Kansas City, Mo. — Amidst the Chiefs’ most important game of the 2022 season, the five-person conversation on the sidelines during Saturday’s divisional round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars was not an exchange of ideas. Instead, it was a dictate from Andy Reid, a future Hall of Fame coach, to superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes about what to do next.
Mahomes and Reid were surrounded by offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy and Rick Burkholder, the vice president of sports medicine. Mahomes pleaded with Reid, raising his voice and even showing his frustration by throwing his robe on the floor. Reid stuck to his decision and never changed his tune.
“If it’s negative,” Reid told Mahomes, “I’ll take you back.”
As fast as he could, Mahomes limped to the Chiefs’ locker room, hurting his right ankle and awaiting a series of X-rays. In the end, the x-ray machine revealed that Mahomes did not have a broken bone. When he heard the news, Mahomes had only one thought: he went back on the field at Arrowhead Stadium to make sure the Chiefs’ season didn’t come to an end.
Indeed, Mahomes, as he often does, accomplished his mission as the Chiefs outlasted the Jaguars for a 27-20 victory on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m not coming out of a playoff game unless they take me out,” said Mahomes, who played the entire second half with a sprained right ankle. “I love this sport too much. I’m glad I was able to get back into the game. I just love participating in this sport.”
.@PatrickMahomes enters the field to open the second half.
— NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2023
Mahomes connected on 11 of his first 12 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. But late in the first quarter, Mahomes slid into the pocket to extend a play. After completing the ensuing pass, his right ankle was rolled up by outside linebacker Arden Key. Mahomes immediately grimaced and struggled to move. The Chiefs called a timeout to give Mahomes more time. The next snap was even more disturbing, as Mahomes usually jumped on his left leg before and after handing the ball to running back Jerick McKinnon on a run play.
Then came Reid’s instructions during the Jaguars’ next possession, just moments after more tape was applied to Mahomes’ right ankle and foot to control the swelling. Mahomes’s suggestion to Reid was that he could wait at halftime to get his X-rays, but Reid didn’t budge and chose to let reserve quarterback Chad Henne, a 15-year veteran, lead the offense.
“I thought everyone around him was doing well too,” said Reid. “The best thing about it is that everyone trusts Chad, the trust the guys have in him. The boys love Chad.”
In 12 plays, Henne led the Chiefs on an impressive 98-yard drive, a succession of short-pass plays, rough runs from rookie running back Isiah Pacheco, and the route-running expertise of superstar tight end Travis Kelce.
Henne ended the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kelce with an assist from receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who ran a perfect rub route to clear the way for Kelce. As Henne got to the Chiefs sideline, he was greeted by an intense Mahomes, who celebrated the touchdown by jumping excitedly and pumping his right fist.
Tight end so nice that he scored twice. @TKelce
— NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2023
In the Chiefs locker room at halftime, Mahomes did a few drills, such as testing his footwork while falling backwards, to convince Reid that he could still perform well despite his limited mobility. It worked. Mahomes returned to the field early in the second half as Chiefs fans chanted “MVP!” The Chiefs’ first third down game ended with Mahomes using his legs to break out of the pocket, and away from defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris, before scrambling to first down.
“That told me he was fine,” Reid said of Mahomes, who will undergo an MRI on the ankle on Sunday, a team source confirmed to The athletic. “I didn’t want him to do that (scramble out of the bag), but I didn’t tell him not to. If (the player) can’t do that, then they have to get out of the game.”
While the Chiefs offense then struggled with consecutive possessions, their defense provided plenty of support in the second half, preventing the Jaguars from taking the lead at any point in the game.
A mix of veterans with postseason experience and young, inexperienced players proved to be a quality combination for the Chiefs defense to disrupt a Jaguars offense led by star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Behind defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the unit put in a solid performance to close out the first half as Henne ran the offense. The pass-rush duo of superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark pushed the Jaguars out of range to kick a field goal. Clark then finished with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and a timely sack.
