If you were expecting to find Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones at the top of this list, you weren’t wrong. All three of those players have carried Kansas City throughout the season — and all three will have to be great for the Chiefs to bring home another Lombardi Trophy.
However, there are some other players who will have to step up for the Chiefs to finish this season on top. The AFC Championship game featured many role players who stepped up when they were needed most. Here are some of the players who need to do that on Sunday.
5. Safety Justin Reid
When the Chiefs signed Reid in the offseason, there were many questions about the kind of player they were getting. Reid had shown some potential early in his career, but had then regressed — along with much of the Houston Texans’ roster. Tasked with replacing the dynamic Tyrann Mathieu as the young defensive backfield’s leader, Reid struggled early in the year. But as the season has progressed, he has become more confident in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system. After a poor performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in December, Reid has been great at covering tight ends and providing some support against the run in the box.
On Sunday, Reid will have an important role — because one of Philadelphia’s best receivers is tight end Dallas Goedert. The Kansas City defense will have a lot on its plate while covering stars like wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith — while also trying to control the NFL’s best ground game — so it would be tremendous if Reid could simply eliminate Goedert from the passing game. Against the Bengals, Reid followed through on his promise of shutting down tight end Hayden Hurst, holding him to just four catches for 37 yards. Look for Reid to also play a role in run support — and as a blitzer.
4. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
It feels like every playoff game has been make-or-break for the Chiefs’ left tackle. That, of course, is a natural consequence of appearing in playoff games while playing on the franchise tag. Against both Jacksonville and Cincinnati, Brown struggled at times — but for the most part, he held his own against average pass rushers. But on Sunday night, the challenge ahead of him — and the rest of the Kansas City offensive line — is much greater. One thing to know about the Eagles: their pass rushers pretty much line up on the same side of the formation on every down. They have a healthy eight-man rotation on the line, but their edge rushers mostly stick to the same side. Brown will mostly be facing Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat. Both have 11 sacks this season.
The NFL media has gone crazy about Andrew Wylie playing against Haason Reddick. The Chiefs obviously know this is a concern, so it’s likely they will use blockers to assist Wylie as much as they can. But Kansas City can’t afford to help both Wylie and Brown. The left tackle is going to be alone on the blind side, forced to hold his own against two very good pass rushers. You don’t need me to explain that an aggravation of Mahomes’ ankle injury could severely hamper Kansas City’s championship hopes.
3. Kadarius Toney
Trading with the New York Giants to acquire Toney was one of Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach’s most underrated moves this season. When he arrived, Toney was largely seen as a depth player with future upside. But Mecole Hardman’s injury has thrust him into a pivotal role. Thus far, Toney has proven to be exactly what we thought he was: an explosive player with immense upside — and injury concerns, too. After he (along with Hardman and JuJu Smith-Schuster) left the AFC Championship, the offense was completely handicapped.
Without Toney or Hardman, the offense loses its dynamic horizonal element. Toney has also proved himself to be the the team’s best contested-catch receiver not named Travis Kelce. The offense is also going to need him to be effective with the ball in his hands as a rusher. and a pass catcher. It is critical that Toney starts — and finishes — Sunday’s game.
2. Defensive end Frank Clark
What Clark has done for Kansas City in the playoffs has been incredible. His hefty contract has paid for itself in playoff production alone. Time and time again, he’s stepped up in key postseason situations — and on Sunday, he’s going to need to do it again. Philadelphia has a tremendous offensive line, so Clark will have to make a great effort to generate pressure.
But that offensive line is too good (and too smart) to let Chris Jones beat them for the whole game — so the Eagles will have to do whatever they can to control Jones. This means Clark has a chance to win his one-on-one matchups. This won’t be easy — but this year, we’ve already seen Clark beat the league’s best left tackle: Trent Williams. And let’s not forget that quietly, the Philadelphia offensive line has given up as many sacks as the Bengals this season. (They tied Cincinnati in 11th place). In pass-heavy situations, the Eagles’ offensive line can be had. Clark will also have a big role in setting the edge against the option running game the Philadelphia employs.
1. Linebacker Nick Bolton
Kansas City might not have a more divisive player than Bolton. Some feel he is one of the league’s best young linebackers — and one of the defense’s stars. Others believe he is only average to below average as the team’s MIKE linebacker. In December, the Bengals specifically targeted him over and over — and that played a big part in Kansas City’s loss. But let’s give credit where it is due: in the AFC Championship, Bolton had one of his best games in coverage all season. He knew Cincinnati would target him — and was ready for the challenge.
The Eagles, however, represent a much different challenge to linebackers. Even at his age, center Jason Kelce might be the best league’s best second-level blocker. If he gets his hands on Bolton in the running game, the play will be an automatic loss — because Bolton has historically struggled when blocked by offensive linemen downfield. Quarterback Jalen Hurts’s ability as a runner will also challenge Bolton — as will running backs such as Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainewell, who will likely get many passing targets. Bolton has a lot to manage as the defense’s play-caller. He’s going to need to have another strong performance on Sunday.