For the entire game, he bobbed and weaved and wobbled around the pocket, stretching plays for just a split-second or two longer than he should’ve and dodging a full-on assault from Lou Anarumo’s pass rush. When it was time, though, a compromised Patrick Mahomes let the adrenaline flow and once again showed why he’s the king of Kansas City.
A week after suffering a high-ankle sprain against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the soon-to-be two-time NFL MVP capped the performance of the season with a 5-yard run toward the end of regulation that, combined with an unnecessary roughness penalty against Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai, positioned Harrison Butker for a 45-yard field goal that gave the Kansas City Chiefs a 23-20 win.
“At some points in games, you’ve got to put it all on the line,” Mahomes told CBS announcer Jim Nantz after the game. “I knew I was going to get there somehow.”
Mahomes knew, and in retrospect, we all should have.
Leading up to Sunday’s contest, the Chiefs’ chances had been questioned by many. Head coach Andy Reid’s crew was winless in their last three games against Cincinnati and had bowed out in the second half of each contest, having been outscored by a combined 47-20 from the third quarter on.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones went as far as to say it wasn’t a rivalry because the Chiefs hadn’t won, and the mayor of Cincinnati had the gall to suggest Joe Burrow take a paternity test to see if he was Mahomes’s father. Many on the internet were even referring to the home of the Chiefs as “Burrowhead Stadium.” Words they’d come to regret.
Travis Kelce: “Burrowhead my a**!!!This Mahomes' House!— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) January 30, 2023
Even still, there were moments on Sunday night when it looked like the Chiefs were bound to repeat the sins of last season’s AFC championship. Much like in last year’s game, the Chiefs failed to capitalize with a score just before the end of the first half, and they opened the third quarter with a drive that went nowhere. Only this time, the Chiefs’ lead was smaller, and the Bengals turned their first second-half drive into a touchdown that tied the game at 13.
Momentum was swinging in Cincinnati’s favor, but on his team’s next possession, Mahomes responded with two huge third-down conversions to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the second of which was an absolute laser that capped an 11-play touchdown drive 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-tying touchdown drive that included a 35-yard reception on fourth-and-6 by all-world receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who was draped by two Kansas City corners.
From there it was a battle of attrition. The teams traded punts and consequential penalties, sacks and crucial third-down conversions. The exact play-by-play details don’t need rehashing here, but there’s a final picture that must be relayed; one of a quarterback who, given his injury, would have been easy to doubt but proved yet again why he’s on track to be one of the best—with a chance to be the best—to ever do it.
With his main three receivers out for a large chunk of the game and trusty partner in crime Travis Kelce battling a back injury, Mahomes and his bad right ankle leaned on the short passing game while changing pace with the occasional downfield shot to Packers castoff Valdes-Scantling, who totaled a playoff career-high 116 receiving yards. On the opposite side was Burrow, flanked 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 play compared to Kansas City’s 18th—had nearly every advantage.
Mahomes’s final passing line—29 of 43 for 326 passing yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions—underscores just how legacy-defining this performance was. With a bum ankle, he managed to not only complete every pass he threw from outside the tackle box, but also every pass he threw while on the run or when he held the ball for more than four seconds. To their credit, the Chiefs defense played great all night as well 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 different pressure looks at the inexperienced Bengals front all game long.
But these games always come down to the quarterback, and this specific performance was Flu Game–esque.
If the Chiefs had lost and Mahomes had fallen to 0-4 while surrendering a lead in yet another game against Burrow, it would have been at least a temporary indictment on his status as the top QB in the NFL. Perhaps we would’ve been looking at Peyton Manning-Tom Brady 2.0, where the former was long considered a better regular-season quarterback, but the latter started the rivalry 6-0 in head-to-head matchups 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. “Job’s not finished.”