KANSAS CITY, Mo. — How is he doing this? High-ankle sprains are six-week injuries, or something like that. And Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked fairly fine through 36 minutes Sunday in the AFC Championship Game—not running with abandon, but when he had to, Mahomes could get out of harm’s way and do Mahomes things.
Nine minutes left, third quarter, 13-13. Why can’t these teams ever play a rout? Three times in 13 months they’d played, and the Bengals won by 3, 3 and 3. Now, with the wind chill around 4 and the Arrowhead crowd in a nervous tizzy, Cincinnati linebacker Germaine Pratt got a free run at Mahomes, who tried to sprint left and just couldn’t with the bum wheel. Pratt gained on him. Mahomes knew he had a couple of milliseconds to do something on this play, third-and-four, to extend this drive. So Mahomes turned his body and took the ball and somehow fired a pinpoint throw into the gut of Mecole Hardman … just as Pratt lunged and caused Mahomes to pull up.
Could this be it? I wondered if the crowd was thinking what I was thinking: Henne, warm up! (Chad Henne, the backup QB.)
Then something fortunate but unfortunate happened: Hardman caught the ball—first down, gain of 11—but he laid on the field, hurt. Timeout on the field. Bad for Hardman. Good for Mahomes, who needed a minute or two, right here, right now. He gimped over to the Kansas City sideline.
Kansas City’s Vice President of Sports Medicine and Performance Rick Burkholder, who’d been with Mahomes during his all-week rehab, said to Mahomes: “You okay?”
“Leave me alone,” Mahomes hissed.
There was not going to be any relief pitcher for Mahomes on this day.
Later, in the quiet of an anteroom next to the team’s post-game family room, Mahomes pondered the pain he felt with nine minutes left in the third quarter, knowing he was going to somehow make it through the last 24 minutes of the game. And overtime, if need be.
“On that play,” he said, “I knew once I was getting chased it was gonna hurt regardless. I knew running wasn’t gonna be something good for me. I think you saw a couple times in the game where I tried to run and I didn’t really go anywhere. So I rolled out to the left, they brought pressure off the right, and I saw Mecole open. I stepped on that leg, kinda twisted through it and I immediately felt that little shock. It’s just one of those things that you, you know, you feel it.
“But at the end of the day, man, I’m not coming out of that game unless they carry me out.”
First down. And miles to go before Mahomes can sleep.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present The Andy Reid Super Bowl.
“You know this city. You know that city,” Reid said in his Arrowhead office Sunday night. He shook his head, like he still couldn’t believe it: 14 years as Philadelphia coach, 10 years as KC coach. Now they’ll meet in the Super Bowl.
“It’s gonna be a great clash. Great. I love it. It’s crazy. It’s pretty crazy. It’s real crazy, in fact. I left there on good terms. I still got a good relationship with those people. I appreciate every bit of those 14 years.”
The nuts, the bolts:
Super Bowl LVII
Sunday, Feb. 12, State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., 6:30 p.m. ET
Kansas City (AFC 1 seed, 16-3) versus Philadelphia (NFC 1 seed, 16-3)
FOX TV (Kevin Burkhardt, Greg Olsen)
Early line: Eagles by 2.
Historic game: It’s the first of the 57 Super Bowls with two starting Black quarterbacks facing off. Mahomes plays in his third for Kansas City, Jalen Hurts in his first for Philadelphia … Each QB enters the game with an injury—Mahomes with the lingering right ankle issue, Hurts with a sprained right shoulder suffered Dec. 18 at Chicago. Neither is likely to be adversely affected by it … Andy Reid coached the Eagles from 1999-2012, getting fired after a 4-12 season. Five years later, the Eagles won their first Super Bowl. Five years later, the Eagles will play Reid in a weirdly sentimental Super Bowl … To get to this game, Philadelphia beat the Giants and Niners by a combined 69-14; Kansas City beat Jacksonville and Cincinnati, 50-40 … The matchup could come down to whether Kansas City defensive linemen Frank Clark and Chris Jones—who pulverized the Bengals front Sunday—can make a dent in the best offensive line in football. Joe Burrow said of Jones, a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year: “He’s so good. He makes it so hard on you.”
