Going into Sunday’s AFC Championship, it would be an understatement to say that we expected the Kansas City Chiefs to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals and advance to Super Bowl LVI.
While more than a few national analysts picked the Bengals to win, every single one of Arrowhead Pride’s contributors predicted the Chiefs would prevail. But our aggregate prognostication for a 36-23 Chiefs victory didn’t come very close to predicting Kansas City’s 27-24 overtime loss at Arrowhead Stadium.
Our readers were equally confident in a victory. 94% called for a Chiefs win — although they weren’t quite as confident in a blowout. Just one of our staffers — it happened to be this writer — thought it would be a close win. The rest were split between an easy win and a blowout. But according to our reader poll — which, it must be noted, would include some Cincinnati fans — just one in five thought it would be a blowout. An equal proportion thought it would be a close Kansas City win.
So in varying degrees, almost all of us were wrong. Why?
A big part of it was likely based on our belief in Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes. After his thrilling team-on-his-back performance against the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round, it would have been hard for any of us to pick against him. Some of us even said precisely that.
In one way, that was correct. In large part, the loss was a reflection of Mahomes’ play in the game. In the first half, his passer rating was 149.9 — a play or two away from that metric’s maximum of 158.3 — as the Chiefs raced out to a 21-3 lead. But in the second half, it was just 12.3. Kansas City didn’t score again until Harrison Butker’s game-tying field goal to force overtime — after the Bengals had answered Mahomes’ brilliant first-half performance with 21 points of their own.
But the loss cannot be placed solely on Mahomes’ shoulders.
Ever since the opening weeks of the season — when multiple Kansas City losses occurred when Mahomes wasn’t consistently playing at a high level — we’ve heard over and over about how he needed to learn to “take what defenses were giving him.” In the concluding weeks of the season (and the postseason), he has largely been able to do just that — with satisfying results. Even better, the Divisional Round win was built not only on this newfound skill but an ability to return to his freewheeling roots when it became necessary.
During the first half of Sunday’s game, we saw the player Mahomes has been striving to become; he and his offense were dominating the Bengals.
But in a crucial moment at the end of the half, he briefly lost sight of the season’s hard-earned lessons, pushing for a touchdown when only a field goal was needed — and in the end, getting neither.
That mistake should have been — would have been — survivable. But after halftime, the coaching staff somehow got the same idea into their heads: that it was time for heroics. Even as the Bengals’ defense began dropping eight players into pass coverage, they abandoned the running game that had generated 6.0 yards per attempt during the first half. In essence, they completely forgot the advice they had been giving Mahomes all season — to take what the defense was offering — which allowed Cincinnati to repeatedly get Kansas City’s offense off the field.
Even in overtime — when there was no reason to hurry — the Chiefs went for three successive passes. The first two went incomplete. Then on third-and-10, Mahomes threw 35 yards downfield to Tyreek Hill, who was double-covered. The pass might have simply gone incomplete as Jessie Bates knocked it away, allowing the Chiefs to punt the ball back into Bengals territory. But instead, Vonn Bell fielded the live ball for an interception at the Bengals’ 40-yard line, returning it to the 45.
The Chiefs had violated the cardinal rule of overtime’s first possession: no matter what you do, don’t commit a turnover. And at that moment, the game was essentially over.
From 2001 through 2019 — what we now call the Brady/Belichick Era — the New England Patriots went 30-11 (73%) in the postseason. Their average win was by 11.8 points, while their average loss was by 8.5 points. In wins, their quarterback (almost always Tom Brady) had a passer rating of 95.2. In losses, it was 77.0.
In the early years of what we will someday call the Mahomes/Reid Era, the Chiefs are 8-3 (also 73%) in the postseason. They won eight games by 13.3 points while losing three others by 10.3 points. In wins, the team’s passer rating (always with Mahomes) is 114.3. In losses, it is 81.9.
In essence, the Chiefs have shown themselves to be in the same tier as the NFL’s greatest dynasty, with an identical record during the most challenging part of each season. And against those top-level opponents, Mahomes’ highs and lows have both been better than Brady’s — in the case of the highs, substantially better. This also shows that Mahomes’ main problem has been consistency — but this season, he has demonstrated an essential ability: to learn (and improve) from his mistakes. He’s already shown that when he remembers those lessons, he can be unstoppable.
In 2021, the Chiefs had every right to consider themselves to be bound for the championship. Despite the team’s 3-4 start, it finished the season 12-5, ending with the league’s fourth-ranked scoring offense and eighth-ranked scoring defense — all while playing against one of the league’s most difficult schedules. History shows that this is good enough to win a championship. But thanks to a badly-managed postseason game, it’s not going to happen this year.
This era, however, is far from over. The Chiefs did all of this with one of the league’s youngest rosters — and it looks like general manager Brett Veach is beginning to hit his stride.
There’s just one thing left: in critical moments, the team’s coaches need to learn to take their own advice.