Here are five things we learned.
1. In the playoffs, the Chiefs still like to get bloodied before delivering the knockout punch
Kansas City’s offense got off to a frustrating start in the first quarter of Sunday’s game. Against a stout Steelers’ defensive front, the Chiefs’ first four drives ended with three punts and an interception. Then during Kansas City’s fifth drive, Pittsburgh’s All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt recovered a botched handoff to Darrel Williams that he returned 26 yards for a touchdown. With under eleven minutes to play in the second quarter, the Chiefs found themselves down 7-0 — at home — to a team with just 27 yards of offense.
But the beast would awaken with a roar. On their next offensive drive, the Chiefs marched down the field 86 yards in eight plays to tie the game 7-7. With that, Kansas City had its swagger back — and found the end zone in six consecutive drives.
In the playoffs, the Chiefs are like a tough guy in the movies — the one who puts his hands behind his back and says, “I’ll let you take the first shot.” Throughout the 2019 playoffs, they fought back from behind — including overcoming a 24-point first-half deficit against the Houston Texans — and they did it again in the 2020 AFC Championship against the Buffalo Bills.
So long as the Chiefs continue to deliver the final blow, it doesn’t matter how they start — but the road only gets tougher from here. On Sunday, they will face a Bills team that started fast — and finished that way — in Saturday’s 47-17 blowout of the New England Patriots. When the bell rings, the Chiefs would benefit from coming out swinging.
2. Jerick McKinnon has added a layer to Kansas City’s offense
In a game where tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill amassed 165 yards receiving and two touchdowns (plus a passing touchdown for Kelce), a reserve running back stole the show. McKinnon — who entered Week 18 with seven carries for 38 yards on the season — rushed for 61 yards (at 5.1 yards per attempt) and caught all six of his targets for 81 yards and a touchdown. The 142 yards he gained from scrimmage was more than Pittsburgh’s offense gained through three quarters.
But it’s how McKinnon tore apart the Steelers that should have Chiefs fans excited. Almost all of his touches came on the ground or in the screen passing game. He gained 10-plus yards on eight of them. Four went for more than 15 yards and two others went for more than 20. His combination of lateral quickness, long speed and power enabled him to turn short gains into chunk yards. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, McKinnon had 106 yards after the catch against the Steelers — 33 yards over expected.
In two straight games, McKinnon has proven that he adds another dimension to Kansas City’s offense. If defenses choose to sit back with two high safeties, McKinnon can make them pay in multiple ways. Similar to Damien Williams in the 2019 playoffs, his fresh legs could create critical yards as the Chiefs push for a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
3. Mahomes Magic is alive in the playoffs
On Kansas City’s first touchdown drive, Patrick Mahomes made a couple of plays that started to open the floodgates. The first was a 20-yard completion where he hung in the pocket to deliver a strike to Hill. The second was a 23-yard run where he exited the pocket by scampering up the gut of the defense. In those two plays, Mahomes demonstrated his development over the course of this season — both mentally and physically.
After the Chiefs closed the 2020 season with a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccanneers in Super Bowl LV, Mahomes was battered and bruised. He had spent most of the game trying to create big plays downfield by scrambling outside the pocket — only to end up rag-dolled by a relentless Buccanneers defense. He left the game with a toe badly in need of surgery — and a list of areas in which he needed to improve.
It has taken most of the season for Mahomes to not only return to form, but also improve his decision-making to a level that elevates his game. From the second quarter on, he played like a man possessed — but also one who knew when to stay in the pocket and when to go outside of it. And he demonstrated the mindset (and the health) to do both.
On attempts of fewer than 10 air yards, Mahomes was 23 of 26 for 210 yards and two touchdowns. But his patience and efficiency in the short passing game did not prevent him from stretching the defense. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes threw two touchdown passes on vertical routes for the first time since Week 12 of the 2020 season. Against the Steelers on Sunday, he completed four of his five attempts on vertical routes for 111 yards — a completion percentage 31.3% over expected. On multiple plays, his legs were the reason his receivers had time to get open.
