For the entire game, he swung and weaved and swung around the pocket, stretching plays for just a fraction of a second or two longer than he should have and dodging a full onslaught from Lou Anarumo’s pass rush. When the time came, however, a compromise Patrick Mahomes let the adrenaline flow and once again showed why he is the king of Kansas City.
A week after spraining his high ankle against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the future two-time NFL MVP capped off his performance of the season with a 5-yard run late in regulation which, combined with an unnecessary roughness penalty against Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai, set up Harrison Butker for a 45-yard field goal to give the Kansas City Chiefs a 23-20 victory.
“At certain points in games, you have to put everything on the line,” Mahomes told CBS announcer Jim Nantz after the game. “I knew I’d get there somehow.”
Mahomes knew it, and in retrospect, we all should have known it.
Going into Sunday’s game, the Chiefs’ chances were being questioned by many. Coach Andy Reid’s team went winless in its last three games against Cincinnati and was eliminated in the second half of each contest, after being outscored by a combined 47-20 from the third quarter onwards.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones went so far as to say it wasn’t a rivalry because the Chiefs hadn’t won, and the mayor of Cincinnati had the nerve to suggest that Joe Burrow take a paternity test to see if he was the father of Mahomes. Many on the internet even referred to the Chiefs’ home as “Burrowhead Stadium.” Words they would regret.
However, there were moments Sunday night when it looked like the Chiefs were destined to repeat last season’s AFC championship sins. Just like in last year’s game, the Chiefs failed to capitalize on a score just before halftime, and opened the third quarter with a drive that went nowhere. Only this time the Chiefs’ lead was smaller and the Bengals turned their first drive in the second half into a touchdown to tie the game at 13.
The momentum was swinging in Cincinnati’s favor, but on his team’s next possession, Mahomes answered with two huge third-down conversions to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the second of which was an absolute laser capping a touchdown drive 11 games to give Kansas City a brief 20-13 lead.
But it wouldn’t be that easy. It never is with these teams in games of this magnitude.
Two drives later, Mahomes inexplicably fumbled the football and Burrow and the Bengals capitalized with a game-winning touchdown drive that included a 35-yard reception on fourth and 6 by wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, which was draped from two Kansas City Corners.
From there it was a battle of attrition. The teams traded punts and ensuing penalties, sacks, and crucial third down conversions. The exact play-by-play details need not be rehashed here, but there is a final picture that needs to be conveyed; one of a quarterback that, given his injury, it would have been easy to doubt, but proved once again why he’s on track to be one of the best—with a potential to be the best—to ever do it.
With his three leading receivers out for much of the game and trusted accomplice Travis Kelce struggling with a back injury, Mahomes and his bad right ankle leaned into the short passing game as he changed pace with the occasional throw in field to the Packers who dismissed Valdes-Scantling, who totaled 116 receiving yards in the playoffs. On the opposite side was Burrow, joined by Chase and fellow stars Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins. On paper, the Bengals, whose defense ranked eighth this season in expected points added per game compared to Kansas City’s 18th, had nearly every advantage.
Mahomes’ last passing line – 29 of 43 for 326 passing yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions – underlines how instrumental this performance was. With an ankle problem, he was able to not only complete every step shot from outside the tackle area, but also any pass he threw while on the run or when holding the ball for more than four seconds. To their credit, the Chiefs defense also played great all night despite losing top corner L’Jarius Sneed early in the contest; Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s group intercepted Burrow twice and sacked him five times, throwing several pressure glares at the inexperienced Bengals front throughout the game.
But these games always come down to the quarterback, and this specific performance was Flu Game-style.
Had the Chiefs lost and Mahomes dropped to 0-4 as he gave up the lead in another game against Burrow, that would have been at least a temporary indictment on his status as the NFL’s top QB. Perhaps we would have watched Peyton Manning-Tom Brady 2.0, where the former was long considered a top quarterback in the regular season, but the latter started the rivalry 6-0 in head-to-head matches and went on to unrivaled postseason success and became the most celebrated player of all time.
Instead, Mahomes is heading to his third Super Bowl in four seasons.
“My goal is to win the Super Bowl,” Mahomes said after the game. “The job isn’t done.”
Sign up for The Ringer newsletter