KANSAS CITY, Mo. – All of it looked so easy for Patrick Mahomes to this point. The career. The money. The fame. The insurance commercials. On a frigid Sunday night at the NFL's decibel epicenter, nothing was easy. Not even for him.
Mostly, because it never was going to be painless with a bum ankle. Add to that, the Cincinnati Bengals had the Chiefs' number and by extension Mahomes'. The Bengals also didn't exactly need the X-rays to know how limited the Kansas Chiefs quarterback was going to be in the AFC Championship Game. A Super Bowl was at stake with less-than-healthy franchise quarterback.
"People didn't realize," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said, "how hurt he was."
Shortly after Mahomes lunged for a first down with 8 seconds left in the game and then got hit late out of bounds in one of the most boneheaded plays of this or any season, he began to appreciate what had occurred.
At 27, the Chiefs franchise quarterback became the youngest QB to start his third Super Bowl. Only Tom Brady has been to three Super Bowls in six years to begin his career. But for one of the few times in his career – maybe ever – Mahomes wasn't the primary reason it all happened for Kansas City.
For once in this budding, fierce, bitter, ongoing rivalry the quarterbacks didn't take center stage. Joe Burrow threw two interceptions then took his "Burrowhead" comments back to Cincy. Mahomes fumbled the ball, turning it over without being hit in the fourth quarter. That led to a Cincinnati game-tying touchdown.
He wasn't great because in the end he wasn't 100%. But he was enough.
"I appreciate it way more," Mahomes said after the win that propelled the Chiefs to their third Super Bowl in the last four years. "When I first got in the league it happened so fast. I won MVP. I won the Super Bowl. I thought, that's just kind of how it went. ... Now that I've dealt with failure losing the AFC Championship Game, losing the Super Bowl. I know how much hard work and daily grind that it takes."
And so, of course, the work is not done. Mahomes must get healthier for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Chiefs won two playoff games by a total of 10 points – at home. They won on Sunday, of course, because of Mahomes' steady, guiding, sometimes spectacular play.
He threw for 326 yards, finding 10 different receivers -- and not one of them was Tyreek Hill, who was jettisoned before the season to Miami. But he was mostly a pocket passer. Never mind that he led the league with 35 touchdown passes sitting in the pocket. Or that without Hill, he tied a 60-year old NFL record with the most TD passes in a season to running backs and tight ends (28). Mahomes' special sauce is his ability to maneuver. That was diminished Sunday.
So the Chiefs also won because four rookies had to step up in the secondary after starting corner L'Jarius Sneed went out early with a concussion. They won because the Chiefs' front stepped up and victimized a Cincinnati offensive line missing three starters due to injuries. Burrow was sacked five times.
The Chiefs won when at-times maddeningly inconsistent kicker Harrison Butker sort of chili-dipped the game-winning 45-yard field goal with 3 seconds left. Oh, it was good all right but barely, looking like a pop up that invoked the infield fly rule.
"I think the wind kind of stopped it," Butker said. "I think a lot of people were celebrating but I was making sure it went over the crossbar."
Mahomes had made it that far willing that ankle to its maximum. He scrambled 5 yards from the Bengals' 42 to the right sideline with less than 10 seconds to go. Then having taken two steps out of bounds already, Cincinnati's Joseph Ossai, a second-year defensive end from Texas, shoved Mahomes to the turf.
"I was able to do enough on that last play and get the first down and get myself out of bounds and give Harrison a chance to win," Mahomes said. "We got the flag. He pushed me pretty late there."
It was obvious. It was dumb and, in the end, it was the difference. A 15-yard penalty set up Butker.
"There were a lot of plays other than that, that could have turned the tide in the game," Burrow rationalized.
Maybe, but this much was obvious. A Mahomes that was 85% -- or whatever percentage you want to assign – is better than most folks' best effort. It was enough to get the Chiefs to another Super Bowl.
They were following a familiar script. As they had in the previous three meetings all won by the Bengals, the Chiefs had blown a fourth-quarter lead.
"The tide was turning our way. I thought we were going to find a way to win this game," Burrow said.
And he seemed right. When Samaje Perine scored 90 seconds into the fourth to tie it 20-20, Arrowhead looked like it was going to become Cincinnati's "Who Dey" playground again.
On the previous possession, Superman (Mahomes) fumbled. Superman fumbled without being hit. Superman almost fumbled the whole game away. The ball simply flew out of his hand after he spotted Marquez Valdes-Scantling wide open.
"The worst one was when I fumbled," Mahomes said. "I tried to pick it up and I felt the worst, the tweak I had during the game. … They blitzed and Marquez was going to be wide open. Luckily, it didn't cost us the game."
No it didn't. But there were opportunities. By the fourth quarter, five players in the two deep – three starters – had been knocked out of the game. Three of them were receivers – leading pass catcher JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman and Kadarius Toney. That made for the likes of Marcus Kemp – a 2017 undrafted free agent with four career catches – getting reps.
But that's always been the thing about Mahomes. He can make the pedestrian look great, even if he is one of the pedestrians.
On the first play of the fourth quarter Burrow found Ja'Marr Chase – remember him? -- down the middle against double coverage for 35 yards to the Chiefs' 6. Two plays later it was tied and the superstar (Mahomes) who rejuvenated this franchise, now had to make up for almost blowing the game.
"It was a wild week," he said. "We lost guys. We got guys back. We had guys questionable. I was proud of how those guys battled."
And then, predictably, pent-up emotions spilled out. During the onfield celebration, Travis Kelce called out Cincinnati mayor who had called out Mahomes in a tweet.
A WHO DEY proclamation from the Mayor: @Bengals pic.twitter.com/W1tCqupdTw— Aftab Pureval (@AftabPureval) January 27, 2023
"I got some wise words for that Cincinnati mayor," Kelce said. "Know your role and shut your mouth, you Jabroni."
Then there was a "Burrowhead" label given to Arrowhead by Cincinnati defensive back Mike Hilton.
"We're not a team that talks," said Chris Jones who had the first two postseason sacks of his seven-year career. "Don't ever, ever, ever disrespect Arrowhead Stadium."
Not on Sunday and not for a long, long while as long as No. 15 is healthy, or something close to it.
"We felt like we needed to get this win, wanted to play this team," Mahomes said. "We got them at Arrowhead Stadium and finished the job this time. The job's not finished for us."