On 4th-and-1 from the Chiefs' 13-yard line, O'Brien sent out the field-goal unit to take a 24-0 lead with 10:54 left in the second quarter. He told reporters he thought a field goal was the best play in that situation:
Kansas City scored a touchdown on the next possession.
Sensing an opportunity to derail a comeback attempt before it started gaining too much steam, the Texans ran a fake punt on 4th-and-4 at their own 31-yard line when they got the ball again. The gamble failed, giving Kansas City a short field.
"We felt like we weren't going to be able to punt too many times today," O'Brien said of the move. "It didn't work. The play didn't work."
He seemingly contradicted himself regarding the field goal. If Houston thought a shootout was in store, then trying to find the end zone would've made more sense than settling for a field goal that close to the goal line.
The fake punt was obviously risky at such an early juncture. But O'Brien sensed—as did many others watching the game—that the Chiefs had finally awoken following Damien Williams' 17-yard touchdown reception to make it 24-7.
The play nearly worked too, with Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen making a great tackle in the open field.
Naturally, O'Brien opened himself up to widespread criticism.
Given how much his defense struggled to contain Patrick Mahomes (321 passing yards, five touchdowns), running a fake punt was arguably the correct call even with the benefit of hindsight.
Second-guessing the head coach is natural after his team throws away a 24-point lead in one quarter of a playoff game. But the Texans finished 26th in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders, and allowed 388.3 yards per game during the regular season.
O'Brien was justified in thinking he had to keep the ball out of Mahomes' hands, even with a 17-point first-half advantage.
With the benefit of the turnover on downs and a fumbled kickoff return by DeAndre Carter, the Chiefs needed to go 39 total yards to set up Travis Kelce's first two touchdown receptions. From there, Kansas City had scoring drives that went 90, 85, 77 and 72 yards. Regardless of the distance, the AFC West champions moved the ball at will.
Looking at the fake punt as the turning point somewhat obscures the fact the Texans were a flawed team that simply couldn't match up with the Chiefs when the hosts got rolling.