Experience is everything in the NFL postseason.
It is a legitimate advantage to be more familiar than your opponent with the pressure and anxiety that occurs in these big games. It’s why teams can build dynasties. It’s why the New England Patriots won so many playoff games in the back-end of quarterback Tom Brady’s career.
Before 2018, the only feeling Kansas City Chiefs players were familiar with about the playoffs was horrific heartbreak. Now, they are hosting an AFC championship for a second consecutive season — and the players feel confident that their experience from last year is beneficial.
“You’re more comfortable going into it,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce noted. “It’s not a situation you haven’t been in. You know we’ve been here before, in this exact situation, here at Arrowhead, playing in front of our crowd.”
Last season, this opportunity was new to them. It was the first time head coach Andy Reid had led the Chiefs to a conference championship — and also the first time Arrowhead Stadium had hosted one. Elite players like Kelce, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz all made their first appearances on that big of a stage. They were out-battled by the seasoned and experienced Patriots — but the tables have turned this postseason.
The Chiefs are now the team with experience in the playoffs and the adversity that comes with it. The Titans are the team with good players that are unfamiliar to controversy: they have only trailed for 21:25 of the 120 minutes of game time this postseason. The experience with adversity builds belief and respect between players and coaches. The Chiefs have faced big deficits in each of their last two playoff games and came back both times. Those types of performances build character and mold great players into great leaders.
“I was trying to be energetic on the sideline, fuel the energy,” Kelce explained when asked about his comment to receiver Sammy Watkins for his negative body language during the first quarter of the Texans game. “When you get into situations like that, down big early, it can be deflating. The best thing you can do in my mind is attack it with the right mindset, go out there with a purpose, with energy, not mope around but be the attacker.”
Kelce made sure to emphasize that he wasn’t only talking to Watkins.
“If that’s what Sammy said he probably caught me saying it to a few guys also because it wasn’t the best energy there in the first quarter but we figured it out and got it rolling.”
Experience also comes in the form of knowing how to take care of one’s body. 2018 was many Chiefs’ players first season having to play 18 games — but being through that can help them prepare for it better this time around.
“Each year you try and get better on the field with your health, in terms of the longevity of the season,” Kelce explained. “It’s just been a nonstop effort in the facility, outside of the facility to make sure that I’m doing the right things so that I’m at my peak athleticism out there on the field.”
“This year, I’m attacking my eating habits, making sure that I’m getting the proper treatment, getting the blood flow going as much as I can so that my old body can get healthy by the time Sunday comes back around,” Kelce said with a chuckle.
Kelce has evolved into the dependable veteran of the offense — but his success as a performer and a leader are aided by his MVP quarterback and best friend. Mahomes likes to spread the wealth, but he consistently favors Kelce when he needs to get the ball out quick or needs a 10-15 yard gain. They have only played together for two full seasons and already have the feel of an all-time quarterback-receiver tandem.
“It’s a luxury really,” Kelce answered in reference to his incredible chemistry with his quarterback. “There was nothing telling him on that specific route that I was gonna turn back inside, but at the same time we were both on the same page and it’s just a testament to this team’s chemistry, it’s not just me and him it’s everybody.”
He went on to point out that the team does something together every Friday and that he believes that has a positive effect on their play on the field. If being together off of the field indicates on-field success, then it makes sense that Mahomes and Kelce are constantly hanging out. The friendship has translated well to their play.
Kelce is six years older than Mahomes — but you wouldn’t be able to tell with how he speaks about his signal-caller. The respect he exhibits and the confidence he gives off when talking about him is refreshing. You can feel the belief they have in each other.
“He’s very confident in how he plays the game and he’s very free in how he plays the game,” Kelce commented about Mahomes during his press conference. “But at the same time, every Monday comes around and he’s in the film room. He’s in Coach Reid’s ear and the offensive staff’s ear trying to figure out the game plan so that he always has an answer for whatever the defense is throwing at us.”
Reid also believes in their cohesion. It’s not just apparent on game day; this special chemistry has been worked on and crafted.
“We watch it every day. They work on that,” Reid said in his press conference on Monday, referring to Kelce and Mahomes. “There are certain plays that we give them some freedom on, when they’re working in space and things like that. They’ve developed that. You give them certain guidelines and then let them put their own mark on it. Both of them have a good feel for each other and how they play.”
On Friday, Reid stated that Kelce was “feeling better this week” in regards to his knee injury and claimed Kelce is “Probably playing the best football he’s been playing over time.”
That kind of praise is well-received by the players and coaches that deserve it — but it’s also mutual. The way Reid handles a locker room and his coaching staff contributes to the immense respect and love that his co-workers build for him. It’s why the Chiefs are so close as a team — and why special teams coordinator Dave Toub was just one of many Chiefs to comment on how bad they want to win a championship for Reid Thursday.
On Friday, Kelce was also asked what it would mean to get Coach Reid back to a Super Bowl. He ended his press conference with a simple, but powerful quote:
“Just getting him there isn’t the goal. Winning the thing for him is. I’ll leave it at that.”