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5 winners and 5 ‘almost-losers’ from the Chiefs’ AFC Championship win

A special edition of winners and losers — with no real losers.

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Sunday night’s AFC Championship matchup was the biggest, most consequential games in recent Kansas City Chiefs history. In it, they faced their own boogeyman: a Cincinnati Bengals team that had ended their 2021 season with a overtime defeat that was just one part of a bitter three-game losing streak.

Coming into this one, we all felt an elevated sense of anxiety. It was not only because it was a tough matchup against a very good team, but also because we were worried about Kansas City’s hobbled quarterback. Then as the game went on, more injuries piled up. L’Jarius Sneed, Kadarius Toney, Willie Gay Jr., Mecole Hardman, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Isiah Pacheco, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith were among the Chiefs players who were banged-up (or sidelined completely) during Sunday night’s contest.

Then things got worse. At times, the offense stalled. The defense gave up a couple of big plays. And the Chiefs turned the ball over. There were so many obstacles to victory — and fewer and fewer players available to overcome them; there were times that six rookies were on the field simultaneously. There were so many opportunities for the team to fold — and so many excuses that would have been valid after a loss.

But in the end, everyone on the active roster — from superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes to practice squad wideout Marcus Kemp — made plays when the team needed them the most. And as a result, the Chiefs are making another trip to the Super Bowl.

That’s why this compilation isn’t our usual winners-and-losers list. Today, there are no losers among the Chiefs. All we can see are stories of redemption and triumph — the kind of things from which legends and movies are made. But on Sunday night, it was all real — and it was all special.

Winners

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: We’ve seen the downside of the former Green Bay Packers wideout: the deep shot with no real chance of completion. His often-inefficient production gave him an up-and-down season. But with his teammates dropping left and right on Sunday, Valdes-Scantling delivered in a big way. He led the team in targets (eight, along with tight end Travis Kelce) and yards (116), while showing his ability to play every wide receiver position. He caught a spectacular touchdown pass through traffic that took elite concentration. In fact, for this game, the speedy wide receiver appeared to be locked-in in a way we haven’t seen all season.

Cornerback Trent McDuffie: An undersized rookie corner going up against Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on the biggest stage? Yeah... that’s tough. But McDuffie showed once again that he’s a blue-chip player — and one of the best picks in 2022’s stellar Kansas City draft class. On the Bengals’ first drive, McDuffie undercut Chase for a potential interception that he couldn't quite bring in. But he was able to hold on to every Cincinnati ball carrier that crossed his path, tackling like a seasoned veteran. McDuffie played tough in coverage all night long, finishing with six solo tackles (one for loss) and two passes defended. This game isn’t too big (or too fast) for this rookie — and on Sunday, he made sure everyone knew it.

EDGE Frank Clark: No Chiefs player takes more criticism than this eight-year veteran — but nobody delivers in the playoffs like he does, either. The Shark smelled blood in the water against Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow and his backup offensive line. Right from the opening drive, he went to work on them. Clark ended up with 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. He was a force in this game, cementing his legacy as one of the three best postseason pass rushers in NFL history.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones: It has always been a false narrative that the seven-year veteran hasn’t been able to deliver in the postseason. But any questions that might have remained were answered on Sunday. Even with all the attention the Bengals gave him, Jones was unblockable — and this time, it showed up in the box score: five quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and two sacks. No play was bigger than his sack on Burrow’s final dropback of the season. Jones was a finalist for defensive player of the year. If he keeps this up, he’ll also be a finalist for Super Bowl MVP — and a massive new contract.

Placekicker Harrison Butker: It was a brutal season for Kansas City’s long-serving specialist. Injured in the season’s opening week (from a kickoff on bad turf), he struggled to regain the form that made him one of the league’s best. In 2022, he set career highs for missed extra points and field goals, prompting the team to flirt with other practice squad kickers. But coming down the stretch, things finally seemed to click again. In the cold, windy conditions of the AFC title game, he was perfect: two-for-two on extra points and three-for-three on field goals. With the game (and the season) on the line, Butker drilled the game-winner from 45 yards out, putting his team in the Super Bowl and silencing any remaining doubters.

