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Knights of Andreas 7.07: The Coming Storm

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Knights of Andreas
FOUR YEARS LATER

 

Chapter Eighty-Eight – The Coming Storm

“Leadership is about leading by example. Leadership is about your teammates looking at you and saying, ‘That’s exactly how the game is supposed to be played.’” –Chet Ripka

Schneider takes a deep breath and leans forward, fingers twitching, pressed against his mouth.

“Ok,” he says. “Read it.”

His assistant sits up and straightens the paper in front of her, reading it verbatim.

“Upon the conclusion of Roger Goodell’s contract, current Los Angeles Knights owner Wayne Schneider will assume the role of commissioner of the National Football League. Ever since purchasing the then-Oakland Raiders in 2009, Mr. Schneider has distinguished himself as one of the most effective leaders in the NFL. His vision and leadership have brought football back to Los Angeles and led the Knights to three Super Bowl championships. We eagerly look forward to a new era for our league. The process for determining transition of ownership for the Knights will begin immediately.”

She looks up. Schneider replays the words in his head.

“Plus a few sentences about Goodell’s accomplishments, obviously.”

“Of course, sir.”

“And maybe just ‘Schneider’ instead of ‘Mr. Schneider.’ More personable.”

The assistant scribbles on the paper with her pen. Schneider leans back, his office quiet around him. The entire MedComm Center is empty; he made sure of it.

“We’ll make sure it’s perfect before I present it,” Schneider says, just as excited to read it to other owners as he is to see it hit the press wire.

 

Nursing fresh wounds from the Vikings massacre, Knights fans pack Farmers Field for week 15 worried about the fading playoff picture. The Knights are still very much in the wild card race (and technically alive for the division), but the prospect of facing the AFC East leaders inspires little confidence.

The Knights destroy the Bills, intercepting Josh Allen three times and meticulously picking apart their stout defense en route to a 27-7 victory. Though the Chiefs clinch the division minutes later, Knights fans head home in high spirits. The Knights advance to 9-5, tied with the Steelers for the sixth and final playoff spot, a tiebreaker they lose because of their week 2 loss in Pittsburgh.

Seven days later, week 16’s Sunday Night Football game is marketed as a divisional battle with major playoff implications, but the game in San Diego is hardly a battle. Now committing to Justin Herbert at quarterback, the Chargers are grueling through the final weeks of a rebuilding season. The Knights defense makes easy work of the rookie signal caller, and the team coasts to a 30-13 win.

Courtesy of a Steelers loss hours earlier, the 10-5 Knights assume the sixth seed in the AFC. Despite either the Colts or Texans primed for the fifth seed (both are 11-4 and one will win the South) and a wave of teams within reach of the sixth seed, the Knights enter week 17 with a simple mandate.

Win, and they make the playoffs. Lose, and they need help.

 

The first day of practice for the Broncos, players hit the field with energy, confidence, and—though no one will admit it—fear. With the possibility of missing the postseason lurking on the horizon, the Knights treat this Sunday’s contest like a playoff game.

About an hour or so into practice, players notice a man most recognize as the assistant GM make his way onto the field toward Coach McKenzie. They talk for less than a minute. Neither looks particularly concerned, and when their talk ends, practice simply continues.

Another hour later, the on-field session of practice concludes, and players hit the showers before breaking into positional groups for film review. McKenzie works his way through the locker room toward the offensive linemen.

“Chase,” McKenzie says.

“Yeah, coach?”

“Chance needs to see you in his office after you’ve changed. Will only take a few minutes.”

Still putting on his clothes, Grodd spends every second deciding what he’s about to experience. This is the contract situation. Has to be. And it can only end in two ways. There’s no other reason a player would visit the GM’s office unless he’s about to be released, and Grodd can’t see how that could be happening.

After changing, Grodd jogs upstairs to Phillips’ office, a light layer of sweat clinging his shirt to his chest. He sees Phillips, standing over the phone, and the assistant GM sitting at a nearby table.

“Chase, come in,” Phillips says, pointing to the phone. “I’ve got your agent on speakerphone.”

“Good afternoon, Chase,” the agent says.

Grodd finds no hint of good or bad news in either of their voices, simply waiting, studying the stoic look on Phillips’ face, which seems to hold for an eternity, until he finally breaks.

“We’ve reached an agreement,” Phillips says, smiling.

“Three years?” Grodd asks without thinking.

