Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. This is a legacy-defining moment
Legends never quit. Legends never give in. And legends never die.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was injured in the first quarter of the Divisional Round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite gutting through the injury to finish the game, people across the NFL universe immediately began pointing out all the reasons Mahomes would be unable to play at his accustomed level in the AFC title game against Bengals.
But in Mahomes’ mind, there was never a doubt that he was going to play — and lead his team back to the Super Bowl.
This was a legacy-building moment. Years from now — when they put Mahomes’ bust in Canton — Sunday night’s game will be on the highlight reel. The next time a star athlete is injured and plays through the pain, they will be compared to a legendary quarterback’s performance in the 2022 AFC Championship.
Injury or no injury Mahomes is all out for the first down. Game winning FG! pic.twitter.com/UaCoiA7nu7— The Irish NFL Show (@IreNFL) January 30, 2023
This was the kind of performance on which legacies are built. This was Mahomes’ Michael Jordan flu game... his Curt Schilling bloody sock game. This was one of the greatest moments in franchise history — made by the greatest player to ever play the game.
2. This was Chris Jones’ best game
In last season’s AFC title game, the Kansas City defensive tackle had Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow in his grasp. Burrow shook Jones off, completing a long pass down the sideline to keep a drive alive — and the Bengals would go on to beat the Chiefs in their own house.
In the offseason, Jones said that if he had finished that sack, he believed the Chiefs would have won that game. He used it as motivation to improve. In 2021, Jones missed 12.9% of his tackles. In 2022, he reduced that number to 2.9%.
What was the difference? It didn’t matter if they were double-teaming him — or even triple-teaming him. Jones finished his sacks. He finished the season with 15.5 — tied for the highest number in his career.
All week, the Jones narrative was that he had never collected a postseason sack. But on Sunday night, he finished with two sacks, five quarterback hits and three tackles for loss, showing why he should be the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
When his team needed him most, Jones responded with the best game of his career.
3. There are no rookies in the playoffs
A few weeks ago, Kansas City special teams coordinator Dave Toub said that in the postseason, there is no such thing as a rookie. This is especially true for the Chiefs, who had to ask more of their 2022 draft class than any other NFL team.
When he needed players to stop Burrow from moving the ball downfield, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnoulo leaned on his rookie defensive backs. They generated two interceptions — one by cornerback Jaylen Watson and the other by Joshua Willams (with an assist by safety Bryan Cook).
When he needed pressure on Burrow, Spagnuolo asked defensive end George Karlaftis to rush the passer. And now, we already know one thing about this rookie’s career: he won’t have to wait until his seventh NFL season to get his first postseason sack.
When the Chiefs needed a crucial first down at the end of the game, Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes put the back in rookie running back Isiah Pacheco’s hands.
With 30 seconds to go, the Chiefs needed to get into field goal range. Rookie wideout Skyy Moore faced down every demon from earlier this season, busting off a 24-yard punt return to put the offense in position to win the game.
The success of these young players is a credit not only to them, but also to the coaching staff who brought them to this point.
Toub was right. The Chiefs no longer have rookies. They only have first-year players who do their jobs.
4. Don’t ever disrespect Arrowhead Stadium
It was almost as if they couldn’t help themselves. During the past week, it seemed like whenever anyone from the Bengals organization (or the city of Cincinnati) had a platform to speak, they spouted disrespectful trash talk.
It started with the Cincinnati secondary calling the Chiefs’ home field Burrowhead Stadium.
"We'll see you all in Burrowhead."pic.twitter.com/ebtAjHUMcc— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 25, 2023
Then Cincinnati’s mayor said that “officials” wanted Mahomes to take a paternity test to see if Burrow was his father.
I was already on Team Travis Kelce but after finally seeing the clip of Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval talking absolute TRASH, Kelce had a team duty to call him out! Go Chiefs! pic.twitter.com/djqAcHf9zT— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) January 30, 2023
At every turn, the Bengals were giving Kansas City bulletin board material. There were glimpses indicating that Kansas City players were aware of the trash talk, but they rarely responded. Instead, the Chiefs chose to let their play speak for itself.
But once that was done, they had a message for the world: Don’t ever disrespect Arrowhead Stadium!
So here’s one more message for the Bengals: enjoy playing flag football in Cabo next week, chili-eaters.
5. The depth of Chiefs’ roster is amazing
It’s not just that first-year players stepped up in this game. The team’s overall roster construction is now a thing of beauty.
By the end of the game, Kansas City was down to three healthy wide receivers — yet the team still had enough firepower to get the job done.
The story will be about Mahomes’ ankle — but it should also be about Marcus Kemp having a reception in a conference championship game. It should also be about tight end Jody Fortson playing wide receiver. It should also be about Mike Danna creating problems for the Cincinnati offensive line.
The Chiefs needed contributions from all 46 men who were active for Sunday’s game — and every single one of them met the challenge.
A year ago, the Kansas City roster was top-heavy. But in one offseason, general manager Brett Veach rebuilt the entire receiving corps and secondary. After those moves, pundits said the Chiefs weren’t going to be able to recover from the loss of players like Tyreek Hill, Tyrann Mathieu and Charvarius Ward. Many of them didn’t think the team would even win their division.
But now, it’s going to the Super Bowl.