Patrick Mahomes had one good leg on Saturday. But luckily for the Kansas City Chiefs, Mahomes can throw touchdowns without his feet touching the ground. With just over seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Mahomes and his bum ankle stepped (hobbled?) their way up in the pocket, gave a half-jump into the air, and found Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the back of the end zone to give the Chiefs a 10-point lead.
The touchdown buried the Jaguars, who went on to kick a field goal to cut into the lead but ultimately fell short, 27-20—the same score they beat the Jags by in Week 10. The Chiefs have earned their fifth-consecutive conference championship game berth, tied for the second-longest streak in the Super Bowl era after the New England Patriots.
But while the Chiefs were able to overcome the Jaguars on Saturday, it’ll be another challenge altogether to topple either the Bills or Bengals in the AFC championship game. The fate of the AFC largely depends on Mahomes’s ankle.
Mahomes looked mythical before the injury on Saturday. On Kansas City’s first drive, Mahomes converted a first down by running a veer option, throwing a jump pass to Travis Kelce, unleashing a sidearm throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and completing a pass on 3rd-and-6 to Kelce while being spun to the ground by a defensive lineman. Mahomes capped the drive with an effortless touchdown to Kelce over the middle to go up 7-0.
But the entire game changed on the Chiefs’ second drive. On first-and-10 at the Jacksonville 49-yard line, Mahomes dropped back and completed a pass to tight end Blake Bell. But Jaguars outside linebacker Arden Key dropped his body weight onto Mahomes’s right ankle, causing Mahomes immediate pain.
Mahomes limped off the field for medical attention, sat on the bench, and then ran back onto the field before his ankle was properly evaluated so he wouldn’t miss a play. He took advantage of the break between quarters to get his ankle checked, but when Mahomes returned, the mobility that had defined his first drive was gone. Mahomes no longer had his trademark pocket escapability or effortless ability to scramble for first downs.
This angle does a good job capturing how limited Mahomes was after his ankle injury. Obviously an easy first down if he is healthy. pic.twitter.com/kqqWkGnuDJ— Danny Heifetz (@Danny_Heifetz) January 21, 2023
Mahomes was briefly replaced by Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne, while Mahomes tossed his coat to the ground in frustration as he was sent back to the locker room (Henne did oversee a 98-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter.)
Patrick Mahomes is headed to the locker room— PFF (@PFF) January 21, 2023
Mahomes told NBC’s Melissa Stark after the game he didn’t want to go to the locker room, but the staff gave him an ultimatum, telling him that he wouldn’t be cleared to re-enter the game until he went to the locker room and got X-rays.
Mahomes returned after halftime, and Kansas City’s offense looked limited. Mahomes seemed to be in pain every time he had to hand the ball off under center, often approaching his running back on handoffs obviously limping or hopping on one leg, and continuing to do so on his way back to the huddle.
The Jaguars moved their safeties up and challenged KC receivers at the line of scrimmage, knowing Mahomes could no longer scramble to extend plays. But the Jaguars had a complete inability to pressure Mahomes. Jacksonville’s blitzes were picked up by excellent blocking, including by running back Jerick McKinnon, and Kansas City’s blockers were more physical than Jacksonville’s pass rushers. A Jags group that averaged more than two sacks per game in the regular season got zero on Saturday.
While the Jags defense was solid during the season, they were one of the worst groups in the league this year at guarding tight ends. Against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on Saturday, it was like an unstoppable force against an extremely movable object. Kelce managed 14 catches for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns, the most catches by a tight end in a playoff game in NFL history. He was also one shy of the record for catches in a playoff game by any player period. And he hit those marks with almost 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Kansas City was able to dispatch the Jags, but they’ll have a far tougher test in the AFC championship game. Whether the Bengals or Bills prevail on Sunday, the Chiefs lost to both those teams during the regular season. Mahomes has never beaten Joe Burrow—last year’s AFC championship game included. If the Chiefs play the Bills, they wouldn’t even enjoy home-field advantage, seeing as a Bills-Chiefs game would be played at a neutral site in Atlanta (a resolution the NFL decided after Bills-Bengals was declared a no-contest in Week 17). Either way, the Chiefs will be competing against two of the more battle-hardened, explosive teams in the league, and they may be doing it with a hobbled Mahomes.
“He’s our fearless leader,” Kelce said about Mahomes after the game. “We go as he goes.”
Mahomes has carried the Chiefs on his shoulders this far. But to make it to the Super Bowl, they’ll need Mahomes to continue floating above the fray.