“Four,” the agent says.

“We’ve agreed to announce after the season is over,” Phillips says. “Technically, we can’t sign an extension before then anyway, but everything is locked in, and we’re very happy about it. Congratulations.”

He extends his hand, which Grodd snatches out of midair and shakes vigorously. Phillips and Jensen leave the room to let Grodd talk specifics with his agent. Grodd hears the financial figures quicker than he can process them—$56 million total, $32 million guaranteed. When the call ends, Phillips and Jensen reenter. Grodd shakes both their hands.

“And Chase,” Phillips says, “no word of this to your teammates until after the season, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, sure,” Grodd says.

“Alright then. We’ll let you get to film review.”

Grodd hurries out of the room. Phillips’ polite smile fades into a curious grin as he shifts his attention to Jensen.

“That phone conversation last night,” Phillips says, “between you and Grodd’s agent. Just how long did that conversation last?”

“Long enough,” Jensen says, unable to contain his smile.

“Well done,” Phillips says, also smiling.

Meanwhile, Grodd scurries down the stairs toward the first floor, realizing he needs to conceal his excitement. But his mind is already piecing together every element of what will be a festive, celebratory night at the Grodd residence, which is about to come off the market.

 

Practice grinds on for the Knights defense, with Ripka especially focused on his defensive captain. He watches Randall gather the entire front seven after one particularly sloppy rep of an option blitz. Once they finish another set of reps and go for a water break, he makes his move.

“Briggs. Talk for a second?”

Randall grabs a cup of water, takes a swig, and steps away from the table full of water and Gatorade coolers, out of earshot of the rest of his teammates, and stands next to his defensive coordinator. They both look across the practice field at the offense going through rep after rep.

“What’s up, coach?” Randall says.

“Well, since you keep ducking me on the beer offer,” Ripka says, “I decided not to wait anymore.”

“Hey, sorry, I just—”

“Don’t bother.” Ripka looks around aimlessly while nothing happens. “I was kind of hoping you would make this easy on me, not dance around it.”

“Dance around what?”

“I’ve coached you for what, six years now? Played alongside you for two. You’re the best middle linebacker in the game because of your instinct. And some part of that instinct has been missing lately.”

Randall says nothing, jarred by Ripka being this scathing.

“No offense, coach, but if you think there’s a problem with my game, let’s hit the film room right now.”

“It’s the concussions, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“A few games back, when Ta’Shawn came to the sideline after getting hit in the head. I saw the look in your eyes. You remember?”

“I didn’t like seeing him shaken up.”

“No one likes seeing teammates get their bell rung. But something else is bothering you, isn’t it?”

“Coach, no offense, but you retired because you didn’t want any more hits to the head. What’s your strategy in this pep talk here?”

“I don’t have one,” Ripka says, meeting Randall’s intense stare. “But I’d rather discuss it than let it hang in the air.”

“That’s refreshing.”

“I know the fear, Briggs. Playing and wondering on every snap if the next hit takes years off the end of your life.”

Randall gives in, trying to relax his posture despite how tense his shoulders and neck feel.

“Is it any easier, after you retire?” he asks.

“What do you mean?”

“When you’re not playing anymore. Is it easier, knowing you’re not taking any more hits?”

“It’s worse.”

Randall’s head snaps sideways to study his coach.

“Just knowing that somewhere,” Ripka says, “there’s this storm coming for me. I won’t know when it’s coming. I might not even know when it happens. And I can’t stop it.”

Neither man says anything for a minute. Randall swallows the last of the water. Some players walk back onto the field; practice will resume any second now.

“I guess we should have just been reporters,” Randall says, “work some desk job for ESPN.”

“We could have,” Ripka says. “Briggs, if that fear starts consuming your play, you need to walk away. If you can hold it off, then you can keep going.”

“I can keep going.”

“Good. Remind me after practice, I’ll give you the name and number of a doctor I see.”

“Doctor?”

“Head doctor. I see him regularly, keep tabs on any symptoms for CTE. Just looking out. Ok, we gotta get going.”

Ripka walks off, ready to get players back in formation.

“Coach,” Randall calls back. “Does it help?”

Ripka thinks about it.

“A little.”

 

The press room hosts another round of conferences, starting with McKenzie and the coaches, ending with some of the players. Everyone is all business, focused on beating the Broncos and nothing else, and injury news is scarce, so the conference ends quickly.

