Notes From A Crumbling NFL Empire: Part XVII

Cincinnati Bengals 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24

Associated Press

Bengals won, Chiefs lost. That is what happened on Sunday afternoon in the AFC Championship.

I still don’t know exactly what happened. I mean I do, but it was so dumb that it doesn’t seem real. The Chiefs led 21-3 in the second quarter, at home, in a playoff game, and produced just three points over the remaining 35 minutes of games time (and overtime session).

This was not the most bizarre Chiefs loss I’ve ever seen, but in the Patrick Mahomes era I can’t think of another that tops it. Kansas City was moving the ball seemingly at will on every possession. Mahomes was nearly flawless in the first half, the running game was picking up 6 or 7 yards every time they wanted to. And the defense actually got a few stops. In no world did I imagine the Bengals were capable of making this a competitive game, let alone winning outright and sending the Chiefs home.

I went on record before the first matchup between these two teams, and I staked my claim that Joe Burrow is The Guy in second place behind THE GUY. On January 1st, I said:

Joe Burrow has the goods. The only proclamation I am willing to make in this blog is that Burrow is the best quarterback in the AFC not named Patrick Mahomes. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything now, given the Lamar Jackson’s and Josh Allen’s and Justin Herbert’s of the world. But I am here, and I am betting that if Mahomes has a serious rival, or contender within the conference, it’s Burrow.

The thing that upsets me most about this loss — beyond the fact that my favorite team got eliminated — is that Burrow didn’t do anything special to win the game. He didn’t utilize his best receivers and torch the Chiefs like he did in the first matchup. He didn’t pull out some insane Josh Allen bullshit on 4th down to crush the will of the Chiefs defense. He just made a few plays here and there when he needed to.

To me, losing is more palatable when the other team comes across with their absolute must-win, A-plus game. Last week I wrote, after the Bills scored a touchdown with 13 seconds left, that I had accepted losing in that manner. When I lit up my lucky cigarette that ended up sending the Chiefs into overtime — and ultimately into the championship — I came to grips with the idea that the Bills gave an exceptional effort that was worthy of defeating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Here, I feel the Chiefs simply lost it. The Bengals didn’t take it away from them; Kansas City gave it away.

I still am unable to reconcile how Mahomes and the offense was able to move the ball down the field for an entire half, put up 21 points and be on the doorstep of making it 28-10 at intermission, and somehow forget what getting a first down was like in the last 30 minutes of the game. That’s why the only word that comes to mind is “bizarre.” It just doesn’t make sense that the AFC Championship ended like that.

But it’s why all week I was worried about the game. Everyone I work with thought I was stupid for thinking it was going to be a close game. They thought I was nuts for thinking the Bengals had a serious chance of winning. But these are the intuitions that are hard-wired into Chiefs fans. It’s a whole lifetime of watching football games not end the way we want them to.

Here is where I was wrong, from my last blog (where I picked the Bengals +7):

The surest path to victory for the Chiefs is to beat the Bengals up early. Ideally Kansas City puts themselves in a position much like they did the first time these two teams played. At three different occasions — 14-0, 21-7 and 28-14 — the Chiefs had a two-touchdown lead. If they are somehow able to replicate that in this matchup they won’t lose.

I unwittingly predicted exactly what happened. I just messed up on that last line where I said “they won’t lose.” The Chiefs did beat the Bengals up early. They did replicate what they did in the first matchup. Kansas City went 10-2 in their final 12 games, and their two losses came against the same team, in the same way — playing from well ahead.

During the malaise of the second half, where the Chiefs produced something like 80 total yards, I began to wonder if last week’s unbelievable comeback win against the Bills played some role int his loss. How does a team come back from that emotional high? If anything, I would have assumed Kansas City would have started out slowly and finished strong. In reality it played out opposite. They came out with guns blazing and ran out of bullets when they absolutely needed them.

We will never know if there was a let down, or if there was some emotional fatigue down the stretch. The results of this 27-24 AFC Championship Game loss are going to have to speak for themselves. Even after everything that went wrong, or downright didn’t happen at all in the second half, the Chiefs still managed to send the game into overtime. They even won the coin toss and had the ball first. Patrick Mahomes had every opportunity to end it just how he ended it against the Bills in the Divisional Round.

Based on how the finality of how it ended, it is going to take me a while to process how I am supposed to remember this Chiefs season. I’ll remember how they started 3-4 and were last place in the AFC West. Underdogs to make the playoffs. Written off by the media.

I’ll also remember how they won 8 in a row, and 9 of their last 10, to finish with the second-best record in the conference. In retrospect I think it hurt them a ton losing to the Bengals in Week 17, and surrendering the one seed and first round bye to the Titans. At the same time, neither of the top seeds were still around on Championship Sunday, and what more can a team ask for than to be playing that game on their home field? I guess it all evens out.

Part of me us just sad that this team isn’t going to look the same next year. There’s a good chance that Super Bowl Champions like Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark won’t be retained and will end up signing elsewhere in free agency. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are going to be another year older. Beyond the unwavering faith all Chiefs fans have in Patrick Mahomes, his road to get back to the AFC Championship isn’t getting any easier.

We’ll obviously see what happens, but it’s my hope that the Chiefs operate this offseason in the way I hoped they would last year, by bolstering the offense with more playmakers at wide receiver. Keeping the defense average is necessary, of course, but the biggest advantage Kansas City has over the rest of the league is their quarterback. So they simply must continue pouring resources into surrounding him with as many weapons as possible.

As much as I had hoped that I would have one more article in this series — after the Super Bowl — this team has accomplished so much over the last four years and I have to be okay with that. Four conference championships, two Super Bowls, one championship. In a way it’s kind of amazing how far they have come in such a short time. And it’s also a bummer that they only have one Lombardi Trophy to show for it all.