George Karlaftis recalls the Chiefs’ last game before joining the team. They were at home. He was in Dallas, preparing for the draft. He had watched Kansas City beat Buffalo (“That was an all-time wild game”) and then watched the AFC championship game against Cincinnati. Kansas City raced to a 21–3 lead.
“I was like, ‘Okay, the Chiefs got this,'” he said in the Kansas City locker room Saturday after the Chiefs beat the Jaguars. “I turned it off at halftime.”
Kansas City led 21-10 at halftime, lost in overtime, and has regretted it ever since.
“I thought about it all offseason,” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “This will definitely be a driving motivator as it has been throughout the off-season. We just let it slip away.
McKinnon said this before he knew the Chiefs would play the Bengals again. It will be a rare championship rematch, and also the rare playoff game between two teams with residual anger from the last time they played.
Bengalis are angry because they won and people act like they got lucky. They’ve been playing the disrespect card for the past month, fraught with a possible coin toss to determine the winner of AFC North (it didn’t come to that) and mocking the idea that Kansas City and Buffalo were the two best teams in the conference and would meet again. Bengalis are adamant that no one respects their team, their coaches or their chili.
The bosses? They are angry with themselves. They could have played in their third consecutive Super Bowl. McKinnon was with the 49ers when they blew a 10-point lead over the Chiefs and lost in Super Bowl LIV to Miami, and it remains the worst loss of his career for him. But he said the Bengals’ loss was “1B”. He thought about it this past spring and summer as he got up for his first workouts in his hometown of Atlanta or in Miami, where he trained.
“I didn’t even have to look at it,” she said, gesturing to her head. “He was stuck here.”
In hindsight, we can say two things about last year’s AFC Championship game. One is that the Bengals weren’t the brave underdogs they appeared to be that day. After all, they came within a few plays of winning the Super Bowl, and now they’re back in the NFL Final Four, and we know a lot more about Joe Burrow’s greatness than we did back then.
And the other thing we can say is the Chiefs should have won that game anyway.
They started blowing at the end of time. They had first-and-goal at the 1-yard line with nine seconds left. Patrick Mahomes rolled to left field, saw nobody open, and grounded the ball. Five seconds to go.
Coach Andy Reid should have sent the field goal drive out for the easy three-pointers. Instead, he called a show that he later said he wished he could get back. Sometimes coaches say that sort of thing to cover up for their players, and Reid is especially wary of publicly criticizing anyone who plays for him. But in this case, what he said was an understatement. It was an extraordinarily awful and revealing phone call.
The ball was snapped from the 1 and Mahomes caught it on the 6. He faked a handoff to McKinnon which was absurd; there was no chance in the world that, with five seconds left and no timeouts, Kansas City would hand the ball to a running back at the 5-yard line. No Bengal has been deceived. McKinnon ran straight into the end zone and leapt over the goal line untouched.
Then Mahomes pivoted and threw a screen to Tyreek Hill, who caught it at the 6-yard line with two seconds left.
Reid had completely ignored the entire thought process behind running a show there. He had lost any chance to shoot for a field goal. It looked like the Chiefs were trying to have fun scoring runs over an unfortunate opponent instead of playing the kind of strategic football that wins the playoffs. They played the rest of the way as a team that wasn’t expecting a fight.
Some bosses might say last year was last year and they’ve moved on. But Karlaftis says sometimes the game comes out, not just because of the stakes, but because Kansas City has lost a big lead by not paying attention to the details. He recalls the 2007 Patriots, who used their blown lead in the AFC championship game the previous season as fuel to go full throttle in every game. The Pats went on an 18 game hitting streak before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl by the catch of David Tyree.
The Reid-Mahomes duo is so powerful that it looks like they could win half a dozen Super Bowls, and maybe they will. Mahomes made it to five conference championship games. The Lions, Texans and Cardinals have played in three, combined, in 135 seasons of the Super Bowl era.
Yet even for the best of franchises, winning a championship usually comes down to a play or two. Consider: Tom Brady is 7–3 in Super Bowls, but you could turn five wins into losses by changing the outcome of a single play. You can also turn two of your losses into wins by switching a play.
Mahomes has already won a Super Bowl. He will have more chances after this. He is on the verge of winning his second MVP award and will one day be voted into the Hall of Fame. But when he’s done playing, games like this week’s will color our view of him, and perhaps his view of himself. That may not be quite right, but it is the truth.
Kansas City had a year to think about that play at the end of the half, the rushing interception Mahomes threw in the second half, and the failure to gain a single yard after winning the coin toss in overtime. Mahomes could limp with a high ankle sprain. Bengalis could be better. But the opportunity is there, and even for a team like this, those opportunities are precious. Karlaftis may have turned off the TV last year, but that Chiefs-Bengels game remains, even for him.
“I’m sure we’ll be watching it” this week, Karlaftis said. “I’m sure the kids will be almost disgusted by it. It’s a chance to go to the Super Bowl. You don’t want to screw it up.