History repeated itself Sunday night at SoFi Stadium.
If you stayed up for the end of Kansas City’s tense AFC West match at the Chargers, you saw KC tight end Travis Kelce, down by four in the final minute of the game, catch a shallow crossing route from Patrick Mahomes, run right to left across the formation, and take advantage of wideout Justin Watson muddling the middle of the field with a short route just in front of Kelce. Kelce ran upfield for the winning 17-yard TD.
“Funny thing is,” Kelce told me 40 minutes after the game, “we ran the same play to win this game last year.”
Whoa. Wait. The same play?
“Ironic,” Kelce said over the din of a euphoric post-game scene.
Let’s see. After I hung up with Kelce, I hustled to YouTube to find the highlights from Kansas City’s overtime walkoff win over the Chargers last year in California. I looked at the Next Gen Stats “dot” rendition of the play.
Dec. 16. Night game. National TV. SoFi. Tied at 28. Overtime. Kelce caught a shallow crossing route from Patrick Mahomes, running right to left across the formation, took advantage of wideout Byron Pringle muddling the middle of the field with a short route just in front of Kelce. Kelce ran upfield for the winning 34-yard TD.
Two slight differences: Coach Andy Reid dressed up this version with some motion—Watson, running to the left pre-snap—that wasn’t in the play last year. And Kelce broke off his free run last year and cut straight upfield to score. This year, Kelce kept running in-stride after making the catch, because there was a great path to the end zone.
Two games, same foe, same stadium, same end-of-game scenario, and Kansas City dialed up the same play. It worked with the same receiver in both games. It won both games.
Last week, in Kansas City, when the offensive staff was installing this crossing route for Kelce, Reid said, “Hard to stop that play.”
And isn’t that one of the open secrets of this Kansas City franchise, with Reid at the helm in his 10th season? Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy design plays for great players like Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, and they don’t care if they’ve run the plays twice or 20 times already this season. Hard to stop that play. Sunday night, one of the best safeties in football, Derwin James, chased Kelce futilely across the formation and couldn’t catch him, and Kelce scored fairly easily.
It’s crazy to think Reid dared to call the same play to try to beat the same team 11 months after first calling it, and that it worked so easily. Again. Reid knew what he was calling. He knew it won the Thursday night game last December. He knew it’d win this game too.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) November 21, 2022
Kansas City went 75 yards in 75 seconds, culminating in the winning TD. I asked Kelce why it worked so flawlessly.
“Patrick Mahomes,” he said. “What the people don’t know is we had personnel issues on that series because of injuries we had during the game. Patrick’s the one with the keys to the car. He knows exactly where to go with the ball.”
Before Sunday night, Kelce had played Derwin James four times and never scored with him in coverage. “He’s locked me up in my career,” Kelce said. But he caught two TD passes Sunday night, including the winner, with James in coverage (he caught three total on the night). “This year,” he said, “I was lucky we had a timeout before that final play, so I could get my wind. But he’s tough, really tough.”
This was the season the AFC West was supposed to catch up with Kansas City, and Reid, and Mahomes, and Kelce. Tyreek Hill was gone; the other three West teams were all better. Mahomes has had to break in five new receivers. But now KC has swept the season series with the Chargers, and Reid’s team (8-2) has a three-game lead over the Chargers with the tiebreaker. This division belongs to Kansas City—for the seventh straight year.
“We’re better this year because Patrick and Andy are a year older, a year more experienced together,” Kelce said.
Watching Kelce be the short and intermediate keystone to everything Kansas City does in the passing game, watching Mahomes lean on him during a needy time, I thought, If he never plays another snap after this season, he’s a Hall of Famer. Though I’ve railed against calling guys Hall-of-Famers before their time, he’s been a dominant tight end over a significant period of time. Kelce has 855 receiving yards through 10 games, and barring injury will have his seventh straight season over 1,000 yards. Think of the other great tight ends of our day. Rob Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez had four seasons over 1,000 yards—not consecutive, but total. Shannon Sharpe had three and Jason Witten and Antonio Gates two each. Kelce’s had six straight and is verging on a seventh. Last night was his 33rd game with 100+ receiving yards, breaking Gronkowski’s record (32) of such games by a tight end.
He is marvelously well-rounded in the passing game, athletic and unselfish, and gives up his body willingly to block when needed. And he’s always, always there. He’s missed two games due to injury in the last nine seasons.
While the other parts of the passing game get fine-tuned with Mahomes, the reliance on Kelce continues to win games for the AFC’s number one seed. Some things never change.