Once it does, Javad is one of the first on his feet, looking immediately down the row at Jessica, also headed for the exit. He joins the crowd of reporters out the door, more aware than ever of the sickening feeling in his stomach, and closes on her in the parking lot.

“Jessica.”

She slows her pace and stops, facing him. He finally sees how tired she looks. When he tries to speak, nothing comes out. His throat feels dry.

“What?” she says flatly.

“I was thinking, tonight…maybe I could call you. We could go somewhere. Or just talk…on the phone. Whatever you want. But…I wanted to call. I want to call.”

“Fine,” Jessica says, showing no emotion Javad can detect. “Call me tonight.”

She gets out her keys, starts up her car, and drives away. Javad stands alone in the parking lot, forgetting for a moment where he parked his car.

 

McKenzie looks out over the table crammed into his office at his four veteran players, not quite processing Randall’s comments about some red zone formation in this week’s playbook. With no guarantee of a playoff berth, this is the final players council meeting of the year, and it is seconds from ending.

“I’ll talk to Chet if you want,” McKenzie says, “but you can go ahead and do it first. Might be easier to keep things on that side of the ball.”

“Good enough,” Randall says.

“Ok, anything else?”

Everyone exchanges flat looks at one another.

“Alright then,” Maverick says, standing up. The other three players follow suit, eager to start their weekend.

“Hang on,” McKenzie says.

The players freeze and look back at their coach.

“We’re not done yet.”

“Why not?” Maverick says.

“We got to clear the air. Sit down, all of you.”

Everyone inches back to their seats. No one feels compelled to begin the imminent conversation. Once all four have settled back into the same chairs, McKenzie sits up and leans forward, abandoning the relaxed posture he typically assumes for these meetings.

“We all know what this is about,” he says, “so let’s fuck off with the foreplay. I know I should have brought this up sooner. I’m sorry.”

“You apologizing?” Randall says. “Is that what you’re doing?”

McKenzie leers at Randall for a moment, then glances at everyone else; they seem defensive, but they stay silent. So McKenzie keeps talking.

“I’ve been beating myself up over this for months, and I’m fucking sick of it. You all want to start beating me up for it, that’s fine. But when we all walk out that door, cards are on the table. No more bullshit. We find common ground.”

“What sort of common ground?” Grodd says.

“That depends.” McKenzie studies the room again. It seems like everyone has relaxed slightly—Maverick, in particular, looks subdued—except Randall.

“Humor me,” McKenzie says, holding up his hands. “From Melinda’s perspective, is it so bad she found someone in her grief? Is it so fucking bad she doesn’t have to go to bed alone anymore?”

No one answers, leaving McKenzie no choice but to press on. Months ago, maybe weeks ago, he could have handled this differently. But not now.

“C’mon, assholes. You got a mind to speak, then speak it.”

“I think you can understand why we would have a problem, coach,” Grodd says.

“I do. Like I said, I had a problem with it myself. Still do, I guess. But it’s not hanging over this team anymore. That’s why we’re here.”

“Never should have in the first place,” Grantzinger says.

“How’s that, Zack?”

“I don’t think we should be talking about it at all.”

“Well, we are talking about it. Next time you speak in this room, add something of value to the conversation, will you?”

Grantzinger looks ready to throw his chair across the room. Everyone else backs down, gathering their thoughts, until McKenzie speaks again.

“You guys want to take some macho high ground in Merle’s name? Fine, let’s go there. Other than Mav, when’s the last time any of you went to see Melinda? Or Trish, for that matter?”

“We already know that Mav knew about it,” Randall says. “So don’t bother trying to keep him out of it.”

“Just because I knew, doesn’t mean I like it,” Maverick says.

“Oh,” McKenzie says, casting Maverick a inquiring look, “we want to talk about this season, let’s talk about that, Mav.”

“What do you mean?”

“Whatever happened to our quarterback, Maverick, the fiery, heart-on-his-sleeve, take-no-prisoners gunslinger? Haven’t seen him in a while.”

“My numbers haven’t gone down in—”

“I’m not talking about your fucking stats, Jonathan. I’m talking about your teammates looking into your eyes and seeing that menacing fire that I’m seeing right now, about your teammates looking at you and knowing you’re gonna lead them to victory. No matter what.”

“Players are supposed to look at their head coach that way, too,” Maverick says, “aren’t they?”

