After ending the regular season with the AFC’s No. 1 seed — and taking care of their Divisional Round business against the Jacksonville Jaguars — the Kansas City Chiefs once again find themselves playing for the AFC Championship. And once again, their opponent will be the Cincinnati Bengals.
When they met in this game a year ago, the Bengals defeated the Chiefs in overtime on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium — and in two regular-season matchups in 2021 and 2022, Cincinnati collected two home victories against Kansas City.
Considering that the Bengals are now 3-0 against the Chiefs since Zac Taylor became the team’s head coach in 2019 (and Joe Burrow became the starting quarterback in 2020), a good many fans and pundits believe that on Sunday, it will be Cincinnati that advances to Super Bowl LVII.
But I believe all of that changed last Saturday, when Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes sustained what has been reported to be a high ankle sprain.
For many years, NFL fans have debated why players — who make bundles of money playing a game they have played since they were kids — need some extra motivation to play at the highest level.
But no matter how much players are paid, they lead grueling, physically (and mentally) demanding lives. There used to be a true offseason, in which previous generations of players actually had significant time away from the game. Those days are long gone.
The schedule begins with offseason workouts and conditioning, then proceeding through organized team activities, minicamp, training camp, three preseason games and 17 regular-season contests — followed by three (or four) postseason matchups for 14 of the 32 teams.
Even the toughest players can be worn down — both physically and mentally — from doing all that it takes to be a modern NFL player.
So players are often looking for some kind of extra motivation to play at the highest level. One of the ways they love to do it is by playing the “underdog” or “no respect” card.
How often have you heard something like this after a game?
“No one gave us a chance! No one showed us respect! Everyone said that our opponent was better than us. But you know what? We proved them wrong! WRONG, BABY!”
The words — especially the final ones — are typically shouted, accompanied by extreme body language. It’s usually topped off with an Incredible Hulk flex and a guttural scream of victory.
But what if your team isn’t the underdog? Where can that extra drive and motivation be found?
That’s pretty much been the situation in which the Chiefs have found themselves since Mahomes became the starting quarterback. While Kansas City has been the underdog in a handful of games, the team has usually been favored to win — often by a lot — while every opponent treats it like a championship game.
Ever since he struggled to his feet and limped to the huddle last Saturday, Mahomes’ right ankle has been the hot topic — not just in Kansas City, but across the country.
How many times have we seen Mahomes put the entire team on his back and carry it to victory? Now it’s time for the team to return the favor — and they now have the motivation to do it.
It’s not hard to imagine that during meetings, film sessions and classroom time at One Arrowhead Drive this week, both players and coaches have talked about how every single one of them will have to take it up a notch higher this Sunday.
The offensive linemen know they have to deliver a mistake-free game, opening up running lanes and keeping their quarterback upright. The wide receivers know they must catch every ball thrown their way. And the defense? Well, it could once again be the key to raising the Lamar Hunt Trophy in victory.
I can easily see the entire team rallying around their hobbled (and courageous) quarterback — playing the game of the season.
They say football is the ultimate team sport. If this Chiefs team steps up the way I think it can, we’re going to see a celebration of epic proportions on Sunday night.