KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Heartbreak to Arrowhead.
After roughing up the passer penalty, the Chiefs’ Harrison Butker kicked a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left to give the Chiefs the AFC Conference championship over the Bengals, 23-20.
This classic, which upended last year’s overtime classic, was frozen into legend with temperatures dropping to 18 degrees in the fourth quarter with 14mph winds making it look like single digits. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was a gallant 26 of 41 for 270 yards in pulling the Bengals back from 13-3 to 20-20 with 13:30 left in the game. But their last two possessions of the season went empty.
The Bengals lived for the fourth quarter turnover, but made one this time when Burrow’s bomb to wide receiver Tee Higgins was tipped by rookie safety Bryan Cook and rookie tail cornerback Joshua Williams threw it in aisles. Chiefs 14 with 6:53 left, Burrow’s second interception of the night and of the postseason. But the defense extended their tangle to four straight games by preventing a Mahomes touchdown in the fourth quarter.
After Burrow was called for an intentional grounding, he was facing a third and 16 from his 10 and found tight end Hayden Hurst for 23 yards with 56 seconds left. But on the third and eighth three plays later, tackle Chris Jones got his second sack of the day (and the Chiefs’ fifth), this time lining up wide at right tackle.
Then Chiefs rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore returned a punt 29 yards and on third-and-fourth quarterback Patrick Mahomes scrambled for first down for five yards with eight seconds left and the officials tacked on 15 more to set up the rim-winning field goal Joseph Ossai’s penalty chased Mahomes to the sideline.
Mahomes, who was deadly enough on 29 of 43 for 326 yards, showed why he’s the leading MVP candidate as he clutched a weak ankle.
The Bengals tied it at 13 with 9:54 left in the third quarter when Burrow converted two thirds and sixes. The first he caught himself when the center opened up and fired untouched for the first down. Second came the snap after the ubiquitous Chris Jones punched him in the back for an incompletion. Burrow then threw a perfect 27-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins down the right sideline. Higgins was bracketed, but Burrow threw him high enough to be just above rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson’s fingertips.
But Mahomes, starting to limp a bit, retook the lead 20-13. He was a killer because he got to third and 10 in the red zone and a snap came after Sam Hubbard dropped him for the sack. This time he gingerly bought some pocket time and fired just as Hubbard and tackle BJ Hill dunked on him. Wide receiver Marques-Valdes Scantling barely got into cornerback Mike Hilton’s slot for a 19-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
So the Bengals knew they couldn’t salvage their eighth consecutive fourth-quarter turnover. Hubbard jumped on the error when the ball slipped from Mahomes’ hand before he could pass with 55 seconds left in the third quarter. Hubbard fell to it in the Chiefs 45, but the Bengals still needed fourth and sixth spells from Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The kids in Cincy’s school will remember this. Chase leapt between two defenders for a 35-yard catch (longest play of the night) and two snaps later running back Samaje Perine hit it from two yards out to tie it at 20 with 13:30 left in the game.
The Bengal defense then rose huge during a curious sequence. They stopped Mahomes on third-and-nine, but the game was called off due to a clock malfunction. This time tackle BJ Hill sacked him, but he was blown away by a holding call on cornerback Eli Apple. But they stopped them, forcing two Mahomes incompletions, one of which was first narrowly shutting down Travis Kelce on seven targets.
Down 13-3 with 2:03 left in the half, the Bengals looked to find the same kind of halftime magic that fueled last year’s comeback from trailing 21-3 in this game. And they have enough to make the halftime score 13-6. With slot receiver Tyler Boyd out with an early thigh injury, Burrow, using all three timeouts, found Chase 17 yards and wide receiver Tee Higgins over center for 11 before going behind the shoulder for more 21 to Higgins at the Kansas City 5 with 11 seconds left.
There just wasn’t much time. Burrow shot Chase to loose-head prop and with eight seconds left and then on the last snap he tried Higgins to run towards tight-head prop but he had Chris Jones on him and he had to unload to set up McPherson’s chippie. Jones was huge in the first half running back Mixon had just eight yards rushing on six carries a week after rushing for 105.
Burrow finished the half 15 of 22 for 147 yards as the offense got off to its slowest start in weeks.
As they did during this streak, the Bengals won the toss, got the ball, and for one of those rare times the Bengals didn’t put up immediate runs. Burrow got first down on a scramble third-and-four, but was called back on the false start by right tackle Hakeem Adeniji and Burrow was sacked on the ensuing third-and-nine as lead Frank Clark collected his 13th postseason sack in career.
On their next drive the Bengals appeared to be dealing with the noise they handled so well in Buffalo last week, when they allowed just one sack and took two offensive line penalties. After this drive, they took another penalty (delay of game) and allowed two more sacks against that new right side of the line. In nine of ten games in the streak, the Bengals had allowed fewer than three sacks. Linebacker Willie Gay threw around the right edge on second down, and on third down Chris Jones got his first sack of the playoffs when he got past the right tackle and guard.
So instead of Burrow getting off to one of those quick starts that defined this playoff drive, it was Mahomes who proved his ankle injury wasn’t a factor. He threw eight of his first nine passes to six different receivers as the Chiefs injured them in midfield with Travis Kelce and rookie running back Isiah Pacheco grabbing some YAC.
That stingy red zone defense saved them and extended their streak to 13 straight first quarters without allowing a touchdown. But the Chiefs got field goals from Butker to make it 6-0 on the first snap of the second quarter. This came after Pacheco’s nine-yard touchdown run went off the board holding the call on right tackle Andrew Wylie, but the Chiefs had the lead in yards, 109-0.
Burrow finally got them into the redzone with a hellish 16-yard hash-to-hash toss to Boyd on third-and-14 and a few snaps later got 24 more to Boyd in the middle before it was out for the day. But on first down Chris Jones dropped Mixon for a two-yard loss and with the Chiefs playing in a deep soft zone, Burrow was facing another long third down, this one third-and-seven. Lui took a throw to Hurst running into the left corner of the end zone, but there were two Chiefs and safety Justin Reid helped out for incompletion to set up Evan McPherson’s field goal to make it 6- 3.
But Mahomes, feeling very little pressure, came right back and caught the first touchdown of the game. Lui dropped a dime between cornerback Mike Hilton and safety Vonn Bell 21 yards to wide receiver Marquez Vadles-Scantling for 21 yards. That set up another foray into the red zone, and after the firing of Cam Sample, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid got within 4th and 1 from the Bengals 14. Mahomes moved easily to his right and found Kelce safety Jessie Bates III to make it 13-3 with 3:53 left in the half, making Mahomes an incredible 13-of-16 for 165 yards.
The defense then threw a three-man following Burrow’s first interception of the postseason. On third-and-second Burrow optioned Higgins down the seam, and seventh-round pick Jaylen Watson came with his second interception in as many weeks (their best cornerback, La’Jarius Snead, appeared to have suffered a concussion early on. ). Watson was one on one on 50 with Higgins when Burrow tossed him up there and Watson was in front of Higgins and aimed his pick high.