“We’re getting a little off-topic, wouldn’t you say, coach?” Grodd says.

“Fine then,” McKenzie says, bouncing his eyes between all four of them. Maverick looks ready to explode, but Grantzinger seems to have calmed down. “Be honest with yourselves. Is this about me? Or is this about Merle?”

No one has a quick response. McKenzie leans back slightly, and everyone realizes he wants them to think deeply about the question. So they do, memories of their old coach rushing back. Memories of the funeral, of the months after, years after, of plans to visit Melinda and Trish, of this season.

“He was my best friend,” McKenzie says softly. Everyone looks up and realizes tears are forming in his eyes. “I knew him longer than you all did. I miss him.”

“Oh!” Randall says. “And you think we don’t? All due respect, coach, but we played for him four years before we knew you existed. And we got along just fine.”

“That’s right,” Grantzinger says. “You want to throw yourself a pity party, that’s your business. You want to pretend you’re the only one in this building who wouldn’t give anything to see him walk through those doors again, you can fuck yourself sideways, because we got no time for you.”

“Alright, here it is,” Maverick says calmly, leaning forward. “If Merle were still here, he would kick your ass, maybe even kill you, then go home and be with Melinda. And they’d be happy. But he’s not here. He’s not our coach anymore. You are.”

“He never really cared about anything we did outside the football field,” Grodd says. “I guess I don’t see why anything should be different now.”

McKenzie blinks rapidly, not wanting to brush the tears away with his hands. He opens his mouth, praying the words don’t fail him.

“We are judged for what we do on the field, that’s right,” he says. “And somehow, already, we only got one game left on that field this year. Unless we do something about it.”

He looks up, studying their faces again. Everyone seems calm—emotional, but calm. Now is the moment, he decides.

“I don’t know how the season got away from us early on, but here we are, fifteen games in. If we want to play in January, we can’t take any bullshit on the field with us.”

“Agreed,” Grantzinger says, glancing sideways at Randall, who nods passively, finally ready to let this go.

“Merle loved you all,” McKenzie says. “And so do I. He was terrible at showing it, and I’m not much better. I thought I could just coach through everything, like he could, but I can’t. I need my leaders. I need you, men. I’m not making any sort of locker room speech because it won’t accomplish a goddamn thing. I’m counting on you all to have the smaller conversations, the real conversations, and make sure this locker room is ready for a playoff run.”

“It will be,” Grantzinger says, this time prompting nods from all around the table.

“These young guys are pumped for the playoffs, but they have no idea what it really is, what it takes. I need you all to communicate that to them. They need it.”

“They’ll get it,” Maverick says.

McKenzie surveys the table again, finally seeing what he wants to see.

“So be it,” McKenzie says. “That’s my piece. Anyone want to say anything else?” The players look around at each other, relieved to see faces of acceptance. For the first time in months, they will leave this office and take nothing unsaid with them.

“Anyone wants to talk more, I’ll be here for another few hours. Otherwise, you are dismissed, ladies.”

The moment seems to last a whole minute as everyone leaves the room, giving their coach looks he interprets as positive, and the office is empty.

McKenzie stares out over the table, in no particular hurry to watch more film. But he will, eventually. And then he’ll drive home, without any shame or regret, perhaps even looking forward to it.

 

Knights fans swarm Farmers Field with the incumbent excitement and tension of week 17 in the air. They prepare to cheer on whatever kind of football game unfolds, and to monitor scoreboards and tiebreaking procedures to understand the Knights’ playoff chances in real time.

Though fans brace for a rough start, the first possession after kickoff eases their nerves. The Knights march down the field easily, and Maverick finds Harper for a fifteen-yard touchdown.

The offense waits patiently on the sideline, watching as the defense forces an incompletion on third down. Maverick gets up and puts on his helmet, noticing McKenzie walking toward him.

“This drive,” McKenzie says.

“Absolutely.”

When the offense re-takes the field against a tired Broncos defense, Maverick operates the no-huddle. Though yards are tougher to find this drive, they grind out first down after first down, and Maverick enjoys cleaner pockets. With the first quarter nearly over, he drops back and fires a laser to Wilkes, who outjumps double coverage and comes down with it in the end zone.

The Knights add another touchdown in the second quarter while suffering only a field goal and go into the locker room up 21-3.

Things stall on offense. The defense allows consecutive field goals, and tension once again ripples through Farmers Field.