The balance he established in the passing game — both in and out of the pocket — led to five touchdown passes in just 10:31 of game time. He finished 30-of-39 for 404 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. If Mahomes can continue to marry this kind of poise with his incomparable talent, the playoffs are going to be fun.
4. Defense wins Wild Card games
The Chiefs’ offensive explosion will steal headlines, but the team’s defense is to thank for weathering an ugly first quarter that favored the Steelers. Kansas City defenders held Pittsburgh to 12 total yards in the first quarter (257 yards for the game) — and they did it quietly.
The Chiefs did not need heroics from Melvin Ingram and Nick Bolton to seal this victory; they simply kept Pittsburgh’s offense off the field for most of the game. A terrific forced fumble by Willie Gay Jr. (and a sack apiece for Tershawn Wharton and Mike Danna) certainly helped — but on Sunday, the real star was the run defense. A week after I criticized Kansas City’s defense for surrendering 191 yards rushing to a Denver Broncos team that had already gashed them on the ground once this season, the Chiefs held rookie standout Najee Harris to 29 yards on 12 attempts.
They set the tone early and often, shooting to their run fits quickly and wrapping up and driving ball carriers to the ground. That — and its avoidance of major miscues — should give Kansas City’s defense some much-needed confidence entering Sunday’s matchup with a high-octane Buffalo offense.
5. The Chiefs still have weaknesses that the Bills can attack
It’s difficult to find any faults in a 21-point playoff win — but a few shaky areas are worth watching as the Bills come to town for the Divisional round.
The first is Kansas City’s offensive tackles, who had an up-and-down night. Given Pittsburgh’s star-studded pass rush, Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie (who had some chip help against Watt) held up reasonably well for most of the game. But at a moment’s notice, they can look vulnerable in ways that threaten to end drives.
One such sequence occurred on Kansas City’s final drive of the first half. On first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 38-yard line, Alex Highsmith shot past Brown to sack Mahomes for a loss of 10 yards — potentially taking the Chiefs out of field goal range with 29 seconds left in the half. On the next play, Highsmith got past him again to force an incompletion. But on third-and-20, Mahomes bought time and connected with Kelce for a 48-yard touchdown — turning a series of mistakes into a non-issue.
Against the Bills, however, those missteps could be costly. Per ESPN Analytics, Buffalo entered the playoffs with a team pass-rushing win rate of 46% — sixth-best in the NFL. In the Divisional round, the Chiefs may not be able to afford back-to-back slip-ups.
Late in the game, Kansas City’s cornerbacks also showed some vulnerabilities. For most of the night, Charvarius Ward looked good in a tough matchup against Chase Claypool — but down the stretch, his running mate Mike Hughes did not fare as well. In third-quarter garbage time, Diontae Johnson beat Hughes for a 13-yard touchdown catch — and in the fourth, James Washington got over him for a 15-yard touchdown catch.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also left a couple of throws on the field. A few times, Ward had tight coverage but was out of position. On one such occasion, he allowed Johnson to get a step on him to the inside — but Roethlisberger floated the ball to his outside shoulder. A better pass might have resulted in a touchdown.
On one hand, this is nit-picking garbage-time touchdowns in a blowout win; if Rashad Fenton can suit up on Sunday, it’s likely Hughes won’t even see the field on defense. But on the other hand, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen is a different animal than this version of Roethlisberger. On Saturday, Allen’s rocket arm diced up the Patriots for 308 yards and five touchdowns. If Roethlisberger can sometimes get the best of Kansas City’s cornerbacks, Allen certainly can, too.
Still... heading into the next round, the Chiefs have many more reasons for optimism than concern — but you could say the same of the Bills. From here on out, every team is a threat — and to keep marching on, the Chiefs will need to remain at the top of their game.