There is no doubt that the identity of the Kansas City Chiefs starts with future Hall of Fame players like quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce.
That being said, when those two cornerstones of the team are compromised by lingering injuries — like they were heading into Sunday's AFC Championship — it takes the less-commended side of the ball to carry more of the load.
The Chiefs' defense did precisely that, limiting the Cincinnati Bengals to their lowest point total since October in the Chiefs' 23-20 triumph Sunday to take back the AFC crown. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's unit buckled down in the fourth quarter and forced a turnover and punt on the Bengals' last two possessions.
The last play for Cincinnati's offense ended with Chiefs' defensive tackle Chris Jones burying Bengals' quarterback Joe Burrow for a third-down sack, a very appropriate way to close the game when you consider the entirety of Jones' performance.
Chiefs DT Chris Jones generated an incredible 8 pressures on Sunday.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 30, 2023
The result of those 8 plays:
* 3 sacks (2 by Jones himself)
* 5 incompletions
Not a single positive yard generated by the Bengals.
He wrecked shop.
The dominant game comes a year after a similarly disruptive matchup in last year's AFC Championship against the Bengals, but that disruption didn't end in sacks.
It did this time, bringing Jones' year-long motivation full circle.
"I planned for this game — my whole offseason was dedicated to this game," Jones told reporters in his post-game press conference. "I missed a few big plays last year. It was unfortunate, but I was able to move forward, and I put that on my shoulders. So I dedicated my whole offseason to making sure when that moment calls — for me, again — that I'll answer the call."
Jones turned the disappointment into fuel, enough of it to have one of the most impactful performances by a defensive tackle in NFL postseason history. Veteran defensive ends Frank Clark and Carlos Dunlap recognized the legendary game and put it simply to reporters after the game.
"He set the tone; he finished the game," Clark pointed out. "Christopher Jones. He did his thing. Chris Jones – the most unstoppable man in football."
"Chris Jones did what Chris Jones does," Dunlap exclaimed. "He made plays!"
Jones' impact would not have been possible without the performance of his teammates — even teammates that weren't expected to play such a significant role. Rookie Joshua Williams had to fill in for the injured cornerback L'Jarius Sneed, and linebacker Darius Harris was forced to play when Willie Gay Jr. left the game early.
Then Jones' running mates along the defensive line filled in the gaps, getting in on additional three sacks. Jones recognized how much the surrounding defenders helped him out.
"The back end showed up really, really well for us," Jones noted. "They gave us an extra second to get to the quarterback. The front five, four played resilient tonight — they showed up to answer the call when needed. Mike Danna, George Karlaftis, Frank Clark doing Frank Clark things — he's moving up in the record books. I think we just played resilient, stopped the run so we were able to get after them."
Defensive end Mike Danna was not one of the players that racked up a sack, but he did earn three pressures and five total tackles — the third-most tackles by any Chiefs player in the game.
"We were jelling together, the whole defense," Danna told reporters after the game. "We executed the calls that coach gave us, the pressure, stunts (and) we hit on all cylinders, so it was great. We got to him."
The defense got to Burrow for five sacks in total, four more than they had in last season's AFC Title game. The failure to impact that game led to changes along the defensive front, including a coaching change: last year's defensive line coach Brendan Daly was moved to the linebacker position, making way for defensive line coach Joe Cullen to be hired.
Chris Jones: "My supporting cast, those guys, have been able to free me up, and (DL assistant) Joe Cullen completely transformed my game." #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/bdiTDtgViH— Harold R. Kuntz (@HaroldRKuntz3) January 8, 2023
Jones has expressed his appreciation for Cullen since the first time he was asked about the coaching change this summer and continued praising him throughout the season. It's hard not to credit Cullen for Jones' career season.
Cullen may also deserve some credit for Jones finally earning a postseason sack in his 15th career playoff game — even though it isn't something Jones ever truly cared about.
"There has been a lot made by you guys, you all make it bigger than what it is," Jones said on his previous drought of sacks. "I personally do not care about stats in the playoffs. My job is to make sure that I play hard, play physical, set a different side of the line of scrimmage, and help my teammates around me make plays. Whether that's taking a double team the whole game, or getting one on one and winning... it doesn't really matter to me."
What matters is the game's result, and this one came out in the Chiefs' favor. Last year, a stumbling offense led to their demise. This time, it nearly did again — but Chris Jones and the Chiefs' defense finished the fight.
It was a memorable battle, one that earned them the right to finish off the war that is the 2023 NFL season. That will happen in two weeks — when the Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles face off in Super Bowl LVII.