Maverick resists the urge to go no-huddle, and McKenzie mixes in more running plays. Behind good blocking, Hart-Smith finds holes and hits them with speed, setting a stable run game. Maverick finds enough open receivers to keep the drive going, taking the game into the fourth quarter. On third and two just outside the red zone, Maverick launches a play-action pass to Harper, who snags it in the corner of the end zone for his third touchdown of the day, giving the home team a 28-9 lead.

The Broncos go no-huddle in response, reaching midfield quickly. But any comeback fears dissolve when Osborne breaks through on a blitz, strips Drew Lock, and a black jersey emerges with the football.

The final minutes of the regular season tick away without incident. The score doesn’t change, nor does its implication. Players on the home team’s sideline celebrate the work that awaits them the next morning. A few of them gather, looking up at the stadium’s video screens showing scores from around the league.

“Who won the Houston/Indy game?” Maverick says to anyone who knows. The winner of that game takes the third seed in the conference and faces the Knights next week.

“Indy,” Hart-Smith says.

“You know what that means,” Grodd says.

Maverick smiles, more excited about next week’s opposing quarterback than he has been all year.

“Rivers.”

As soon as the clock hits zero, the PA announcer informs the crowd that the Knights have officially qualified for the playoffs.

After one last round of cheers and applause ends, a touch of sadness slows the walk of Knights fans leaving Farmers Field, a venue they will not see for eight months. As the sixth seed, the Knights are guaranteed only road games should they keep winning. The closest they could potentially get to Los Angeles is the new Rams stadium in Las Vegas, site of Super Bowl LV.

 

Monday morning, football fans plan their next weekend around the Wild Card Round schedule and study the playoff bracket as a whole.

The league deals the Knights a small blow, slotting them into Saturday afternoon for their matchup with the Colts. Sunday afternoon, the Texans will go to Buffalo to play the Bills, who also won their division the previous day. The 13-3 Chiefs and 12-4 Ravens will get the weekend off.

In the NFC, Caden Daniel’s 12-4 Packers and Pete Carroll’s 11-5 Seahawks get to watch a logjam of 10-6 teams. A tiebreaker determined the NFC East winner, but the Eagles will travel to Dallas to settle the division Saturday night. Sunday, the 49ers will travel to Atlanta, the surprising beneficiary of a late-season Drew Brees injury.

For the Knights, the sixth seed clears their playoff path: a win in Indianapolis guarantees them a trip to Kansas City against the conference’s top seed.

 

Tuesday morning, while most of the league counts down to Wild Card Weekend, thirty-two owners meet in corporate meeting halls of a downtown Phoenix hotel with much more consequential matters to deliberate.

Some stipulations in the CBA will be haggled over, yes, but for the moment, Wayne Schneider waits in an empty hallway just outside a meeting room, inside which a group of six owners are discussing Schneider himself.

For Schneider, this is the last big hurdle before he can make his case to the full assembly of owners plus Goodell. He needs a group of owners (small, but not too small—six is perfect) to back him completely. In the room now, leading the discussion is his number one ally, Chargers owner/representative Dean Spanos.

Ever since financing the new Chargers’ stadium in San Diego and preventing the city from losing the team, Schneider and Spanos have become good friends. Today, Schneider cashes in on that friendship, and Spanos returns the favor for his new stadium.

After today, the next full assembly where Schneider can present his case could occur as early as Thursday, or it could be pushed back to next week. In either case, Schneider will be ready.

The meeting room door opens. Schneider’s eyes widen and fixate on the doorway as multiple owners rush out down the hall without giving him a look. Finally, Spanos emerges and approaches. Schneider rises to his feet and buttons his suit. Spanos has a tired look on his face.

“It’s not gonna happen, Wayne,” Spanos says.

Schneider’s mouth dries. The moment evades him. He can’t be sure he’s standing in a downtown Phoenix hotel or talking to Dean Spanos or talking to anyone at all.

“They didn’t go for it,” Spanos says. “I don’t think it was personal, just principle, I don’t know. I’m sorry, Wayne.”

Schneider considers his plans for the next few weeks, all of which are now apparently useless, the seeds of a year’s worth of planting, never to grow.

“Hey, listen, I gotta run. We’ll talk tonight. Dinner at Dominick’s, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Schneider manages to say.

Spanos extends his arm for a tap on Schneider’s shoulder he doesn’t feel, and disappears.

