KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This time, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t deliver a fantastic finish.
Only a week ago, the superstar quarterback completed one of the most clutch playoff performances in league history. But in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, Mahomes and the Chiefs were upended by the NFL’s fastest-rising quarterback: Joe Burrow.
On Mahomes’ home field, Burrow decisively outplayed his far more accomplished counterpart in the second half, which helped the Cincinnati Bengals overcome an 18-point first-half deficit in a 27-24 victory in overtime. Bengals place-kicker Evan McPherson’s 31-yard field goal punctuated the victory that ended Mahomes’ bid to become only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to start in at least three consecutive Super Bowls. The Bengals also handed Mahomes the most stinging loss of his highly successful career.
In what was surely a surreal scene for Chiefs fans, they watched the Bengals stand atop a hastily erected stage to accept the Lamar Hunt trophy, which is awarded to the AFC champion. The trophy is named after the late Chiefs founder, who also played a major role in the founding of the upstart American Football League in 1960. Hunt’s son Clark is part owner, chairman and CEO of the Chiefs.
For Kansas City, there’s just no way to put an optimistic spin on things. The Chiefs suffered the first second-half collapse in the postseason during the Mahomes era. And Mahomes was the first to acknowledge he bears much responsibility for the letdown that sent many in a stunned crowd of 73,377 into the night in tears.
“When you’re up 21-3 in a game, you can’t lose it,” he said. “I put that on myself.”
Arrowhead Stadium was rocking in the first half as Mahomes had 220 passing yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. With about five minutes to go before halftime, Mahomes and wide receiver Mecole Hardman teamed up on a 3-yard touchdown to help the Chiefs take an 18-point lead.
At the time, it seemed like a commanding advantage for the defending AFC champs. In the second half, however, the vibe changed quickly.
The Bengals committed more players to coverage. Mahomes had only 55 passing yards and one interception. During overtime, Mahomes failed to complete a pass in three attempts and his interception led to the winning score.
Not that there wasn’t blame to go around on the Chiefs’ sideline. A questionable coaching decision before halftime will likely be dissected in these parts for years, if not forever.
Leading 21-10 after scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions on three touchdown passes by Mahomes, the Chiefs had the ball at the Bengals’ 1-yard line with five seconds remaining. Instead of attempting a 17-yard field goal, head coach Andy Reid went for a potential knockout punch. Mahomes passed to wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who was stopped short of the end zone.
Reid’s gamble failed, which energized the Bengals.
On offense, Burrow (250 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception) found more holes in the Chiefs’ defense after halftime. On defense, the Bengals locked on the Chiefs’ receivers. Ultimately, the combination proved disastrous for Kansas City.
Part of the Chiefs’ success under Reid stems from the head coach’s confidence in Mahomes, who has delivered often in similar situations. But at the end of the first half, the Chiefs’ arrogance on offense ultimately cost them dearly.
“I was hoping we could get the ball in the end zone,” Reid said. “I probably gave [Mahomes] the wrong play, first of all. To start with, I could’ve given him something better than that, where the play was open in the end zone. And then we wouldn’t have had to go through that. I’ll take responsibility on that one.”
Mahomes stepped forward, too.
“I was supposed to throw the ball away,” he said. “I got a little greedy there and tried to give it to Tyreek and get a touchdown; they had two people out there. In the long run of things, it looks bad. But if we had another chance, I’d go for another play again.”
Still, despite the Chiefs’ second-half meltdown, Mahomes led them on a drive to tie the score at 24-24 on place-kicker Harrison Butker’s 44-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. In the divisional round, Mahomes masterfully led the Chiefs to a stunning 42-36 victory in overtime over the Buffalo Bills (the Chiefs won despite trailing by three points with only 13 seconds remaining in regulation when they took possession of the ball at their 25-yard line). As was the case against the Bills, the Chiefs won the coin toss and took possession to start overtime. Their fans expected to see a repeat performance.
Unlike the Chiefs’ previous overtime experience, Sunday’s ended horribly for them. When Mahomes tried to connect with Hill on third and 15 at the Chiefs’ 25, his pass bounced off of Hill’s hands. Bengals safety Vonn Bell caught the ball on the carom for an interception. Burrow steadily moved the Bengals into position to set up McPherson’s conference-clinching winner.
Mahomes failed to join Bob Griese (Super Bowls VI, VII, VIII), Jim Kelly (Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII) and Tom Brady (Super Bowls LI, LII and LIII) in the exclusive club of passers to start in at least three Super Bowls in a row. He failed to return to the Super Bowl a season after the Chiefs were routed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-9 in Super Bowl LV.
Playing behind an injury-weakened offensive line in the previous Super Bowl, Mahomes had no chance against the Brady-led Buccaneers. This season, though, with a rebuilt offensive line, the Chiefs thought they were headed to another title.
And they were on the cusp. They were just one half away from attaining another goal.
Then, everything fell apart.
“There [were] a few misreads here and there,” Mahomes said of his struggles in the second half. “There [were] guys that were open and I didn’t hit at the right time, or I passed up on something shorter than I wanted to get something deeper down the field.
“When you’re playing a good team and you don’t hit what’s there, and you try to get a little bit more than what’s necessary, it kind of bites you in the butt. … We were playing so well in the first half. And in the second half, we were just off a tick. That’s all it takes to lose a football game.”
On Sunday, the Chiefs squandered an opportunity to accomplish a lot.