KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs have the best record in the NFL over the past five seasons, winning 64 games.
Yet despite all those victories, the Cincinnati Bengals had proven themselves to be Kansas City’s kryptonite. The Bengals had beaten the Chiefs three times in a row, including last year’s AFC championship game.
The teams met again Sunday in a rematch that would determine who would face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Feb. 12 Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. And the Bengals seemed poised to upset the Chiefs once again, just as they had the previous three times.
But Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes took over with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter. On a limped right ankle, he scrambled 5 yards for a first down to the Cincinnati 42-yard line and was shoved after being out of bounds. The ensuing 15-yard penalty was the difference for kicker Harrison Butker, whose game-winning 45-yard field goal just cleared the crossbar with three seconds left to give the Chiefs a 23–20 victory.
“At some point in games, you have to put everything on the line,” Mahomes said of his latest run.
Kansas City will now go to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. The game will feature the top seeds from both conferences for the 14th time in Super Bowl history. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid will face his old team, the Eagles, and Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce will play his older brother Jason, Philadelphia center.
The Chiefs were only light favorites going into the game; Mahomes was recovering from a sprained ankle he sustained a week ago against Jacksonville in the divisional round, and Travis Kelce was having back spasms. Mahomes didn’t scramble many yards, but managed to get out of the pocket to buy time to find the receivers.
“I didn’t get that flurry that I usually have,” Mahomes said. “But I was able to do enough to push myself out of bounds.”
Although he was uncomfortable planting his right foot at times, Mahomes finished the game 29-of-43 passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns.
He led Kansas City on three scoring drives in the first half, including a 14-yard touchdown run to Kelce on fourth-and-1. Kansas City’s defense sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow four times in the first half after scoring none when the teams met in December.
“It was pure grit for him and Kelce,” Reid said of Mahomes and his tight end.
But the Bengalis did not panic. They had trailed by 7, 14, and 18 points in their last three games against Kansas City, and won by 3 points each time. After not gaining any offensive yards in the first quarter, the Bengals showed up in the second quarter, scoring two field goals and going into halftime trailing by only one score, 13-6.
Burrow, who emerged as one of the best passers in the league in his third season, went 26-of-41 for 270 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had a team-high 30-yard run.
On the Bengals’ first drive of the second half, Burrow picked up where he left off, leading the Bengals on a 62-yard drive that ended with receiver Tee Higgins climbing over a defender to catch a 27-yard pass near the prop in the end zone to tie the score at 13.
As in last year’s AFC title match, the two rivals traded blows for much of the second half and looked destined to go into overtime again.
Mahomes, who was visibly limping as he ran to his left on the previous possession, led Kansas City on an impressive 11-play drive. It ended with Mahomes, under pressure in the pocket, throwing a 19-yard pass to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling at the goal line.
On their next journey, the chiefs tried to build a cushion which the Bengals would not be able to overcome. But Mahomes, off the shotgun, lost control of a pass attempt that was ruled a fumble and recovered by Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard at the Kansas City 45-yard line.
The Bengals seized the opportunity. On 4th and 6, Burrow threw a 35-yard pass to receiver Ja’Marr Chase in double coverage. Two plays later, running back Samaje Perine crossed the goal line to tie the game again at 20.
The Bengals defense appeared to shut down Mahomes twice on their next drive, but a play was called off because the umpire stopped the clock before the snap. On the afterplay play, the Bengals were called for a defensive hold, which gave Kansas City an automatic first down.
The trip to Kansas City fizzled out. But Burrow tried to do too much on the next voyage. He threw to catcher Tee Higgins in double coverage, and the pass was tipped by safety Bryan Cook and intercepted by cornerback Joshua Williams.
With just under seven minutes left, Kansas City looked poised to take the lead after Mahomes connected with running back Isiah Pacheco, who broke free of a tackle and scrambled 16 yards down the sideline. But again, the Bengals cut short the journey. Reid singled to punt and it forced the Bengals to start their last drive deep in their own side of the field.
With two and a half minutes left, the Bengals decided to steal another game from Kansas City. But penalties nullified their drive, and Kansas City, following a 29-yard punt return, took over with 30 seconds and two timeouts.
That was all the time it took for Mahomes and the Chiefs to rewrite the script against the Bengals and earn another trip back to the Super Bowl.
“I’m riding a wave right now,” Reid said of the opportunity to face his old team.