After a moment, or maybe several minutes, Schneider moves his legs toward the opposite end of the floor. Across from the elevators, he stares out the windows into and beyond downtown, where a picturesque blue sky meets a majestic chain of mountains, though neither brings him any solace.

 

Minutes before kickoff, Lucas Oil Stadium rocks with the excitement of playoff football. On the visitors’ sideline, Knights players and coaches think nothing of their inexplicable losses this season, nothing of their goals to win the division. They allow the playoff atmosphere to consume them.

The Colts get the ball first. Maverick watches Philip Rivers, his old rival, lead his offense down the field, one first down at a time, until he hits Jack Doyle in the end zone, and the domed stadium bursts with deafening screams.

Maverick ignores the bickering among the defense and takes the field. He wants to get Wilkes involved early, but blue jerseys swarm him, so he dumps it off to Gillespie instead. A frustrating but effective short passing game moves the chains, and McKenzie times a draw perfectly. A crushing next-level block by Grodd springs Hart-Smith to the end zone.

Rivers doesn’t have any difficulty moving the chains. Grantzinger is doubled and stuffed at the line, no one else generates any pressure, and Randall can only watch as the secondary behind him allows open receiver after open receiver. Though it seems quick to the Knights, the Colts’ drive consumes the rest of the first quarter. Barely into the second quarter, Rivers fakes a handoff on third and goal and rolls out, lofting the ball to a wide-open tight end.

Ripka considers major adjustments; he knows he can’t win without some sort of pass rush. Should they start selling out with blitzes? He and Randall discuss it as Maverick gets back to work. Wilkes is still blanketed, but Maverick knows better than to fight it. With the combination of DeForest Buckner and ex-Knight Sam Luck, the Colts defensive line will crush Maverick if he stays in the pocket too long. They both line up on the right side, away from Grodd’s protection.

With no one else open, Maverick throws a bomb to a covered Wilkes, figuring the pass will land out of bounds. It does, but a merciful defensive holding call gives the Knights new life. They take advantage, never facing a third down the rest of the drive, capped by a Gillespie touchdown.

The battle of methodical offense continues. Rivers moves the chains and reaches the red zone again, where the Knights tighten up, forcing consecutive third downs, but the Colts convert each one. Marlon Mack takes a sweep, gets to the edge, and dives for the pylon. The Colts re-take the lead with six minutes to go in the half.

Not wanting the ball in Rivers’ hands again before halftime, McKenzie and Maverick work the clock as they move the chains, allowing the play clock to run down before every snap. The Knights cross midfield with three minutes to go and enter the red zone with one. Maverick takes an end zone shot to Wilkes, absorbing a crushing hit from Luck in the process. The pass lands incomplete, and the ex-teammates exchange a brief greeting. The next play, Maverick escapes the pocket and sees a surprising amount of open turf, diving into the end zone.

The Colts don’t have enough time for another drive, so the first half ends in a 21-21 tie. The stadium hums with anxiety as both teams head for the lockers. In their luxury suite, the trio of Schneider, Phillips, and Jensen fall silent, not exchanging a single word during halftime. Phillips’ mind, of course, is racing as fast as his heart is pumping, pondering the ramifications of Schneider’s failed plan (assuming his source is correct). His possible promotion, as well as his and Jensen’s standing in the organization as a whole, hangs in the balance like the game before them.

Maverick and the offense retake the field with an opportunity to get their first lead of the day. After a few first downs, they face third and one. Hart-Smith takes it up the middle, where Buckner stuffs him, and the Knights are the first team to punt.

Ripka watches helplessly as Rivers hits first down after first down. None of the Knights’ halftime adjustments appears the least bit effective. He calls plays while scanning the playbook, desperate for another change. Hayes, doubling T.Y. Hilton over the top, bites too hard on a double move, and an open Hilton catches the touchdown pass in stride.

With the defense reeling, McKenzie calls plays aggressively. Maverick, disregarding all of Wilkes’ halftime bitching, keeps hitting Harper and Gillespie for quick strikes, waiting for a corner to bite on a pump fake. One eventually does, and Harper catches a forty-yard pass that sets up first and goal. Facing third and goal on the one-yard line, Hart-Smith runs right again, this time behind a counter pull by Grodd, who stuffs Buckner, creating a hole just big enough. Hart-Smith dives through it and ties the game.