Some weird officiating from Ronald Torbert’s crew marred the second half of this game. In Cincinnati, a few calls will live in infamy. But this was the fourth time these two teams have met in the past 13 months, and the fourth time we spent the entire game, play after play, riveted.
Cincinnati-Kansas City. It’s now the best rivalry in the game.
Burrow-Mahomes. It’s now the best quarterback rivalry in the game.
Lou Anarumo-Reid/Eric Bieniemy. It’s not the best coaching rivalry in the game, but it’s close. Holding Kansas City to 25.5 points a game in four big, big games is a great feat. Holding Kansas City to two field goals in four fourth quarters, when Reid and Bieniemy are top-shelf, when Mahomes has often been at his greatest, well, that’s a resume-builder for Anarumo.
Back to the post-game locker room.
Burkholder is in his 29th NFL season as an athletic trainer. Reid brought him with him from Philadelphia in 2013 when he took the coaching job here. In the winning locker room Sunday night, he nodded toward Mahomes’ locker.
“I used to think Jon Runyan was the toughest guy I’ve worked with—and he was tremendous,” Burkholder said. “But now it’s Patrick. He’s incredible. It’s like there was never any question he’d play this week, and his injury was significant. The amazing thing to me: He did not miss one snap of practice all week.”
“Not one,” Reid said. “He had a little tweak here or there and kept pounding through. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ That’s the crazy thing—for him to push through every play in practice, it’s just nuts. And then, he wanted to do the nakeds. He wanted to move to his left and just try it—see how it felt. We called it to the right, which would be easier for him. That’s how we had it on the script. But then he ran it to his left. He did one of those tonight. You saw it.”
Leave me alone.
You shouldn’t get the wrong impression when Mahomes bites off Burkholder’s head a little bit. Mahomes told me this is what he meant by it: “The coaches, everybody kinda coming up, media, everybody asking about it all week. I was just like, ‘Listen—I’m playing, so it doesn’t matter how I’m doing.’”
When Mecole Hardman finally got up and walked off the field, Mahomes had a minute or so to gather himself. Then he continued the drive, and gave the Bengals their first reason to be fuming. On third-and-seven from the Cincinnati 26-yard line, Mahomes hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who got to the 20- and stretched the ball out to pierce the line to gain, the Bengals’ 19-. Valdes-Scantling reached out and pulled the ball back voluntarily. At the goal line, that would be a touchdown. In the field of play, it’s not supposed to be. The officials ruled that because Valdez-Scantling was being pulled back at the time of the reach, his reach was allowed. It’s dubious whether that’s a logical conclusion.
So instead of having fourth-and-one at the 20-yard line, Kansas City was awarded a first down at the 19-. Two plays later Mahomes made his play of the game. Third-and-10 at the 19-, and Mahomes, back to pass, surveyed the landscape.
“We kept the running back in to help protect and I looked at Travis [Kelce] first,” Mahomes said. “He got double-teamed. Then my next read was the deep cross guy [rookie Skyy Moore]. The safety jumped that one and so I got to that third read and I just saw Marquez. So he’s 6-5 with that wingspan and he throws a hand up there. I couldn’t really see in front of him, but I knew he was open if he was throwing his hand up like that.”
Mahomes maneuvered in the pocket two or three steps. Some 576 pounds of defensive-line bulk, Sam Hubbard and B.J. Hill, were a quarter-second from tag-team smashing Mahomes. He had only one choice—and that one choice, Valdes-Scantling, had a window very rapidly closing, with corner Mike Hilton closing in.
The window was inches wide, and 27 yards away as the crow flies.
“I tried to just fire it to Marquez,” Mahomes said. “It’s one of those when you throw it and you hold your breath, honestly.”
Watch the replay 10 times, as I did, and it looks like Hilton, diving to break up the pass, missed it by inches. I bet his fingers felt the wind as the ball whizzed by.
Mahomes: “You’re like, man, just get through there somehow.”
Said Reid: “He took a couple of hits there and I just went ‘Ohhhh.’ He got up. I don’t know what other words to use for you.”
Play of the game. Touchdown.
