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The Kansas City Chiefs' winning blueprint
Everything starts with the league's likely 2022 MVP. But the general manager's fingerprints were all over this AFC Championship win.
Raw emotions ran high in both locker rooms.
In one, a cigar was lit. Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill stared into his IG Live and promised Eli Apple he’d smoke one for him. Justin Reid, a personal hype man, screamed expletives as the music blared. And moments earlier, Travis Kelce hijacked his quarterback’s postgame interview with CBS to scream, “Burrowhead my ass!”
In the other, Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai was asked about his hit out of bounds that teed up the game-winning field goal. At his side was B.J. Hill, serving as a protector. Hill told us last week he didn’t like the “villain” nickname. “The Good Guys” seemed like a better title to him. Now, we saw why. Moments earlier, Ossai was inconsolable on the team bench. In tears. The CBS camera toggled his direction nonstop.
This AFC Championship Game — a 23-20 Chiefs win — sure was a dizzying voyage.
The officiating was awful. We saw bad calls both ways with the Bengals on the losing end more often. That’s typically what happens to the visiting team in raucous playoff atmospheres. Still, we usually don’t see free downs doled out. And this crew was terribly selective on what constituted holding. (The Chiefs made out like bandits compared to Cincy.)
The mistakes will sting. Ossai’s push was one of many plays that’ll loiter in the brains of Bengals players and coaches. His explanation afterward made sense. Ossai indicated that he lost where he was on the field and was trying to keep Mahomes inbounds so the clock would run. The push was gentle compared to personal fouls that usually fly on such plays, but no. This cannot happen.
And, sadly, there will be much “Burrowhead” discourse. Talking heads will claim the Bengals were too arrogant into Arrowhead. Clearly, the visitors’ collective disposition pissed off Chiefs players — they told us themselves with a “mother---ker” or two for good measure. But… eh. Words are just that — words — and this effect is a two-way street. Cincinnati clearly feeds off such confidence. It’s a reason this team was even in the title game. One play goes the other way and the Bengals are lauded for their bravado. Eli Apple is likely still partying in KC.
The takeaway here? KC possessed the two best players on the field and this night was Brett Veach’s magnum opus as general manager.
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Start with Patrick Mahomes. The gold standard at quarterback is clearly playing on a severely sprained ankle. Every time Mahomes tried planting on that foot, he grimaced. He limped. He’s unable to dance and dart through a maze of his own creation like he had all regular season. This game, he lost wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman to injuries. There was no running game. The Chiefs’ running backs produced all of 27 yards on 15 attempts. And none of it mattered. Mahomes completed 29 of 43 passes for 326 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
No play was bigger than his run on third and 4. Somehow, he gained five yards on the mad dash. True, the Chiefs received an additional 15 yards on Ossai’s blunder but we shouldn’t forget that Mahomes still had eight seconds at his disposal. He would’ve inched the Chiefs closer than a 60-yard field goal attempt.
This was the stuff of a living legend.
Mahomes admitted he “definitely” did not feel good on the ankle — this is a performance that genuinely inspires teammates and reminds everyone he is the best player in the sport.
On the other side of the ball, Chris Jones stated his case as the best defensive player.
Attempting to block this 6-foot-6, 310-pounder was a straight-up work hazard — whoever drew the assignment was merely hanging on for dear life and that’s been the case for every team that has played the Chiefs this season. We do not discuss Jones’ dominance nearly enough. San Francisco’s Nick Bosa will likely win defensive player of the year, but the award should go to Jones.
As noted, all eight of Jones’ pressures Sunday were impactful. Three resulted in sacks, two by himself. The other five resulted in incomplete passes. Head coach Zac Taylor certainly knew that leaving Jones singled up on the Bengals’ final third-and-8 play was a major roll of the dice. Still, I get the dilemma. Cincinnati needed to move fast with only 44 seconds left, and opted to release four receivers and one back out on pass patterns.
