Mahomes, the 2018 NFL MVP, helped Kansas City go 14-3 to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Chiefs are in the AFC title game for the fifth straight season and will host the Bengals on Sunday. Mahomes led the NFL with 5,250 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. He received 49 of 50 votes for AP first-team All-Pro.
San Francisco 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa, Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and Dallas Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons are the finalists for Defensive Player of the Year. Bosa led the NFL with 18½ sacks, Jones had 15½ and Parsons got 14½.
Mahomes, who has carried the Chiefs all season, will be asked to carry the load once again in the AFC Championship against the Bengals (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET), but this time with the weight resting not on those sturdy and proven shoulders, but on a tortured ankle.
For Mahomes to even be involved is remarkable in itself, but National Football League teams have access to the very best and most expensive sports science, the rehab and preparatory work will have been unceasing all week and continuing toward kickoff.
And, let us not forget, elite athletes are just wired differently in terms of what they’ll put themselves through, and Mahomes is the elite of the elite.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: OT ORLANDO BROWN JR.
Brown’s 2022 season got off to a rocky start after a lengthy franchise tag dispute, but he finished the season quite strong. From Week 7 on, his 81.6 overall grade ranked eighth and his 86.1 pass-blocking grade ranked seventh.
Brown could further cement his value near the top of the tackle market with a good showing in the conference championship round against the Cincinnati Bengals, and perhaps in the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers. All three teams have strong pass-rush units, and if Kansas City is somehow able to overcome Patrick Mahomes’ high ankle sprain, you can bet that’s in part due to good performances from his blindside protector.
Chiefs DE Mike Danna
Meanwhile, on defense, the Chiefs will try to take advantage of the fact the Bengals offensive line is dealing with a wide array of injuries. And while head coach Zac Taylor and Co. will likely spend much of the week planning for superstar Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones, underrated end Mike Danna could have a chance to pounce on Burrow.
Danna has his moments. The 25-year-old had a pair of strip-sacks in Week 18, and he had a couple of sacks in a monster performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in November. A calf injury held him back earlier this season, but he’s looking healthy now and should be a heavy part of the pass-rushing rotation against the Bengals.
Danna seems as though he may have a knack for rising to occasions. This could be the latest example—even if nobody’s expecting it.
Kansas City Chiefs
14-3 · 1st in AFC West
RB · Year 9
The departure of Tyreek Hill meant the Chiefs needed to find some new options for Patrick Mahomes. McKinnon’s emergence as a pass-catching nightmare was likely not atop anyone’s list of expectations. McKinnon existed as a rotational back early in 2022, but emerged as a legitimate threat in the passing game when he rattled off a streak of six straight games with one or more receiving touchdowns. McKinnon’s trips to the end zone became as frequent as the arrival of each week’s game, and it wasn’t until the playoffs that he finally failed to score, going without a target for the first time all season. He’s already done enough — 56 catches for a career-best 512 yards and nine touchdowns — to earn my respect.
Kansas City Eagles?
We’ve also reached the point of the NFL season when it’s fun to project Super Bowl matchups. The Chiefs and 49ers could tee it up for the second time in three years. The Niners and Bengals could join the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers as the only franchises to meet thrice on Super Sunday. The Bengals and Eagles ... well, they shared LBs Bill Bergey and Dhani Jones back in the day?
But nothing is going to feed the Super Bowl hype machine like a pairing of the Chiefs and Eagles. Soup to nuts, they were probably the best teams in the league this season, their No. 1 conference seedings testament to that. Hurts might well have been the MVP front-runner, had he not hurt his shoulder last month and been overtaken by Mahomes.
But that’s nothing.
Andy Reid trying to win his second Super Bowl with the Chiefs ... against the team he coached for 14 seasons and rose to prominence with – nearly leading Philadelphia to its first Lombardi Trophy in 2004 before falling just short in Super Bowl 39? The podcasting, media-savvy Kelce brothers each seeking their second ring?
If it’s storylines you like – and thanks for reading this far – Kansas City-Philadelphia will deliver plenty, right down to barbecue vs. cheesesteaks ... not that there’s any rooting interest here.
Round 1 - Pick 31
Felix Anudike-Uzomah EDGE
KANSAS STATE • JR • 6’4” / 255 LBS
The Chiefs again pick a late first-round edge in hopes of eliminating some pressure from Chris Jones on the inside.
Around the NFL
5 - Tennessee Titans
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport named the Titans as a candidate. I struggle to see a match. Brady’s age-old connection with coach (and former Patriots player) Mike Vrabel makes for a good story, but Tennessee’s roster is a project. The offensive line — admittedly a banged-up unit — ranked dead last in pass-blocking efficiency and third-worst in generating yards before contact on the ground, according to Pro Football Focus. Treylon Burks aside, today’s Titans are a bare cupboard through the air. Derrick Henry takes heat off the quarterback, but Tennessee in ‘23 feels like another signal-caller’s burden.
In case you missed it on Arrowhead Pride
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has developed a reputation for being one of the league’s best defensive game planners. Cincinnati has good players at all levels of its defense — but week-to-week, Anarumo maximizes their potential with opponent-specific schemes to confuse offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.
So the one predictable component of the Bengals’ approach is that it won’t be predictable. In fact, it will very likely include two different game plans: one for the opening half and one more for the final half. It won’t matter whether the Kansas City offense has success in the first or second quarter. Anarumo will continue to change things. hoping to keep Reid, Bieniemy (and quarterback Patrick Mahomes) from formulating a clear plan of attack in the third and fourth quarters.
Ironically, Mahomes’ injury might actually simplify things for the Chiefs. Their game plan will need to minimize the risk their quartback’s injury could be made worse. Forget what Cincinnati might do. Reid and Bieniemy know right now that they must have a good, consistent rushing attack — along with quick, clean passing concepts that the offensive line can protect well.
But when the Bengals blitz, Smith-Schuster will be a key target. Reid has raved about his ability to provide a safe, reliable target on underneath routes when teams are doing all they can to take tight end Travis Kelce out of the equation. Smith-Schuster can be the player who can help Mahomes from being hit — while still moving the chains.
The Chiefs are likely to have a completely new set of WRs compared to last year's AFCCG. Ways these guys can help, esp. if Mahomes is getting the ball out quicker.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 24, 2023
Juju is notorious for being a big, tough target over the MOF; playing off Kelce really well. pic.twitter.com/foJBRUbl3k
Even while protecting Mahomes within this plan, Kansas City may still want to still take some deep shots downfield. One way they can do this is with back-shoulder fade passes to Smith-Schuster. Mahomes has made this connection more than a few times this season. The play takes only a couple of seconds to execute, but offers the potential for explosive gains as Smith-Schuster uses his size to beat cornerbacks downfield.
Really hoping 15 will trust Juju in similar spots this week. Even if there's tight coverage, I trust JSS to make these kinds of plays and they'll need a couple. pic.twitter.com/6iDphPdXpG— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 24, 2023
CIN will try tight physical coverage some to make Mahomes hold the ball longer and this is a quick answer for potential chunk plays. pic.twitter.com/vmKsTZzsKR— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) January 24, 2023