Patrick Mahomes took the overtime snap out of the shotgun. 15 yards ahead, in the middle of the field, waited a wide-open Travis Kelce. Pass, completion.
The Kansas City Chiefs knocked off the Chargers 34-28 in overtime on Thursday night — marking their seventh win in a row and 10th win on the season. With no other teams playing until Saturday evening, the top of the AFC is theirs for the next two days.
“That was a special moment just in general,” said Mahomes after the game. “I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a walk-off touchdown or anything like that. So, to be in that moment, find him underneath and him making such a dynamic play where [Kelce] cut back, ran by people.
“You’d think he’s old, so he can’t run by people, but he’s still running by people, and he got in the end zone. It was just a special moment, and I’m glad that all that hard work that he puts in every single day is paying off.”
Kelce is 32 — right around the age where folks who follow the game would say he will begin tapering off a bit. But the Chiefs don’t shy away from the fact that the once-fiery young star is growing older.
“For the old man Kelce, everyone is talking about him losing his step or being off his game, here he steps up,” head coach Andy Reid said afterward. “He’s emotional every game. He loves to play. I would tell you that the three catches over the last two games he has had, six total catches, I could do a better job of working him into the mix a little better. [offensive coordinator Eric Bieinemy] and I have sat down and thrown some things together, along with (quarterbacks coach) Mike [Kafka] and (wide receivers coach) Joe [Bleymaier].
“We met just to try to find ways. [Chiefs Tight Ends Coach] Tom Melvin always has a bunch of ideas, so we threw a few of those things in there and it worked out OK. His endurance down the stretch though, for an older player. He’s kind of our elder statesman, I keep saying like he’s over the hill, but his acceleration after the catch, that was something that late in the game.”
If Kelce is indeed over the hill, he’s writing the textbook on how to do it right. With last night’s 10-catch, 191-yard, two-touchdown performance, Kelce now has 1,066 receiving yards in the 2021 season. From 2016-21, Kelce has more than 1,000 yards in each of the six straight seasons.
Need some context? No other tight end in NFL history — not Tony, not Gronk or Gates — has ever recorded more than three. Much is made of Mahomes and his potential to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, which can be well-debated and discussed.
But when it comes to Kelce as TE1 in NFL history, that discussion is becoming increasingly pointless. But Kelce never wants to discuss his personal accolades — for him, it’s always team...
“I feel like you can’t say anything about the entire makeup of a team until it’s all said and done,” he said at the podium Thursday night. “We can move the ball down the field against anybody, in my opinion. Tyreek (Hill) is the best wide receiver I’ve ever seen play the game, man. And that’s without the ball in his hands and with the ball in his hands. He’s the ultimate fighter. So is Pat... so is 1-5 back there. Through all the criticism that he’s had this year, we find ourselves winning our seventh game in a row, and that’s just him leading us and nonstop every single week, every single play, every single game, putting the team on his shoulders to try to find a way to get a win.”
...but fortunately for him, 1-5 was more than willing to brag for him.
“I think what I’ve seen in Travis just over the last few years is the maturity to know that it’s not just the numbers, it’s about winning football games,” said Mahomes. “I think this year has been big for him where he hasn’t put up the same numbers, but his mentality has never changed. He’s been a leader on this team. He’s happier for anyone other than himself. When his number gets called, he goes out there and makes plays in big moments. That’s what special players do. He’s a special player. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
After Mahomes threw what would have been a wide-open touchdown into the ground — and one of the worst interceptions of his career — Kelce sought him out to reassure him.
“All I could do in a situation like that is just be supportive,” described Kelce, recounting his words to Mahomes. “Bring the energy. Let him know that we’ve got nine minutes left in this game to try and find a way to score and try and find a way to win this ball game.”
About 45 minutes later, Kelce shouted into a field camera, having won the game with his second touchdown of the night.
Mahomes ran to Kelce and hugged him after the play.
“I just said, ‘I love you, man,’” said Mahomes. “[Kelce] was the first guy that came up to me after the interception that was just like, ‘Hey, let’s show that heart. Get back out there, we believe in you.’ I mean it seems like he’s always that guy for everybody.
“I mean, he has a true belief in every single person on this team. We feed off that energy that he brings every single day.”
Heading into Thursday night, Kelce was coming off back-to-back three-catch, 27-yard games. Those numbers would be acceptable for other tight ends around the league — whose primary duty is blocking — but not for someone who knows he should be one of the team’s most dynamic weapons.
Asked about breaking through in LA, Kelce became emotional.
“Earlier in the day, I saw my brother (Jason Kelce) give a speech about hope,” started Kelce. “We play a game of hope.”
Kelce took a beat.
“Not only do we have to believe in ourselves, but we give a lot of hope and a lot of happiness to the people watching. How fortunate is that man, ya know?” he said, now fighting off tears. “It’s pretty cool that every single Sunday, and every now and then, a Thursday or a Monday night, we get to go out there and show the world how much fun we have doing what we do, and every single week, we just hack away.
“That’s what this team does. We have great leadership — coach Reid... and all the coaches. To keep going and keep trying to figure out ways, throughout the struggles, throughout whatever happens on the field. You just keep leaning on your brother and keep finding ways to get things done, and that’s what you saw today.”
Kelce’s game-winning play fits the definition of finding a way.
“I’m always trying to get that ball in the end zone, get the ball as north as fast as possible and try and get that ball in the end zone,” he said. “That’s the name of the game right there. I was instinctually, just trying to get extra yards, trying to put our team in a position to keep moving the ball downfield, and then sure enough, just saw a lot of guys working to get blocks downfield and just find my way in the end zone.”
Earlier in his press conference, Kelce talked about how Reid often pokes him about his age. Kelce said that Reid encourages him to “feel like he’s 22 again.”
Kelce was later asked how it felt to score the walk-off touchdown.
“[It] feels like you’re 22 all over again, man.”