One point about what Mahomes, Reid and Bieniemy battled through. In the last two years, Anarumo has become one of the rising stars in the profession. Between his first year as coordinator in 2019 and his fourth year this season, he’s cut 58 yards a game from what Cincinnati’s allowed on defense. And, entering Sunday’s game, the Bengals had been 3-0 against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the previous 13 months.
“I’m most nervous while they’re singing the national anthem,” Anarumo said Friday, the hay in the barn for his fourth meeting against Mahomes in 13 months. “Once that’s over, I’m ready to go. The fun part of football is during the game because you’re constantly thinking, you’re constantly challenging yourself, you’re constantly reacting to what they do. And against [Mahomes], you see the accuracy, the arm strength, his movement, and you think, ‘How are we ever gonna stop this guy?’”
But—and this is a big but—the Mahomes ankle injury cast a doubt cloud over Anarumo’s prep work. “I gotta be honest,” Anarumo told his players Friday morning. “Feels to me like he’s got a little bit of a leaky tire and at some point, it’s gonna go flat.”
Anarumo has some Belichick in him: No two game plans are the same. He’s made a living dropping eight into coverage and eschewing the blitz against Kansas City. Ben Solak of The Ringer had a fascinating take last week in the runup to the game: Mahomes with too much time isn’t as good as Mahomes when he’s pressured and has to make quick decisions. Per Solak, in Mahomes’ last 57 games dating back to the start of 2020, he’s had eight games when he’s had an average of more than 3.0 seconds to throw. (The NFL average is about 2.7 seconds from snap till QB release.) Mahomes is 3-5 in those eight games, including 0-2 against Cincinnati—and, amazingly, 42-7 when he releases the ball faster.
So Anarumo tested Mahomes some in this game, like the time he blitzed Germaine Pratt and Mahomes tweaked his ankle again. But he also liked playing coverage. In the end, when you hold Mahomes to 23 points, you have to feel like you’ve got a good chance. Anarumo, again, ran a defense that frustrated Kansas City at times, forced a turnover and four punts. It’s amazing Anarumo, with the job he’s done in four games in Kansas City, can’t get a sniff for a head-coaching job. “No idea,” he told me Friday. “Nothing I can do. But like I told my wife last night, if nothing happens, that’s fine. We’ll hang around Joe [Burrow] another year.” Anarumo laughed, then said: “There’s worse places to be.”
Now to the end of the game. It’s 20-all, with 17 seconds left and the ball at the Bengals’ 47-yard line. With a swirling wind on the field, Kansas City needs 15 yards, minimum, to get in range to try a game-winning kick, or the AFC Championship Game would be headed to overtime, Cincinnati-Kansas City, at Arrowhead, for the second straight year.
Mahomes scrambled to his right. He stepped out of bounds at the Bengal 42- with eight seconds left. He got two feet down on the white sideline stripe.
Then Bengals linebacker Joseph Ossai pushed Mahomes, hard, to the ground. Two flags flew. The Bengals were furious. No! You can’t let them win the game on a call like that!
Yes, you can. That’s a textbook late hit by Ossai. The call had to be made. Harrison Butker came on and kicked a 45-yard field goal to win, the boot clearing the bar by five yards, maybe.
Ossai, on the Bengals’ bench, appeared to be weeping.
The emotions in this game. Man.
“Oh,” said Mahomes, “It’s gonna be sore tomorrow for sure. But we’ll go right back to the treatment. You go back to the rehab. Prepare yourself. I’ll have a little bit more time to rest this week so hopefully we can be a little closer to 100 percent for the Super Bowl.”
Three Super Bowls by age 27 for Mahomes. Pretty good. But he knows what the future holds beyond this Super Bowl. Cincinnati at Kansas City, again, in 2023.
“They’re a great football team,” Mahomes said. “I hadn’t had a team like that that had beaten me that many times in a row.”
Mahomes had a four-five-second embrace with Burrow post-game. There’s some respect there. But think back to Brady-Manning. The respect was there in a big way. But each guy wanted to obliterate the other.
“I do love Burrow, man,” Mahomes said. “He’s a competitor. But I can’t have him smoking cigars in the locker room at Arrowhead, at our stadium.”
Is there any way to legislate two Cincinnati-Kansas City games a year?
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column