“It gets to a point where, you know, when the money’s on the line, you know who to call,” said Clark, whose 12 sacks in the postseason are the fourth in league history. “I’m a winner. I like to win. When you get to the playoffs, it’s going to be a bounty to play the right game every time.
After halftime, Spagnuolo did what he was known for: flashing the opposing quarterbacks. A blitz from safety Justin Reid was enough pressure for Lawrence to throw a “50-50 pass” on the perimeter that was intercepted by rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson, who caught the ball with only his right hand.
ONE-HANDED CHOICE @JaylenWatson12!
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2023
“That’s my favorite thing to do,” Reid said of blitzing. “When guys create a pass rush and put pressure on the quarterback, it leads to turnovers in secondary. We couldn’t have chosen better.”
Meanwhile, Mahomes, who sometimes struggled with his accuracy in the second half, saved his best work for the most critical moment. The Jaguars scored their lone touchdown of the second half early in the fourth quarter to cut the Chiefs’ lead to three points. Mahomes responded by navigating the pocket and completing center field passes to Kelce and a center shoulder pass to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“Luckily for me, I’m not always in the right foot position, so I can throw a few throws anyway,” Mahomes said of having to adjust his throwing mechanic. “I got the ball out of my hands quickly and guys made actions. It’s a team sport for a reason. The boys gathered around me.”
The constant contributor to the Chiefs’ offense—and their most favorable game against the Jaguars’ defense—was Kelce, who was targeted a combined 17 times by Mahomes and Henne. Kelce recorded 14 receptions, the most for a tight end in postseason history, for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Entering the game, the Jaguars ranked last in both passing success rate to tight ends and EPA per game. The Jaguars averaged 9.54 yards to opponents in the regular season when the opposing quarterback threw a pass to the tight end. Most of Kelce’s production was generated within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, as he caught all 13 of his targets in that 84-yard section of the field, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
“It’s all really just based on how the defense responds to what we’re doing,” Kelce said. “I was lucky enough to have the pride of making those plays. I take a lot on myself to be able to make those plays, especially when we need it most.
Kelce’s presence affected the Jaguars’ coverage in the red zone in the middle of the fourth quarter. With the Jaguars assigned two defenders to Kelce, Valdes-Scantling knew all he had to do was beat Tyson Campbell on a ramp to get open in the back of the end zone. Mahomes got into the pocket and delivered a 6-yard jump pass to Valdes-Scantling, who was wide open in the back of the end zone.
The game also marked the only time in the second half that Mahomes was hit by a defender.
One foot np
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2023
“Pat still excitedly getting up and stumbling off the field just shows the toughness he has and the leader he is,” Valdes-Scantling said of Mahomes, who was never sacked as he passed for 195 yards and two touchdowns. “He was the same self. There was no difference.”
With Saturday’s win, Reid and Mahomes have led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth straight year, the second-longest streak in league history. The previous four games have all been played at Arrowhead Stadium, and the fifth could be just as good as the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Buffalo Bills in Sunday’s division game. If the Bills win, the title game will be played in Atlanta, a neutral venue since the Bills were unable to play 17 games in the regular season. (The Week 17 game between the Bills and Bengals was canceled after the Bills’ second-year safety Damar Hamlin collapsed and went into cardiac arrest on the field.)
In next week’s game, Mahomes will try to replicate a feat he achieved two years ago in the AFC Championship Game, as the Chiefs batted the Bills to reach their second consecutive Super Bowl. In that game, Mahomes performed great despite suffering a concussion and a torn plantar plate in his left foot, an injury known as turf toe, the previous week in a win over the Cleveland Browns. He overwhelmed the Bills by recording 325 passing yards and three touchdowns while committing zero turnovers.
When it came time to leave Arrowhead, Mahomes left the locker room without a walking boot on Saturday night. His gait was also smoother than expected.
“It feels better than I thought it would be,” he said. “Of course I have a lot of adrenaline going right now, so we’ll see how it feels. I’m jumping right into treatment tonight and trying to do everything I can to be as close to 100 percent next week as possible.
(Photo by Patrick Mahomes: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)