Sunday night AFC Championship confrontation was the most important game and with more consequences of the last Kansas City Chiefs history. In it, they faced their own bogeyman: a Cincinnati Bengals team that ended their 2021 season with an overtime loss that was just one part of a bitter three-game losing streak.
Upon entering this, we all feel a heightened sense of anxiety. It wasn’t just because it was a tough matchup against a very good team, but also because we were worried about the limping Kansas City quarterback. Then, as the game progressed, more injuries piled up. L’Jarius Sneed, Kadarius Toney, Willie Gay Jr., Mecole Hardman, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Isiah Pacheco, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith were among the Chiefs players who got pummeled (or sidelined altogether) during Sunday’s contest in the evening.
Then things got worse. At times, the offensive stalled. The defense allowed a couple of big plays. And the Chiefs turned the ball around. There were so many obstacles to victory, and fewer and fewer players available to overcome them; there were times when six rookies were on the field simultaneously. There were so many opportunities for the team to pull out, and so many excuses that would have been valid after a loss.
But in the end, everyone on the active roster, from superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes to practice squad wide receiver Marcus Kemp, made plays when the team needed them most. And as a result, the Chiefs will make another trip to the super bowl.
That’s why this compilation isn’t our usual list of winners and losers. Today, there are no losers among the Chiefs. All we can see are stories of redemption and triumph, the kind of stuff legends and movies are made of. But on Sunday night, everything was real and special.
Wide Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: We have seen the disadvantage of the first Green Bay Packers wideout: the deep shot with no real chance of completion. His often inefficient production gave him an up-and-down season. But with his teammates falling left and right on Sunday, Valdes-Scantling delivered big. He led the team in goals (eight, along with tight end Travis Kelce) and yards (116), while showcasing his ability to play all wide receiver positions. He caught a spectacular touchdown pass through traffic that required elite concentration. In fact, for this game, the speedy wide receiver seemed to be focused in a way we hadn’t seen all season.
Cornerback Trent McDuffie: An undersized rookie corner taking on Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on the biggest stage? Yeah… that’s hard. But McDuffie proved once again that he’s a top-tier player, and one of the top picks in Kansas City’s 2022 draft all-star class. On the Bengals’ first drive, McDuffie undermined Chase for a potential interception that didn’t go down. could achieve. But he was able to hang on to every Cincinnati ball carrier that came his way, taking down like a seasoned veteran. McDuffie played hard in coverage all night, finishing with six solo tackles (one for loss) and two pass defenses. This game isn’t too big (or too fast) for this rookie, and on Sunday he made sure everyone knew it.
EDGE Frank Clark: No Chiefs player gets more flak than this eight-year veteran, but no one delivers in the playoffs like he does either. The Shark smelled blood in the water against Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow and his backup offensive line. From the first moment, he went to work on them. Clark finished with 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and one tackle for loss. He was a force in this game, cementing his legacy as one of the top three postseason pass-rushers in NFL history.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones: It has always been a false narrative that the seven-year veteran has failed to deliver in the postseason. But any questions he might have had were answered Sunday. Even with all the attention the Bengals gave him, Jones was unblockable, and this time he appeared on the board: five hits to quarterback, three tackles for loss and two sacks. No play was bigger than the sack of him in Burrow’s final setback of the season. Jones was a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year. If he keeps it up, he too will be a finalist for Super Bowl MVP, and a massive new contract.
Kicker Harrison Butker: It was a brutal season for Kansas City’s longtime specialist. Injured in the first week of the season (from a kickoff on bad ground), he struggled to regain the form that made him one of the best in the league. In 2022, he set career highs for extra points and missed field goals, leading the team to flirt with other kickers on the practice squad. But down the stretch, things finally seemed to click again. In the cold and windy conditions of the AFC title game, he was perfect: 2-for-2 on extra points and 3-for-3 shooting from the field. With the game (and the season) on the line, Butker drilled the game-winning shot from 45 yards out, putting his team in the Super Bowl and silencing any remaining doubters.
Tea almost losers that later they would redeem themselves
Wide receiver/returner Skyy Moore: The first target on the rookie was for three yards, the second (and third) had no chance to be completed, the fourth was for two yards…well, here’s the pattern. Moore had seven targets on the night, resulting in just 13 yards on three receptions. It rarely seems like he’s on the same page as Mahomes. But with Isiah Pacheco and Kadarius Toney banged up, Moore returned to punt and kick return jobs, the same roles he had failed at so miserably with disastrous turnovers earlier in the season. We collectively held our breath when Moore cleanly fielded a punt in the third quarter and returned it for 25 yards. Unfortunately, that one was returned for a penalty, but the next one was not. With 41 seconds remaining, and the game tied, Moore delivered. His 29-yard punt return set up the game-winning field goal, and it should be a great confidence booster for a kid who should be a bigger part of the team’s plans in 2023.
Cornerback Joshua Williams: Kansas City’s defense was terrific Sunday, keeping Burrow and his receivers below their typical level of production. But when they did get chances, it was often at Williams’ expense. Forced into action after an injury to veteran L’Jarius Sneed, the rookie continued to battle against the physically imposing receivers of the Bengals. But with the game tied midway through the fourth quarter, Williams intercepted Burrow with a fly ball in the air. It was a great play at an important time. Williams helped prevent the Bengals from regaining the momentum they needed.
Bryan Cook Security: The rookie committed two costly penalties, but then in the fourth quarter hinted that Burrows went straight into the hands of Williams. He’s another rookie defensive back who’s seen his opportunity grow in recent weeks, and he’s grown with it. For Cook, the future is bright. He, too, will have Sunday’s game to build on in 2023.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes: The two-time MVP has no place on any loser list. He was brilliant against the Bengals, passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns on a sprained ankle while throwing to a severely depleted receiving corps. It was easy to see the injury aching as he tried to roll and crawl. But there was a moment, albeit brief, when I felt like everything was falling apart. It was a familiar point for Kansas City fans, especially against Cincinnati, when a promising performance slips into the abyss. With a minute left in the third quarter, Mahomes dropped back to pass, but the ball got away. He was blown up and was recovered by the Bengals. At that point, I felt like the season was over; the Bengals scored a game-tying touchdown. But the defense held through the fourth quarter, and then the offense got the ball back with 30 seconds to go, needing just a couple of plays to get into field goal range. On third-and-4, Mahomes saw an opportunity, running down the sideline in the grittiest five-yard scramble he’d ever seen. Somehow, on a day when Mahomes managed to be stellar while passing the ball with one leg, it was that leg that carried the team to victory.
Head Coach Andy Reid: For the next two weeks, all we’ll hear is the next Andy Reid Bowl. The success Big Red has enjoyed from his Philadelphia days to his decade in Kansas City is undeniable. His impact on this franchise, this city and the entire NFL is as significant as any in league history. Among his peers, he is known as an elite signal caller who displays creativity that others copy each season. But every year, he is also questioned about his decisions in the game and his decisions. Getting the ball late in the first half, Kansas City had a chance to double down – the Chiefs would have the ball to start the second half. But the offense turned into a quick three-and-out on three consecutive incompletions, allowing Cincinnati to score a field goal. Then, as the third quarter began, there was another useless three-and-out with low percentage plays. Then, with 2:36 remaining on fourth-and-8 from the Cincinnati 37-yard line, Reid elected to punt. Once again, viewers thought it was the end of the season; the Bengals would likely have plenty of time to drive down the field for a game-winning score, while Mahomes watched helplessly from the sideline. But Reid’s judgment would be vindicated: His defense made big plays to get the ball back. We should probably stop questioning the head coach, though it’s doubtful we ever will.