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Examining Travis Kelce’s ankle sprain — and his chance to play against the Broncos

The All-Pro tight end’s toughness is unquestioned, but the short week could make it difficult for him to return on TNF.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs27-20 road victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5 certainly provided an emotional roller coaster ride. Right before halftime, fans held their collective breath when tight end Travis Kelce’s right foot appeared to get caught in the U.S. Bank Stadium’s artificial turf. He stumbled getting up and walked gingerly to the sideline.

Kelce’s injury

As with all non-contact injuries, the worst possible scenarios were possible — and immediately debated on social media. But as the 34-year-old tight end has continued to do throughout his Hall of Fame career, he defied the odds by returning to the field in the second half. All he did then was catch a touchdown pass, lead the team in receptions and yards and make a third-down reception over a Vikings safety — one that many NFL tight ends couldn't make when healthy.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

After the game, Kelce’s injury was confirmed to be a low ankle sprain — meaning the more common lateral or inversion sprain.

There was speculation — including some by color analyst Tony Romo during the CBS broadcast — that Kelce’s injury was a high ankle sprain. But the mechanism of the injury — that is, the way it occurred — did not align with a high ankle sprain. In these injuries, a player’s foot will typically be planted on the ground and twisted in relation to the lower leg. But when Kelce’s right foot was planted on the turf, his ankle went into inversion (turned inward) which is more consistent with a lateral ankle sprain.

Given the mechanics of this injury, X-rays were needed to rule out any potential bone injury. After that, his return to the game depended upon the athletic training staff — and Kelce’s pain tolerance.

But remember: in Week 2, linebacker Nick Bolton also returned to the game after suffering an ankle sprain. While he contributed to the Chiefs’ 17-9 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, he missed the next three games. So even though he returned to action on the day of his injury, Kelce could be held out of the upcoming Week 6 matchup against the Denver Broncos on “Thursday Night Football.”

Potential for return on Thursday

The short answer is obvious: Kelce could play on Thursday. No one is questioning the toughness and durability he has displayed throughout his NFL career. Ankle sprains, however, tend to stiffen and become more swollen in the 24 to 48 hours after the injury. Immediately after the game, Kelce could be seen limping on the injured ankle.

It all comes down to the management of pain and swelling, while the training staff (and Kelce) work on strengthening the muscles surrounding the ankle and stabilizing the joint. Since Kelce was able to return to the game, it is likely to be a Grade I or Grade II injury — meaning there is not a complete tear of the lateral ankle ligaments which can be injured in an inversion ankle sprain.

It is also encouraging that Kelce improved from having a no-practice designation on Monday’s injury estimate to being a limited participant in Tuesday’s practice. It will be important to monitor how his ankle responds to the practice to determine his status for Thursday night — but head coach Andy Reid’s statement was encouraging.

“We’ll just see how he does,” said Reid on Tuesday, “but he’s doing OK out there today.”

The door is certainly open for him to play — and as the second-most important player on the Kansas City offense, the team needs him.

But despite the remarkable durability Kelce has displayed during his 11-year career, the elephant in the room is that the Chiefs are overly reliant on an aging player — and this is the second injury he has suffered in the first five weeks of the season. As you’ll recall, he suffered a bone bruise following a knee hyperextension injury during preparation for Week 1 — and missed that game.

Kelce has already defied the odds for his position with his continued production at an All-Pro level. But he is the same age as former New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired after the 2021 season.

There is no doubt that Kelce will push himself as hard as he can to be ready to play — and Kansas City has one of the league’s best medical staffs — so there is room for optimism. If his ankle allows him to be productive, we should expect him to be in uniform.

But after this game, the Chiefs will have a “mini-bye” — a 10-day respite before the Week 7 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The team might decide for Kelce to sit out Thursday’s game, so he will have an extended recovery time before he plays again.

“So we’ll see where it goes from here,” said Reid on Tuesday.

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