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5 things we learned as the Chiefs collapsed in the AFC Championship

What did we learn from Kansas City’s 27-24 season-ending loss to the Bengals?

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs ended their season when they lost 27-24 in overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday’s AFC Championship.

Here are five things we learned.

1. Patrick Mahomes can come up short in a big moment

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Kansas City’s star quarterback is no stranger to a rough game. But they’ve rarely — if ever — come at the most important times.

Prior to Sunday, the Mahomes-led Chiefs have only lost twice in the postseason: once in a 37-31 shootout against the New England Patriots — and last season’s 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. You can point to the nine points scored in last year’s championship game and put it on Mahomes — but having no help from his reserve offensive line and his pass catchers prevented his high level of effort from mattering.

In this epic collapse, however, blame can be placed on Mahomes.

  • At the end of the first half, a risky decision to throw short of the end zone without any timeouts cost his team the chance at scoring at least a field goal; after the play, Mahomes also signaled for a timeout the team didn’t have.
  • A pressured Mahomes forced a covered throw on an RPO play; it ended with a defensive tackle intercepting his pass.
  • All four of the sacks he took came in the second half — three of them on third down — including two plays in a row at the end of regulation that nearly ruined Kansas City’s chance to tie.

It really was remarkable to see Mahomes play that uncomfortably in a big moment — especially one week after the calm demeanor he displayed as he came back to win against the Buffalo Bills.

2. The Chiefs can’t win by relying on the defense

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

It’s hard to ask much more from the Chiefs’ defense, which didn’t make anything easy for the Bengals’ offense. It held Cincinnati to field goals on two red-zone trips, created a turnover in the fourth quarter and held quarterback Joe Burrow to 250 passing yards and an 86.5 passer rating.

But the defense couldn’t hold down the Bengals all day. It allowed them to creep back from a 21-3 deficit to eventually take a 24-21 lead. Ideally, the defense would have swarmed the Bengals and dominated them all game — but that’s just unrealistic. This unit wasn’t meant to perform that way; they need to create a turnover or two and get some stops. That’s what they did.

It shows you that in terms of how this team succeeds, the defense can only be a complement to the offense. After the second half of the regular season might have convinced some people that the defense could carry the Chiefs to a Super Bowl, this performance confirms that it will always depend more on the offense’s output.

3. The 2021 Chiefs did not want to lean on the running game

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Between running backs Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, there were 101 rushing yards on 18 attempts on Sunday — an average of 5.6 yards per carry.

Yet even as it was performing so efficiently, it never felt like the Chiefs trusted the offense to rely on a rushing attack. Starting the second half with the ball (and up two possessions), you’d think the ground game would be a great way to safely maintain that lead — especially if it was manufacturing 5-7 yards on what seemed like every carry.

With how the Chiefs’ offensive line is now constructed, the running game could be a bigger part of the offense. No... you don’t want to take the ball out of Mahomes’ hands. But when there’s a two-score lead to protect, trusting an efficient running game can make things easier on the rest of the offense.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Chiefs make their ground attack a bigger part of the offense in 2022.

4. The Chiefs’ pass rush isn’t as dominant as we perceived

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last week, the Tennessee Titans played the Bengals in front of their home crowd; they managed to sack quarterback Joe Burrow nine times.

This week, the Chiefs were in a similar situation — but they mustered only one sack all afternoon. There was some pressure — three quarterback hits outside of the sack — but Burrow escaped pass rushers’ grasp multiple times, leading to some of the game’s most important plays.

Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram really heated up during the regular season — but in the playoffs, only Ingram made plays of any importance. Jones has flashed and is always tightening the pocket — but his postseason resume is not what you’d expect from an All-Pro.

The Chiefs have invested a lot of capital in the defensive line — and in past playoff runs, it worked — but this year, its impact didn’t match its talent.

5. It’s extremely hard to be an NFL dynasty — and the Chiefs missed a great shot at becoming one

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sunday’s loss means the Chiefs have won a single Super Bowl in four of Mahomes’ seasons as a starter. No one’s saying that’s a failure, but the team has loved to talk about the potential of a dynasty — and deservedly so.

Kansas City hosted four straight AFC Championships. That puts a team in a favorable position to play in four Super Bowls — which opens the opportunity to win multiple rings. The team was on the doorstep of creating a legitimate dynasty — but it’s about the end results. The Chiefs are just an ordinarily elite team, rather than a team on a historic stretch of NFL domination.

Yes... in the coming years, the team could change that narrative by winning multiple titles — but it’s not easy to get to this point every season; the Chiefs’ streak of postseason home-field advantage is bound to run out. The team blew one of their best opportunities to add a title in the Mahomes era — and there’s no guarantee it will ever again be set up as well as it was in 2021.

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