In a cruel twist of irony, safety Justin Reid locked down tight end Hayden Hurst on the play… the same Reid who promised to lock Hurst down ahead of Cincinnati’s 27-24 win over KC earlier this season.
Burrow is trying to hit his tight end on the play. Reid has it covered. Jones does the rest.
In retrospect, the Bengals probably wish they slid running back Samaje Perine over to the other side to chip.
The Bengals fought. Burrow was Burrow, and he’ll have his team in this game again. His fourth-and-6 strike to Ja’Marr Chase in the fourth quarter — into double coverage because who cares? — reminded us all that he’s a quarterback you want in pressure-packed moments.
Very soon, the Bengals will need to pay Burrow and Chase and it’ll be difficult to evolve and adapt.
But it’s certainly possible. We all saw how in this same game.
This title win was also a signatgure win for Veach and head coach Andy Reid. It’s true that the Bengals have enjoyed life with a quarterback on a rookie contract. As Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane said, “I don't want to suck bad enough to have to get Ja'Marr Chase.” The Chiefs’ creativity in roster building is something worth exploring as their Super Bowl matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles nears.
They paid Mahomes… they pick in the late 20’s every season… yet they still contend. Annually.
The key is stealth planning and drafting two years in advance.
Remember, in Kansas City’s 31-9 Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay, Mahomes ran for 497 yards before his passes and sacks, per NextGen Stats. In the aftermath, the Chiefs asked themselves hard philosophical questions and deemed it best to prioritize the offensive line and spread money out to other positions rather than hand a blank check over to arguably the best wide receiver: Tyreek Hill. There’s zero chance Mahomes could’ve functioned behind his 2020 offensive line on that ankle against the Bengals.
The blockbuster trade for Orlando Brown Jr. The five-year, $80 million deal to guard Joe Thuney. Drafting center Creed Humphrey in the second round of the 2021 draft. This all helped Mahomes play a more traditional style with the season on the line.
As Bill Belichick has known for decades, it pays to run your offense through tight ends because this is the most underpaid position in football. Tight ends hate this reality — it still irks Tony Gonzalez — but the Chiefs enjoy one of the league’s best bargains in employing Travis Kelce at $14 million per season.
The Chiefs didn’t blink after trading Hill to Miami for a first, a second, two fourths and a sixth. Smith-Schuster inked a team-friendly, prove-it deal. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who signed at $30 million over three years, was phenomenal against Cincinnati. MVS caught six passes for 116 yards with one touchdown and one stunning stretch for a first down. (We sat down back in March 2021 if you want to check it out.)
Those picks were then put to use.
The 2022 draft class had its fingerprints all over the AFC title game.
Corner Trent McDuffie (21st overall) juuust barely tipped a third-and-17 ball that could’ve been completed. He held his own in difficult spots.
End George Karlaftis (30th) had a sack. He’s been taking advantage of the attention Jones draws more and more.
Wide receiver Skyy Moore (54th) supplied the 29-yard punt return to give the Chiefs a chance at a field goal the final drive.
Safety Bryan Cook (62nd), who played college ball at the University of Cincinnati, tipped the Burrow bomb to Tee Higgins. Diving, outstretched, this is one of the best individual efforts you’ll see from any DB.
Corner Joshua Williams (135th) is the player who was there for the interception on the tip.
Running back Isiah Pacheco (251st) has been a revelation as the team’s No. 1 back. Rushing lanes were hard to come by, but his receiving ability — 59 yards on five catches — was clutch this night. Specifically when he broke several tackles on a 16-yarder with 4:56 to go.
Corner Jaylen Watson (243rd) has an interception in each playoff game.
The Chiefs did not need to post a poor record to acquire so many quality playoff performers in the 2022 draft. They just took the right players that fit what they do around two stars: Mahomes and Jones.
Now, the Kansas City Chiefs are Super Bowl-bound for the third time in four years.
We can only imagine how good the ice felt on that ankle afterward.
Next up, the best pass rush in football.