KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs anticipated that their goal of repeating as Super Bowl champions wouldn’t come easy. They got their first real taste of how hard that task would be on Sunday afternoon against the Cleveland Browns, and in the worst possible manner. This was the moment when we learned a little more about the Chiefs’ resilience. It also was a day when their road to another title became a lot murkier.
The Chiefs obtained the one thing they most sorely wanted, which was a 22-17 win that propelled them into next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. They also wound up with the most frightening situation they could’ve ever imagined: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes left the game midway through the third quarter to be evaluated for a concussion after being tackled by Browns linebacker Mack Wilson. Kansas City now has the opportunity to face the Buffalo Bills for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LV. There’s a possibility that they’ll have to accomplish that feat without the presence of the NFL’s most gifted signal-caller.
That’s something that we’ll all ponder over the next few days, along with the way the Chiefs managed to advance in the first place.
“I think it’s [the] character of the guys that [GM Brett Veach] brought in here, and then the will to win,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid of the team’s ability to top the Browns despite losing Mahomes. “Somewhere you’ve got to be able to reach deep in tough times and pull that out. And if the coaches are flinching, if the players — your leaders — are flinching, it’s not going to happen. And our locker room is not going to flinch. They’re tough that way.”
It’s important to note here that Reid is usually a man of few words. It’s quite revealing that he could be that candid in the midst of a press conference. That statement gives you a sense of how close the Chiefs came to seeing all their dreams evaporate. It was an impassioned explanation coming off the heels of an emotional win that surely scared the crap out of every living fan in the Chiefs Kingdom.
Kansas City won this game for several reasons, the most apparent being a combination of guts and perseverance. Mahomes left the contest after running an option play on a third-and-1 with 7:44 left in the game. He laid motionless on the turf for a few seconds, then wobbled as he tried to stand up before a couple teammates grabbed him. Mahomes eventually was helped to the sideline, and the entire complexion of the game shifted in that moment.
Mahomes never returned to the contest. The Browns began to smell a legitimate chance of getting back into the game, even after a Harrison Butker field goal gave Kansas City a 22-10 lead at the end of the possession in which Mahomes was injured. The Browns ultimately did make their charge, as they closed the gap to 22-17 on a three-yard touchdown run by Kareem Hunt early in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs then showed Cleveland what championship football really looks like.
This game will be remembered for many things in Kansas City. It will be the image of a proud defense that stymied the Browns when they had a chance to go on a fourth-quarter drive that could have given them the lead. It will be the sight of journeyman backup quarterback Chad Henne charging past defenders for a 13-yard gain when the Chiefs faced a third-and-14 in their own territory with two minutes remaining. And most importantly, it will be the fourth-and-inches call from the Chiefs’ 48-yard line that clinched the game, a play that required Henne to sprint right and hit wide receiver Tyreek Hill on a quick out pattern for a five-yard gain.
Most teams likely would have punted in that situation. The Chiefs decided to show the world how champions operate.
“We felt confident in that play,” Henne said. “Tyreek Hill the majority of the time is going to win.” When Reid was asked about the call, he echoed the same sentiment, saying his attitude was that “there’s no tomorrow. Let’s roll.”
“They have been very aggressive in a lot of those moments so that did not surprise me,” said Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. “Us getting a stop there, we would be set up so there is risk involved in their decision, but they trusted their guys and they made a play.”
The end of this game was so wild that it was easy to forget how the first 37 minutes played out. The Chiefs controlled most of the action before Mahomes — who completed 21 of 30 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown — went down. The Browns didn’t have many answers for Hill (eight receptions for 110 yards ) or Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce (eight catches for 109 yards and a score). Cleveland’s vaunted running game produced just 18 yards on six carries in the first two quarters.
These numbers are important to remember because they indicate how smoothly Kansas City’s offense runs when Mahomes is under center. It’s an entirely different situation when he’s not able to play, which is why his experience with the concussion protocol this week will draw so much attention from the sports world. Reid gave some encouraging details after the game, saying his quarterback was “doing great right now” and that Mahomes “passed all the deals that he needed to pass.” Mahomes tweeted “All good brother” in response to well wishes from Wilson after the game. However, the concussion protocol requires players to go through a five-step process of testing — and also be approved by an independent neurological consultant who isn’t affiliated with an NFL team — before returning to the field.
Nobody will know Mahomes’ status until those steps are complete. That means Henne might end up starting the biggest game of his life for a team that has spent an entire season touting its desire to “Run it Back.”
That sounds like a daunting proposition, but the Chiefs have shown they know how to win regardless of the circumstances. They’re now 15-2 this season for a reason.
“This team is definitely resilient,” said Henne, who completed 6 of 8 passes for 66 yards with one interception. “Down in some games in the fourth quarter, we come back to win, or the defense gets a big stop for us and we get the ball back and a chance to win as well. Definitely resilient. Those tough games and (taking) the best shot we got from every team is definitely going to help us push through. We face a good Buffalo team this week and we’ll be up for it.”
There’s no reason to doubt that. The Chiefs seemed on the verge of losing their composure for a stretch after Mahomes left the game and they also nearly let a 16-point lead turn into a devastating loss. Those things didn’t happen, in part, because they’ve faced plenty of difficult situations over the last three years. Throughout all those adverse moments — including watching Mahomes miss two games with a dislocated kneecap in 2019 — the Chiefs learned that there has been more to their success than just their star quarterback.
So this might be the ultimate test next Sunday. We’ll all be waiting to hear how Mahomes is doing and we’ll be debating if Henne can pull out an AFC title if the job falls to him. What won’t be in question is the heart of the Kansas City Chiefs. They proved once again that they have an abundance of that quality working in their favor.
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