Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs have shown a Tom Brady-Bill Belichick-like ability to lift their levels in the playoffs as they seek to win a second straight Super Bowl title after breaking the hearts of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game
Highlights from the Kansas City Chiefs against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game
“The Chiefs are still the Chiefs,” insisted Travis Kelce. What does ‘still the Chiefs’ mean?
It means Kelce licking his lips at the sight of a toe-to-toe match-up with Baltimore Ravens All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton, and winning a defining duel that few, if anybody, can say they have won this season. It means L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie going toe-to-toe with Tyreek Hill, and twice containing the NFL’s cheat code field-flipper in a way few, if anybody, can say they have this season.
It means Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid raising their levels in Tom Brady-Bill Belichick fashion upon the first sign of playoff football. It means Steve Spagnuolo tormenting Lamar Jackson and one of the league’s most explosive offenses with a bombardment of shape-shifting coverages and disguised pressures.
Baltimore called in the greats; Ray Lewis turned out, Ed Reed turned out, Terrell Suggs turned out. All in aid of forming a Chiefs-repellent fortress in which the Ravens would overpower their AFC rivals as their next inferior hurdle on the way to Las Vegas as favourites to win Super Bowl LVIII. Lamar Jackson would get his long-awaited ring as the league’s probable MVP, the Ravens would cap their commanding season in a Sin City shower of Lombardi riches. Or not.
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The Chiefs did what no team had come close to doing to the Ravens this season. They out-thought them and out-fought them. Reid and Spagnuolo brought the game-plan; Mahomes, Kelce and their defensive cohort brought the fire and obsession-driven intensity customary to any playoff triumph.
For a team built on their trend-setting innovations and play designs, the Chiefs have mastered the winning trait of controlled postseason lunacy. They want it more than the rest. They are better than the rest. Their reward is a return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years, with a chance to go back-to-back after last season’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Arizona.
Patrick Mahomes says the Kansas City Chiefs have not been fazed by not being considered the favorites in this year’s playoffs as they claimed the AFC Championship with a win over the Baltimore Ravens
“You don’t take it for granted,” said Mahomes. “You never know how many you’re going to get to or if you’re going to get to any. So it truly is special just to do it with these guys after what we’ve been through all season long. Guys coming together, it really is special. But I told them, ‘The job’s not done’. Our job now is to prepare ourselves to play a good football team in the Super Bowl and try to get that ring.”
The Chiefs’ young mistake-ridden receivers could not catch a pass this season, until they could. Kelce was washed, until he wasn’t. Mahomes was succumbing to frustration, until he channelled it. The Chiefs had fallen behind the pack amid a run of four defeats in six games over November and December, until they were back out in front. Order restored, Super Bowl-bound, dynasty team doing dynasty things.
Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken second-guessed himself into neglecting a run-game focus that had given the Buffalo Bills their best route to success against the Chiefs’ defense during the Divisional Round, for the first time this season Jackson – for all his phenomenal work in scramble drills and out-of-structure creation in the first half – was lured into poise-lacking decisions amounting to misfires and a costly late interception, and the Ravens as a whole were sucked into foolish penalties amid the live-on-the-edge environment Kansas City had sought to create.
Mahomes and Kelce had manoeuvred Justin Tucker’s kicking equipment during pre-game warm-ups without fear of a meme-able backfire, the Chiefs let it be known of their displeasure at the sight of Arthur Maulet entering their half before the game, Reid’s side – as they had against Buffalo at Orchard Park – quashed any notion of homefield advantage. This is still their league.
Baltimore Ravens’ Zay Flowers cut his hand in frustration after he was denied a touchdown when L’Jarius Sneed knocked the ball out of his hands
“I thought our guys played hard, aggressive football. It always starts with the offensive defensive line. They came out with a purpose here and played their hearts out,” said head coach Reid. “Pat Mahomes did a great job, again, as he normally does. But starting the game off with 11 completions, straight completions. That’s something, something special.