The almost-losers who would later redeem themselves

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Wide receiver/returner Skyy Moore: The first target to the rookie went for three yards, the second (and third) had no chance for completion, the fourth went for two yards... well, you see the pattern here. Moore had seven targets on the night, resulting in just 13 yards on three catches. He just rarely looks like he’s on the same page with Mahomes. But with Isiah Pacheco and Kadarius Toney banged up, Moore stepped back into the kick and punt returner jobs — the same roles in which he had failed so miserably with disastrous turnovers earlier in the season. We held our collective breath as Moore cleanly fielded a punt in the third quarter and returned it for 25 yards. Unfortunately, that one was called back on a penalty — but the next one wasn’t. With 41 seconds remaining — and the game tied — Moore delivered. His 29-yard punt return set up the game-winning field goal — and should be a huge confidence-booster for a kid who should be a bigger part of the team’s plans in 2023.

Cornerback Joshua Williams: The Kansas City defense was tremendous on Sunday, holding Burrow and his receivers below their typical level of production. But when they had opportunities, it was often at Williams’ expense. Forced into action after an injury to veteran L’Jarius Sneed, the rookie kept battling against the physically imposing Bengals receivers. But when the game was tied midway through the fourth quarter, Williams intercepted Burrow on a ball tipped into the air. It was a big-time play in an important moment. Williams helped keep the Bengals from regaining the momentum they needed.

Safety Bryan Cook: The rookie committed two very costly penalties — but then in the fourth quarter, tipped that Burrows pass right to Williams’s hands. He’s another rookie defensive back who has seen his opportunity grow over the past few weeks — and he has grown with it. For Cook, the future is bright. He will also have Sunday’s game to build upon in 2023.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes: The two-time MVP has no business on any losers list. He was brilliant against the Bengals, passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns on a bad ankle while throwing to a severely depleted receiving corps. It was easy to see the injury was painful to him as he tried rolling out and scrambling. But there was a moment — however brief — where it felt like it was all crashing down. It was a point familiar to Kansas City fans — especially against Cincinnati — when a promising performance slips over the abyss. With one minute left in the third quarter, Mahomes dropped back to pass — but the ball slipped away. It popped up into the air and was recovered by the Bengals. In that moment, it felt like the season was over; the Bengals went on to score a touchdown that tied the game. But the defense held through the fourth quarter — and then the offense got the ball back with 30 seconds to go, needing only a couple of plays to get into field goal range. On third-and-4, Mahomes saw an opening, running up the sideline in the gutsiest five-yard scramble you’ll ever see. Somehow — on a day when Mahomes managed to be stellar while passing the ball on one leg — it was that leg that carried the team to victory.

Head coach Andy Reid: For the next two weeks, all we’re going to hear about will be the upcoming Andy Reid Bowl. The success that Big Red has carried from his days in Philadelphia through his decade in Kansas City is undeniable. His impact on this franchise, this city and the entire NFL is as significant as anyone in the league’s history. Among his peers, he’s known as an elite signal-caller who displays creativity that others copy every season. But every year, he’s also questioned about his play-calling and in-game decisions. Getting the ball at the end of the first half, Kansas City had the opportunity to double-up: the Chiefs would get the ball to begin the second half. But the offense sputtered to a quick three-and-out on three straight incomplete passes, allowing Cincinnati to score a field goal. Then as the third quarter began, there was another futile three-and-out featuring low-percentage play-calls. Then — with 2:36 remaining on fourth-and-8 from Cincinnati’s 37-yard line, Reid elected to punt. Once again, viewers thought it was the end of the season; the Bengals would likely have plenty of time to drive down the field for a game-winning score — while Mahomes watched helplessly from the sideline. But Reid’s judgement would be vindicated: his defense came up with big plays to get the ball back. We should probably stop questioning the head coach — although it’s doubtful that we ever will.

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