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Chiefs-Bengals rapid reaction: At this stage in KC, no title means no success

The reality is that it’s Super Bowl-or-bust in Kansas City — and this season can only be called a bust.

NFL: AFC Championship-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The most difficult part about being at this stage in the course of your franchise trajectory is how difficult it is to come away with a “successful” season. In 2021 — the ninth year under head coach Andy Reid and the fourth year with Patrick Mahomes as the starter — the only way the season could be deemed successful was for the team to win the Super Bowl.

And for 29 minutes and 55 seconds on Sunday, it appeared the Chiefs were on the verge of making their third straight trip. At that point, the game came entirely off the rails.

With five seconds to go in the first half — and having built a 21-3 lead — Reid opted to keep his offense on the field despite the Chiefs being out of timeouts. The Chiefs faked a Jerick McKinnon run and Mahomes passed to wide receiver Tyreek Hill to his left, short of the goal line. Hill failed to get out of bounds — and he also was unable to score.

The clock ran out on the half.

At the time, the play felt like a simple missed opportunity — especially since the Chiefs were to receive the ball first in the second half. But the reality was it was a death sentence.

Down two scores, quarterback Joe Burrow continued running the Cincinnati offense, plugging away slowly but surely. Burrow led the Bengals to a 21-0 run and 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Things felt especially grim for Kansas City — but what it got was anything but a “Grim Reaper.”

The final score says the Chiefs lost the game in overtime — but in fact, they narrowly lost the game in regulation, as Mahomes desperately tried to extend the final offensive play and fumbled the ball. Mahomes’ final few plays of the season seemed eerily similar to the entirety of Super Bowl LV — where nobody was open, and he was running for his life.

We’ll have to dive deeper into the film in the coming days to understand exactly what happened to the Chiefs offense in the second half, but what we do know is the Bengals made strong adjustments — and Mahomes played a lot worse. As Cincinnati played better coverage, Mahomes tried to extend plays time and time again. In the first half, those extensions ended in three straight touchdowns. But in the second, Mahomes was sacked repeatedly.

As the offense sputtered, the Chiefs defense surrendered points in three of five drives. But keep this in mind: the only one of the three drives ending in a touchdown began on the Kansas City 27 — after Mahomes appeared to throw an interception directly into the Cincinnati defensive line.

Even after the Bengals’ third-quarter touchdown (and two-point conversion) following the pick, the game was tied 21-21 — but the next drive ended in a punt. With the ball — and full momentum — with Burrow and Cincinnatti, it felt as though the game was over. That is when cornerback L’Jarius Sneed intercepted the ball, and the Arrowhead crowd erupted.

Now, finally, we’d see that first-half version of Mahomes, the adjusted Mahomes that was taking what was in front of him and slicing and dicing defenses again.

But it just wasn’t to be. And though Butker was able to extend the inevitable, the decision to go for it at the end of the first half would turn out to be Kansas City’s last legitimate touchdown opportunity.

A short week after dealing Buffalo a collapse it would remember forever, Kansas City added another to its own history.

In a season in which the Chiefs were the Super Bowl favorites ... in a tournament in which they were the clear best of four teams remaining... after a game in which they had an 18-point lead... for it to end this way is a failure.

And it will be a long, long time before the bad taste washes away.