“And then to manage the game, things that get kind of thrown by the side is him taking a sack there at the end. So, as opposed to trying to fit the ball in. He took the sack, kept the clock running, good things happen there at that particular time, and then our defense was outstanding. We were able to get a lead, and we were able to maintain that lead and did it with great personality there.”
Mahomes was on hand to deliver the killer flashpoints. His approach to an early fourth-and-two was to sell the hitch route to his right with his body angle and eyes, before swivelling his hips and floating a dangerous strike to a leaping Kelce on a crossing route for 13 yards; nobody tries that. He later extended a third down for nine seconds in the backfield, before finally slaloming away from pressure and flipping a dangling carrot underneath, where Kelce was there to make a diving catch on Hamilton; nobody does that.
With Hamilton swarming Kelce on a corner route, Mahomes delivered the perfect back-shoulder pass for the touchdown to leave the Ravens’ star helpless. With the game on line, Mahomes inflicted the final blow as he lobbed up a strike to Marquez Valdes-Scantling for 32 yards to move the chains on third-and-nine. Here was playoff Mahomes.
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A fired-up Kelce himself saved his best performance of the season for the biggest stage, surpassing the legendary Jerry Rice for most postseason receptions in NFL history as he made 11 catches for 116 yards and one touchdown, among his most telling contributions, though, being the evil villain laugh that followed as he baited Kyle Van Noy into a heated exchange that would see the Ravens linebacker penalised. He and the Chiefs were under their skin.
But the story of Sunday was the story of the Chiefs’ season in its entirety, Spagnuolo and his Kansas City defense draining Baltimore of the oomph that had steamrollered the best of the league since September. Spags dared to dial up the blitz against the NFL’s best tuck-and-take rushing quarterback, crucially swerving escape acts with pocket containment and drive-stalling finishers in the backfield, while nullifying Jackson’s play-extension mastery with suffocating coverages downfield.
“Spags did an amazing job,” said Chiefs head coach Reid. “Spags, that defense, man. They were dirty tough today.”
Sneed has exemplified the Spagnuolo defense all season long, the latest instalment of his poster boy campaign coming with a game-changing forced fumble to dispossess Zay Flowers during the Ravens rookie’s heroic dive for the end zone. Moments earlier Flowers had conceded a 15-yard penalty for taunting Sneed on a 54-yard catch; the Chiefs man would have the last laugh, the Chiefs would have the last laugh.
Kansas City allowed just three of 11 attempts on third down, while recording four sacks, three takeaways and five pass defenses, as well as limiting the NFL’s best rushing attack to 81 yards. It was another Spags masterclass, the kind that raised glaring questions over why he continues to be omitted from head coaching conversations at this time of year. The Chiefs won’t care.
Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce celebrated making the Super Bowl alongside his partner, recording artist Taylor Swift
“It’s special because that’s a great team and a great quarterback,” Mahomes said. “Spags, it seems like when the games get bigger, when the challenges get higher, he performs even better.”
The Miami Dolphins entered a freezing cold Arrowhead Stadium on Wild Card weekend to be met by a Chiefs team reinvigorated by the doubts they had faced during the regular season; the Bills had plans for their own frosty welcome for the champions at Orchard Park, only to sink in the face of Chiefs inevitability. A loaded Ravens machine was deemed one step too far for the Chiefs and their fightback; nope.
They have had their way with three of the NFL’s most feared contenders while operating on limited resources in comparison. But with the league’s best quarterback, with an unflappable Reid, with the league’s best tight end, with Spagnuolo and his crack team of game-wreckers, the playoff Chiefs are an entirely different proposition. The great teams know how to navigate this time of year; this is one of the great teams.
Next? Kyle Shanahan, Brock Purdy and a San Francisco 49ers team with, as their head coach suggested, ‘unfinished business’ after coming up shy to Mahomes and co at Super Bowl LIV.
Watch Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas live on Sky Sports NFL, with coverage from 10pm on Sunday February 11