Patrick Mahomes scrambled for a first down on his badly sprained right ankle, then was shoved late out of bounds by Joseph Ossai, giving Harrison Butker a chance to kick a 45-yard field goal with just a few seconds remaining and give the Kansas City Chiefs a 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC title game on Sunday night.
The Chiefs finally beat the Bengals after three straight losses, including a three-point overtime defeat in last year’s title game, and will play the Philadelphia Eagles – coach Andy Reid’s old team – in their third Super Bowl in four years.
“I’ve watched them all year long, great quarterback, great entire team,” Mahomes said of the Eagles. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us, but I’m going to celebrate this one first. I don’t think we have any cigars, but we’ll be ready to go in the Super Bowl.”
Mahomes, who hurt his ankle against Jacksonville in the divisional round, threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns, even though he was missing three of his wide receivers to injuries by the end. Marquez Valdes-Scantling led the way with 116 yards and a touchdown, while Travis Kelce – bad back and all – had seven catches for 78 yards and a score.
Yet it was Mahomes on his injured right ankle, rather than with his strong right arm, who rescued the Chiefs.
“At some points in games, you’ve gotta just put it all on the line,” Mahomes said. “The defence gave us a couple chances to get in field goal range, we didn’t get there. The defence got another stop for us and I knew I was going to get there somehow. So I just put it all on the line and we got in field goal range, and we’re at Arrowhead now and we’re in.”
The Chiefs got a crucial sack from Chris Jones to force a punt with 39 seconds left, and return man Skyy Moore broke free for 29 yards on the return. On 3rd-and-4 at the Bengals 47, Mahomes eluded pressure and scrambled toward the Bengals sideline, barely picking up the first down before Ossai gave him a shove from behind.
The penalty flags flew, the ball moved 15 yards closer and Butker’s kick was good.
“We’re not going to make it about one play. There was plenty of plays we left on the field today that could have put us in a better position,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “The character of this football team, that’s never going to change. We’ve got the right people in the locker room, the right men leading this team and this organisation.”
Joe Burrow, who was sacked five times and wobbly by the end, finished with 270 yards passing to go with a touchdown and two interceptions for the Bengals. Tee Higgins had six catches for 83 yards and the score.
The Chiefs were able to do early what the Buffalo Bills could not in last week’s divisional round: They ran roughshod over an ailing Bengals offensive line missing two starters to injury with another bothered by a sore knee.
Burrow was sacked three times in the first quarter alone and the Bengals offence did not gain a single yard.
Mahomes, whose ankle had been the subject of speculation all week, led Kansas City to a field goal on their opening possession. And when the Chiefs got the ball back, Mahomes did it again, but only after Kadarius Toney failed to pull in a nifty throw for a would-be touchdown – the incompletion was upheld upon review.
Cincinnati finally moved the ball in the second quarter, but they also had to settle for Evan McPherson’s chip-shot field goal.
The Chiefs finally reached the end zone late in the second quarter, moving briskly downfield behind a couple of nice grabs by Valdes-Scantling. The Bengals held on 3rd-and-1 at their 14-yard line, but the Chiefs went for it and Mahomes hit Kelce loosely covered by Jessie Bates III for the touchdown.
The Bengals drove 90 yards in the closing minutes, but only added a field goal to get within 13-6 at the break.
But their offence was just hitting its stride – and another classic was brewing.
After the Chiefs went three-and-out to start the second half, Burrow led the Bengals downfield, bolting through a yawning hole in the defence for a third-down conversion before hitting Higgins from 27 yards out to knot the game 13-13.
Mahomes, suddenly down three wide receivers to injuries and beginning to limp, gamely pressed on. He answered Burrow with a touchdown drive of his own, capped by a third-down throw to Valdes-Scantling to regain the lead.
The Chiefs had a chance to gain some breathing room later in the third quarter, but Mahomes somehow lost control of the ball before he could throw a pass and the Bengals pounced on the fumble. Six plays later – including an audacious fourth-down throw from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase – Samaje Perine ran into the end zone to tie it at 20.
Burrow gave the Chiefs a chance when his deep throw to Higgins on third down was batted into the air and picked by rookie cornerback Josh Williams. Mahomes managed to move the Chiefs past midfield, but two runs went nowhere and his third-down throw to Jerick McKinnon was well short, forcing them to punt in Bengals territory.
The Chiefs defence held, though, giving Mahomes and their offence one more try. It was a chance they would take.