-out locker inside Arrowhead Stadium, while Bengals teammate B.J. Hill stood by for support, and lamented a mistake Sunday night that could easily haunt the defensive end for the rest of his career.
The Kansas City Chiefs were driving for a potential winning field goal in the AFC championship game when Ossai, a second-year pro, gave chase to scrambling Patrick Mahomes. Both were running at full speed when the All-Pro quarterback made it to the Cincinnati sideline, where Ossai gave a push from behind the sent Mahomes sprawling to the ground.
Penalty flags flew and Ossai knew immediately what he had done.
The 15-yard penalty for a late hit was enough to give Harrison Butker a field-goal chance, and the Chiefs' big-legged kicker barely coaxed the ball over the crossbar, giving Kansas City a 23-20 victory and a berth in the Super Bowl.
“I was just in full chase mode and pushing to maybe get him going backwards, because I knew he was going for the sideline, so make him go backwards and get that clock running,” Ossai said. “I didn't know how far out of bounds we were.”
It was enough that the flag was indisputable.
Making things worse, Ossai lay in a heap on the sideline as Mahomes trotted back to the field. He wound up hurting his right knee on the play, and an MRI exam is due Monday to determine the nature and extent of the injury.
“I've just got to learn from experience and know not to get close to that quarterback when he's close to the sideline,” said Ossai, who had played well up to the last minute of the game, and bravely answered questions from reporters afterward.
“If there's anything that could possibly cause a penalty in the dire situation like that," he said, "I've got to do better.”
Not everyone on the Cincinnati sideline was supportive after Ossai's mistake. TV cameras caught linebacker Germaine Pratt asking with an expletive why he was even near Mahomes at that point in the game. But most of the Bengals were ready to stand by Ossai's side, even batting away questions that they didn't like in the postgame locker room.
“There were a lot of other plays that could have turned the tide in that game in one second, so that’s not the only one,” said Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who was sacked five times and threw a pair of interceptions in the loss.
“This is emotional. We worked really hard to get here,” added Bengals coach Zac Taylor. "Any play that people feel like was left out there, you’re going to take it hard. We want guys like that, that this means a lot to. They care about it, care about their teammates. Joseph comes to work every day; he loves being a part of this team.”
Ossai's career has been a hard one so far. He was a third-round pick of the Bengals out of Texas in 2021, but a meniscus injury in his second preseason game landed him on injured reserve for the season. The Nigeria native returned this season and appeared in 16 regular-season games, making just 17 tackles to go along with 3 1/2 sacks.
Yet by the way teammates gathered around him Sunday, it was clear his attitude and perseverance had won them over.
“We’re one big family. It’s not fake. When the going gets tough, we lift each other up,” he said. "I am just happy I’ve got these group of guys around me, supporting me right now, because it’s hard. There’s a bunch of guys in that room that I’m very thankful for, B.J. being one of them. A lot of older ones. They’ve done a good job taking us under their wings.”
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