For the third time in four years, the Kansas City Chiefs are headed back to the Super Bowl after a 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday night’s AFC Championship.
Except for Justin Watson — who was inactive due to illness — the Chiefs entered the game fully healthy at wide receiver. Mecole Hardman was back in the lineup alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kadarius Toney and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. With quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce playing through injuries, having all four available was ideal.
But things quickly started changing. Toney left the game with an ankle injury in the first quarter. Smith-Schuster injured his knee. Hardman reaggravated his pelvis injury early in the third quarter. All three were ruled out of the game.
That left the Chiefs with rookie Skyy Moore, practice squad special teams player Marcus Kemp — and Valdes-Scantling — as the team’s wideouts. A player would need to step up.
And Valdes-Scantling answered the call.
On Kansas City’s first touchdown drive, he was responsible for 40 of the 75 yards — including a spectacular 29-yard grab that put the Chiefs right outside the red zone.
On the team’s next touchdown drive in the third quarter, Mahomes found Valdes-Scantling wide open in the flat. He turned the short pass into a 25-yard gain. On a third-and-7 in the the same drive, the wideout stretched the ball out to the down marker as he was being tackled. Officials marked the completion one yard short of a first down — but head coach Andy Reid challenged the call, which was overturned to extend the drive. Three plays later, Kansas City was at third-and-10 from the Cincinnati 19. Mahomes avoided pressure and threw late, fitting the ball through a tight window to Valdes-Scantling in the end zone. That gave the Chiefs a 20-13 lead with 4:15 left in the third quarter.
The bottom line
Valdes-Scantling had an up-and-down 2022 season, making some splash plays here and there — but also dropping some easy catches. For most of the season, it seemed like he and Mahomes couldn’t get on the same page. Valdes-Scantling finished the season with a 51.9% completion rate on his targets. That was the team’s second-worst mark.
But on the biggest stage in the biggest game of the season — when his team needed him the most — Valdes-Scantling came through. He made play after play, helping to carry the Chiefs to victory. He finished the game with six catches on eight targets for 116 yards and a touchdown. It was his first game over 75 yards since Week 7 — and only his second 100-yard game this season. He only had three touchdowns in the regular season — but in the playoffs, he already has two.
Kansas City’s next stop will be Super Bowl LVII in Arizona. The team’s wideouts will have two weeks to get healthy — but on Sunday night, they learned that when needed, Valdes-Scantling can carry the load.