AFC Championship: Kansas City Chiefs 23, Cincinnati Bengals 20
Without any holidays to thwart my playoff football-watching abilities I was somehow able to procure the day off from work on Championship Sunday. Grey skies dominated the background of a Southern California morning and afternoon as smatterings of precipitation came and went, enough to remind me that this is, after all, the peak of winter. It also put into perspective that the cold in a place such as the golden state had absolutely nothing on the single-digit windchill that was to come in Kansas City later in the day.
As the early game between the 49ers and Eagles was knotted at seven points apiece I declared, almost like I knew what was coming, to both of my brothers while we sat in front of the TV in the living room: “You know, every year one of these [conference championship] games is a blowout, and every year one of them comes down to the last play.” When we fast-forwarded three hours and the Eagles held a 31-7 lead my older brother reminded me that “I guess this means Bengals-Chiefs is going to be the close one.”
I attempted last night, on Tuesday, to write a detailed description of everything that transpired during the Chiefs 23-20 win over the Bengals. I was probably about ten paragraphs deep explaining what felt like a drive-by-drive war correspondence and everything I was feeling and how much I hated and loved every second of it. The highs and lows and ecstasy and despair and dread of what seemed at the time like an inevitable Chiefs loss. I was writing that article, and it would have been a good one for what it was.
But when I woke up this morning I remembered that I am not that guy. I sometimes pretend that I am; I can fake it pretty well, I think. The fact of the matter is that the game happened and the outcome was favorable to my favorite football team. The Chiefs won the game 23-20 and that is all that matters. Kansas City are going to their third Super Bowl in four years.
In my preview article for the game, a post I so rarely write — where I had the audacity to exclaim in the title that The Chiefs Are Going To Win — I wrote words and said things and it really all boiled down to one thought: Patrick Mahomes was not going to let the Bengals win. I described it as his Over My Dead Body game. I made the comparison to the 2018 AFC Championship where Tom Brady exercised his own version of what I believed would happen on Sunday Night.
And with all the marbles on the line, on a 3rd-and-4 around midfield with something like 15 seconds remaining on the 4th quarter clock, Patrick Mahomes scrambled on a gimpy ankle for a first down before being shoved out of bounds on a late hit — adding 15 years and setting up Harrison Butker for the game-winning 45-yard field goal. To call the penultimate play ironic would be fitting if it wasn’t such an understatement; all week long the question surrounding the Chiefs was how well would Mahomes’s ankle hold up. With the season on the line he used his mobility, hobbled as it was, and put the team on his back.
Patrick Mahomes had to shoulder so much of the load in the AFC Championship because over the course of the game he lost three of his top four receivers. Kadarius Toney left in the first quarter with an ankle injury after trying to make a cut to extend a play; Mecole Hardman, who had missed the last several weeks with bum hip and groin and god knows what else, caught a pass and was tackled awkwardly and never returned; Juju Smith-Schuster re-aggravated a knee injury. And this was all on top of the most consequential pass catcher, Travis Kelce, experiencing back spasms late in the week.
Everyone knew the limitations of Patrick Mahomes and his ankle injury, but no one could have predicted that come winning time the Chiefs would be resorted to throwing passes to special teams players like Marcus Kemp, and needed to go into jumbo three tight end sets with Noah Gray and Jody Fortson. That was about all they had left to do. Kansas City’s only option was to limp to the finish line, if they were going to make it there at all.
None of it would have been possible without an excellent day from the defense. The Chiefs front generated four sacks in the first quarter but, despite providing Joe Burrow with pressure throughout the game, didn’t produce another sack until the game’s second to last drive when Chris Jones notched his second of the contest to set up a punt.
And here, again, we witnessed a bit of cosmic irony. Because Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman were both injured during the game, rookie second round pick Skyy Moore was forced to return the biggest punt of his life. Never forget that the Chiefs spent roughly half the season trying to make Moore the team’s punt returner — even though he had never had that role in college, and wound up muffing an astounding three punts (one which may or may not have cost the Chiefs a win in Indianapolis) during the regular season — before losing the gig not to be seen again until the AFC fucking Championship Game with less than a minute on the clock.
Skyy More retreated a few steps back to his own 20 yard-line before breaking to the right for some 25 yards to position the Chiefs for Patrick Mahomes’s heroics that I mentioned earlier in the article. That’s what makes football so great. Moore lost all confidence in special teams, was relegated to the bench, but at the end of the biggest game of the season he was on the field to make the crucial play that I fear will be forgotten if Kansas City ends up winning the Super Bowl. It’s an amazing moment for redemption, one that could propel Skyy Moore to some of the greatness that was expected but hardly delivered during his rookie campaign.
There have been so many big games over the last five years that it feels somewhat lazy to consider this the biggest of them all. The Chiefs have twice played in the Super Bowl. But, I don’t know, I think I wanted this one more than any of the others. Kansas City had lost to the Bengals three times in a row, including last year’s AFC Championship. Cincinnati was talking so much shit before the game that even their own mayor got involved. Talking heads and media members a nation over were legitimately making the argument that if Joe Burrow beat Mahomes and the Chiefs for a fourth consecutive time, he would by default have to be considered the better quarterback.
And that is why I said it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t going to happen because it was never going to happen. It couldn’t happen. If the Kansas City defense played worse and allowed 30 points instead of 20, Mahomes would have found a way to score 31. If Joe Burrow threw a go-ahead touchdown with 12 seconds left in the game Mahomes would have bested his 13 Seconds Game against the Bills from a season ago. Fully healthy, one bad ankle, two bad ankles, Patrick Mahomes was going to win this football game.
A lot has been made about the penalty situation, and that’s fine. Any objective fan would have to admit that the Chiefs benefitted from a few calls throughout the game. What cannot be argued is that the deciding penalty that put Kansas City in field goal range to win the game was absolutely one hundred percent a late hit. What can’t be argued is that the Chiefs generated more yardage, more first downs, more sacks, won the turnover battle, and had this game played out a million times over a simulation with all the givens I just mentioned there’s a better than not chance that KC would have won by a score much more liberal than 23-20.
And that is why I so often say that the only people, er, football fans, who complain about the refs or injuries are losers. They follow losing football teams and are forced to make excuses because their favorite team failed at accomplishing the only thing that matters: winning.
If the Bengals truly feel that they got jobbed by the referees, then they will have their opportunity to use it as fuel and win when it matters next year. Maybe that means Burrow won’t throw two interceptions and get sacked with the game on the line. Maybe that means they won’t commit an egregious penalty with eight seconds left on the clock in a tied game. Maybe it means something else entirely. As far as I’m concerned? I don’t care. The Bengals lost.
Patrick Mahomes is, at 27 years old, already a legend. And this might be his most legendary performance of the bunch. But the work is not done. Just as the Chiefs had to be motivated to handle business in the AFC Championship, soon they will have to regroup and refocus their sights on atoning for the Super Bowl they lost, and got embarrassed in, against the Bucs two years ago.
This is the road to glory, and it isn’t finished. They will be a Part 20. I can’t wait to get there, to see what the Chiefs do in their third Super Bowl appearance in four years. I think they perform better as underdogs — which they are — as it is a position they have so rarely been in since Patrick Mahomes took over.