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How Sammy Watkins has been crucial to Chiefs’ last two playoff runs

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Watkins hasn’t put up big numbers in Kansas City — except when the season is on the line.

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

When they’re facing the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs offense, the first question any defensive coordinator has to ask themselves is, “How do I slow down Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce?”

Teams have had success doubling one (or both) players, forcing Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to utilize his secondary pieces. And so far in the postseason, that’s exactly what’s happened.

In the AFC Championship this past Sunday, Kelce and Hill accounted for just eight catches and 97 yards of Mahomes’ 294-yard performance. The Tennessee Titans successfully reduced the production of that dynamic pairing — but after a largely-quiet season, Sammy Watkins came through with some much-needed support and production.

The connection between Mahomes and Watkins didn’t just start just in this year’s postseason. In fact, during his time in Kansas City, Watkins has been a steady presence in every playoff game.

In four postseason appearances with the Chiefs, the Clemson product has never had fewer than 62 yards receiving, amassing 19 catches for 366 yards and a touchdown. With opponents devoting significant resources to slowing down Kelce and Hill, the Chiefs have absolutely needed the man they signed to a three-year, 48-million dollar deal in 2018.

In the last two AFC championship games, Mahomes and Watkins have come up big with third-down conversions that have led to out-of-structure pass plays of more than 50 yards.

Before this play from the 2018 AFC championship game, the Chiefs had been shut out. It’s early in the second half. They’re trailing the New England Patriots by 14 and facing third-and-2. The offense needs a spark — and finds it on a play out of structure.

The Chiefs are running a mesh concept with Watkins running a dig behind the crossing routes, hoping to free up Hill out the back door. Mahomes elects to roll to his right to initiate scramble rules, hoping to find a way to extend the drive. Watkins turns upfield and Mahomes uncorks a throw across his body that travels fifty yards in the air. Watkins catches it over his shoulder at the 20-yard line and gets down the 10 before tripping.

This led to a Chiefs touchdown — the first of 31 points they would score in the second half.

Compare that play to another one from last Sunday’s AFC championship and you may see some similarities.

It’s a third-and-6 play in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs are leading 28-17 and need to close out the game.

Initially, the play doesn’t leave anyone uncovered, so Mahomes breaks the pocket to his right. Logan Ryan — who is guarding Watkins — falls down. Watkins breaks for pay dirt and Mahomes once again takes a shot across his body. Watkins makes an over-the-shoulder catch right around the same spot he caught the pass a year earlier. But this time — much like the Chiefs in the AFC championship — he finishes the job, completing a 60-yard touchdown play.

The Chiefs went up 35-17 — and the party started in Arrowhead.

Watkins in the 2018 AFC championship: 114 yards receiving.

Watkins in the 2019 AFC championship: 114 yards receiving.

Much has been said about Watkins’ performance during his first two years in Kansas City. His Kansas City career has obviously been up and down — but you cannot deny that in the biggest moments, Watkins has earned his contract; without his contributions on Sunday, the Lamar Hunt Trophy could have gone elsewhere.

With a $21 million cap figure for 2020, his time in Kansas City may not last beyond this season — but his work in January has been invaluable. Hopefully, it continues into February — because if it does, Chiefs players will likely end Super Bowl Sunday wearing new hats and T-shirts.