The N.F.L.’s new emphasis on enforcing the roughing-the-passer rules has certainly affected many games this season. But on Sunday night, the rule played a crucial role not because of a game-changing penalty, but because of a player who wanted to avoid one.
The Patriots trailed the Chiefs, 33-30, with five and a half minutes left and were pressing for a touchdown at the Kansas City 4. On third down, Tom Brady went back to pass, but could not find a receiver immediately. The Chiefs rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks eluded his blocker and grabbed Brady from behind. It appeared that a sack was in the offing.
But Speaks inexplicably let go. Given a second life, Brady, not known as a rushing quarterback, kept the ball and ran forward for the touchdown. It was his second rushing touchdown of the year, after having none in 2016 and ’17. Replays showed Speaks’s disappointment after he realized his mistake.
If the Patriots had taken a sack on that third-down play, they very likely would have tried a field goal on fourth down and only tied the game at 33-33, instead of taking the lead, 37-33. The Chiefs eventually tied the game, 40-40, before losing on a last-second field goal. It was the Chiefs’ first loss of the season.
After the game, Speaks attributed his lapse to concerns over being penalized, saying he believed Brady had passed the ball already. “Because I thought the ball was gone, I ain’t taking him to the ground,” he told reporters.
He said that he regretted his in-the-moment decision and that he would not make the same mistake again.
“Whether we get the flag or not, whatever happens, you’ve just got to go ahead and push through it and go ahead and make that play,” he said.
Brady admitted he was surprised to shake off Speaks. “I didn’t know what happened,” he said after the game. “I’m just glad. I’ve got to watch it tomorrow.”
After years of criticism that the N.F.L. was not doing enough to protect players, especially quarterbacks, officials began this season by strictly enforcing the roughing-the-passer rule. Defenders were flagged for leading with their helmets and also punished for striking quarterbacks on the head with any body part.
More germane to the Speaks-Brady play has been the enforcement of the part of the rule that states defenders must not land on the quarterback “will all or most of the defender’s weight.” The Packers’ Clay Matthews drew such a penalty in Week 3 that prompted criticism from players past and present.
J. J. Watt of the Texans said the penalties were “out of control.” Matthews said the league was growing “soft.” The former quarterback Joe Theismann said: “Basically, you’re asking defensive guys not to hit the quarterback. What is the defensive player supposed to do?”
Most memorably, the ESPN analyst Jason Witten said the league had gone “left wing.”
After a few weeks of chaos, the penalties seemed to be slowing down, as defenders adjusted. But after Speaks let Brady go on Sunday night, the controversy has new life.
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the score of the game after Brady’s touchdown. The Patriots led 37-33 after it, not 40-30.