Ripka’s on-the-fly adjustments take effect. Grantzinger lines up in five-point stance but drops back in coverage every few plays. The secondary alternates between man and zone coverage nearly every play, and Randall switches pre-snap a few times. After a few first downs, Rivers faces third and eight. Sensing an opportunity, Ripka calls a blitz. Grantzinger and Randall line up at linebacker in a nickel formation, and both go for Rivers on the snap. Grantzinger breaks through. Rivers runs to escape, but he’s too late. Grantzinger wraps his arms around the quarterback’s waist and wrangles him down. The Colts punt for the first time.

Maverick looks at the scoreboard: 6:44 to go in the third quarter. Again with an opportunity to seize the lead, he wants to go for it, but McKenzie’s calls are frustratingly patient. A balanced drive crosses midfield, and Maverick takes his shot. He drops back, stares down Wilkes, then fires deep for Harper, in single coverage. The receiver adjusts at the last second and the ball hits him in the chest as he falls, down on the four-yard line. Two plays later, Hart-Smith punches in another touchdown, and the Knights have their first lead of the day, 35-28, near the end of the third quarter.

When the fourth quarter begins with the Colts mid-drive, fans around the stadium take a cleansing breath, gassed from the offensive firepower showcased so far and bracing for whatever is to come.

Ripka calls plays carefully, desperate to make things difficult for Rivers, who hangs longer in the pocket, facing little pass rush, and finds receivers open. The Colts eventually face third and five from the thirty-yard-line. The Knights show blitz. Rivers drops back against a three-man rush. No blue jerseys break open. Solomon rushes on the edge and touches the football, nearly knocking it out of Rivers’ hand. The quarterback steps up and hurries a throw over the middle, which lands incomplete.

Maverick puts his helmet on as the field goal team lines up, knowing a two-score lead is about to be possible. Then, the field goal sails wide right, and the Knights take over with a seven-point lead. Maverick approaches Wilkes.

“Had enough suffering for one day?” he says.

“Yes sir, I sure have!” Wilkes says.

Maverick walks around until he finds McKenzie. Without a word, he scans the coach’s laminated sheet, finds the play he wants, and points to it.

“A field goal puts us in great shape, Mav,” McKenzie says.

“I don’t want a field goal,” Maverick says. “I want to end this right fucking now.”

The Knights work the clock again, passing the ten-minute mark as they near midfield. Facing second and one, Maverick and McKenzie know it’s time.

Hart-Smith runs right and Grodd swings around to block—Maverick pulls the ball back. Grodd stuffs Buckner in pass protection while Maverick rolls left, stumbling slightly, seeing Wilkes break on a deep post. His timing is off, he knows, so Maverick sets his feet and launches the ball with as much velocity as his 31-year-old arm can muster. The pass wobbles as it sails through the air. Wilkes tracks it, running full speed a step ahead of both defenders. Near the goal line, he leaps and spins, catching it above outstretched blue gloves, slamming his back onto the end zone turf, still holding the ball.

Maverick sprints full speed down the field, screaming, barely finding Wilkes amidst the chaos. For the first time all day, Lucas Oil Stadium is eerily quiet.

Ripka, finally comfortable, reverts to his first-half plays. The Knights’ bend-don’t-break defense finds purpose at last, with Rivers hitting receivers at the great expense of the clock, which ticks under four minutes by the time the Colts reach the red zone.

Against fourth and six, Ripka again sends a three-man rush. Rivers drops back, looks, looks, looks, then hopelessly lofts one into the end zone. Hilton is open for a moment before Hayes swats the pass away for a turnover on downs. The visitors’ sideline erupts in celebration while fans begin marching up the steps.

The Knights run down what clock they can, eventually turning it over on downs, but it’s beyond too late for the home team. A couple fruitless Hail Mary passes later, the clock hits zero, and the Knights win, 42-28.

Maverick finds his nemesis near midfield as a swath of cameras circles them.

“Good game, Mav,” Rivers says as the two shake hands and embrace respectfully.

“You too, man. Let’s do it again next year.”

“You bet.”

The post-game celebration is as invigorating as it is relieving for the Knights. Whatever the regular season was is long over. When the weekend ends, only eight teams will still be playing, and the Knights will be one of them.

The Knights have just announced to the league that they are not a franchise enduring a mild rebuild. They are not a seriously flawed football team. They are not a middling wild card participant. A year that was on a road toward a lost season has now turned onto another path: the road to the Super Bowl.

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