When the future NFL MVP was injured on Saturday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs took the punch square on the jaw, stood tall and fought to make it to their fifth straight AFC Championship, collecting a 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. Experience matters
They say that you grow through what you go through.
The league has a lot of talented teams, but there are very few that have experienced the MVP going down with a leg injury during a playoff game. On Saturday, the Chiefs circled their wagons — showing they could not only survive the battle, but fight back to claim victory.
Kansas City has multiple players who have been here before. Most Chiefs fans probably felt like they were going to puke when quarterback Patrick Mahomes went down with a high ankle sprain in the first quarter. But Kansas City veterans like defensive end Frank Clark, tight end Travis Kelce and quarterback Chad Henne didn’t flinch.
They were there when Mahomes’ kneecap twisted around his leg.
They were there when their team trailed the Houston Texans 24-0 in 2020.
And they were there when the Chiefs began the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV down 10 points to the San Francisco 49ers — and ended up as world champions.
Clark collected a sack on a crucial second-quarter down. Kelce caught 14 balls for 98 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Henne captained the longest postseason drive in franchise history. Other veterans like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Joe Thuney and Marquez Valdes-Scantling played like the players they were brought here to be. And the team’s first-year players learned an important lesson: there are no rookies in the playoffs. They were expected to do their jobs — and they did.
After the underdogs had thrown every haymaker they had — and when their leader was limping on one leg — the Chiefs looked adversity square in the eye and said, “You can knock me down — but still I rise.”
They say that inside every person, two wolves are battling. One is filled with fear, doubt and uncertainty. The other is filled with courage, strength and perseverence. The one who wins is the one you choose to feed.
I think we know which one ate on Saturday.
2. This is why Andy Reid keeps a veteran backup quarterback
Many NFL teams view their backup quarterback position as a place where a younger player can learn from their veteran starter; it’s tempting to go with a young athletic player with upside. But that’s not how Kansas City head coach Andy Reid sees things. The backup quarterback is there in case there is an emergency.
And on Saturday, there was an emergency.
Kansas City’s 37-year-old backup quarterback stepped into the game. The Chiefs were on their own 2-yard line. Henne pushed his nerves to the side, looked his teammates in the eye and went to work, leading the offense on a 98-yard touchdown drive that put the Chiefs up 17-7.
This wasn’t Henne’s first rodeo. When Mahomes was knocked out of another Divisional Round game — this one against the Cleveland Browns during 2020’s postseason — Henne led the Chiefs to victory.
After the game, Henne was asked if that Cleveland game had been on his mind.
“A little bit,” he admitted, “but it’s just one play at a time. [You] concentrate the best you can and just do what you do.”
That’s the veteran mindset that keeps a ship from sinking.
3. Patrick Mahomes has greatness in his DNA
We are used to Mahomes making no-look passes and tossing hook shots into his receivers’ pockets. But on Saturday, we were again reminded that he is so much more than that. He is a gritty, gutsy warrior — one who has an entire pack of lions living in his heart.
Reid was forced to tell him he wasn’t going back in the game until he had a negative X-ray on his ankle. Even then, Mahomes went to the locker room only begrudgingly.
Sure... a lot of guys will fight to get back out on the field. But very few will lead their team to a playoff victory on one leg. Even fewer will scramble for a first down on their injured leg during their first series back on the field — and maybe only a handful of those will plant that foot in the turf and fire off a jump pass to score the game-winning touchdown.
Most people don’t have what it takes to push themselves to their physical limits. Only the great ones will push themselves beyond those limits. “My body may fail,” they say, “but my spirit will overcome.”
That’s your quarterback.
4. Isiah Pacheco showed who he is
Pacheco’s entire life prepared him for Saturday’s moment.
He lost his sister to gun violence during his senior year of high school. He wasn’t highly recruited by colleges. But after being drafted in the seventh round, he said that he came to Kansas City so he could “take a grown man’s job.” He entered Saturday’s game as the starting running back on the AFC’s No. 1 team.
And when Reid needed to protect the ball while moving it down the field, he trusted Pacheco enough to put the it in his hands.
The running back rewarded Reid’s faith by accumulating 95 yards on 12 carries — including a 39-yard run where he looked dead in the water behind the line of scrimmage before bouncing it outside and charging down the sideline.
Pacheco hasn’t just taken a grown man’s job. He’s proven that he’s here to stay.
5. The defense came up big
When Mahomes was in the locker room getting an X-ray on his leg, the Chiefs’ defense held the line — limiting the Jaguars to just three points while he was out of the game. Then in the third quarter — while Mahomes was struggling to move the ball while figuring out how to play on one leg — the defense held Jacksonville scoreless.
Then in the fourth quarter — when the Jaguars were throwing everything they had at the Chiefs, desperately trying to keep their season alive — the defense had back-to-back turnovers in the final two minutes of the game. Those included a spectacular one-handed interception by seventh-round pick Jaylen Watson.
There is an expectation of greatness woven into the fiber of this team. Kansas City’s defense expects to win on effort alone.
I’ll be better game shouldn’t have been that close!! Great team win none the less— Wat’s Island (@JaylenWatson12) January 22, 2023
So even when you make the game-winning play, you realize that it still isn’t good enough.
The Chiefs’ defense isn’t perfect. It sacked Trevor Lawrence only twice and gave up 217 yards on the ground. But in the end, it struck down every single Goliath that dared to stand in its way.
The defense has better games in it. But on Saturday, it demonstrated once again that it’s not just about how you start. Instead, it’s about how you finish.
Thanks in large part to the defense’s effort, the Chiefs aren’t done yet.