When Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes spoke after Sunday’s 23-20 AFC Championship win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the press conference resembled a sports documentary on one of the year’s biggest stories.
The sports world held its breath as Mahomes left the Chiefs’ Divisional Round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars with a high-ankle sprain. Though the league’s passing leader returned to the game, the injury was subject to endless speculation in practice leading to the AFC Championship.
Mahomes finished 29 of 43 for 326 yards and two touchdowns. The first of those touchdowns went to tight end Travis Kelce — whose status for the game was also murky after a back injury in Friday’s practice. Reid praised the perseverance of both players.
“It was pure grit — he and Kelce,” the coach stated. “For Pat to do what he did and to have that run at the end, I can’t say enough. He is the MVP in my eyes.”
The quarterback took it upon himself to eliminate the uncertainty.
“He gave me no opportunity to not think that he was going to play,” Reid recalled. “He never missed a snap. Our players — our team [and] coaches — we’re all lucky to have him in that position. That whole mindset carries over to everybody. There was no question he was going to play.”
Immediately after the game, Chiefs vice president of sports medicine and performance Rick Burkholder gave assistant athletic trainer Julie Frymeyer credit for Mahomes’ recovery. The player and coach echoed the appreciation.
Thanks for the support and if you loved the way Patrick played then love this person, Julie Frymeyer. She designed and executed the rehab. pic.twitter.com/3tBIxZaN2y— Rick Burkholder (@proatc) January 30, 2023
“I didn’t expect to be able to run very much — just from the way it felt,” Mahomes admitted. “The training staff — Julie — did a great job of getting me enough range of mobility that I was able to protect myself. At the end of the game, I had a run to get a first down that got us into field goal range. Credit to them. Just trying to stay on it. We have two more weeks — so we have to keep doing it.”
Reid stressed the group effort in getting the best player in the game onto the field.
“He went out and practiced,” the coach reiterated. “He pushed off of that thing and did all the stuff. He lived in the training room. Rick Burkholder and Julie — the job they did with him of getting him ready and him spending all of the time. I’m sure he went home, and his wife was probably working on it too. It was everybody taking concern for him.”
Even so, there was no denying that the injury affected his play.
“A couple of times in the game,” Mahomes confirmed, “when I was trying to get through spots that I usually get through — you could see that I didn’t have that burst that I usually have. I got the ball out of my hands quickly — I think you saw that. I threw quite a few more check downs than I usually would throw and relied on my teammates to make the plays happen. That’s what they did.”
The only blemish on Mahomes’ day was a third-quarter fumble. After crossing into Cincinnati territory — with a chance to take a two-score lead — the passer bobbled a snap and was unable to recover it. He explained after the game that the play marked his most difficult moment managing the ankle pain.
“I said the stopping was going to be the hardest part,” Mahomes observed, “and obviously throwing across your body because you have to plant that right leg and twist across to throw. That definitely didn’t feel good.
“I think the worst one was when I fumbled. I tried to pick it up and that was probably the worst tweak I had during the game. They got me as close as they could to 100% — and I just battled through. I’ll have a few more weeks to get ready.”
While most expected Mahomes to play, few could have predicted the game’s most crucial moment. In the game’s final half minute — with the score tied and announcers preparing to explain the league’s new overtime rules for the postseason — Mahomes scrambled at full speed to gain five yards to the 42-yard line.
The play likely would have set up a near 60-yard field goal attempt by Harrison Butker for a chance at a Chiefs’ win. However, Mahomes took a late hit out of bounds by Bengals EDGE rusher Joseph Ossai. The ensuing penalty added 15 yards to the play — and Butker nailed a 45-yard attempt to win the game in regulation.
“Throughout the game, I tried to do whatever I could to win,” Mahomes said of the play. Obviously there were times where you could see it wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to. I was able to do enough on that last play to get the first down and get myself out of bounds — and try to give Harrison a chance to win.
“Obviously we got the flag — he pushed me pretty late there. The defense had gotten stops for us the last two drives — and we had opportunities to get into field goal range, and we didn’t. So I knew I was going to do whatever I could to get us into field goal range — and Harrison made the kick.”
In two weeks, Mahomes and the Chiefs will meet the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII in Arizona. After winning his third AFC Championship in five years as a starter, he knows not to bask in Sunday’s big moment.
“The job’s not finished for us,” Mahomes declared. “We’ve got a chance to go up against a great football team in the Philadelphia Eagles. We get to enjoy this for about a day — and then get right back to it. Because I’ve been in the Super Bowl — and winning it is a lot better than losing it.”