There’s a familiar feeling about the Kansas City Chiefs holding up the Lamar Hunt trophy on a Sunday afternoon in late January, clinching the AFC Championship and celebrating a spot in the Super Bowl. With the 17-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens, it happened for the fourth time in five seasons Sunday.
The difference was the celebration being held on a field other than the grass of Arrowhead Stadium, which represents the difficulties this group played through to get there. No previous Chiefs team went on the road, let alone won two games away from home in a postseason. None of the previous three runs to a Super Bowl featured three wins; each benefitted from a bye week.
That’s what Chiefs’ defensive tackle Chris Jones appreciated about the achievement, detailing what makes this run special in his post-game press conference.
“The obstacles we had, just to get to this AFC Championship game,” Jones reflected. “Josh Allen, and defeating the Buffalo Bills... facing the Miami Dolphins, one of the highest powered offense in this game... then facing Lamar, with one of the best defenses I’ve seen. They got a complete team, and being able to overcome that is an obstacle itself.”
Jones only touched on a portion of what has made this Chiefs run feel unexpected. The regular season was littered with low points, including a six-game stretch late where Kansas City went from the AFC’s one seed to the brink of missing the postseason.
There were also personal hurdles for the All-Pro defensive tackle, which became more public than Jones likely expected.
“The adversity we had to face,” Jones looked back. “Losing the first game of the year, unfortunately, I wasn’t here, the holdout situation for me... you come to play the best team in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, at their home, with the adversity we had to face: the fans, the crowd, home-field advantage. I think there’s a huge appreciation you have to take in that journey.”
The journey’s latest mission featured slowing down the Ravens’ number-one rushing attack, a phase of the game that generated over 150 rushing yards per game. Baltimore only managed 81 yards on the ground, and the running backs only accounted for 23 of them.
Chris Jones was a mood. pic.twitter.com/JO4J6VJYZ5— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) January 29, 2024
It was all part of a masterful game plan from head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The team executed establishing an early lead, then forced the Ravens to pass more than they wanted to, playing from a two-score deficit for the bulk of the second half.
“I still think Spags should up for assistant coach of the year,” Jones campaigned. “What he has been able to do with this defense from last year to this year. We’ve been able to overcome a lot of lumps, and how we were able to force a lot of guys to grow.”
The defense that held Baltimore down throughout the AFC Championship heavily featured players either in the first or second year of their careers. That’s what Jones is referring to: the accelerated development of the youth of the defense.
“We knew last year, a lot of guys were going to be forced to grow,” Jones reiterated. “Whether it’s (cornerback) Josh [Williams], a young guy coming out, or (cornerback) [Jaylen]Watson, a young guy coming out. When you got leaders, really two All-Pros in the room, those guys are able to build and grow from that.”
“They can watch (cornerback L’Jarius Sneed), they can watch (cornerback) Trent McDuffie, they can watch their preparation, and then they begin to prepare like that, they begin to want to be the guy. It helps a lot.”
The back end was a huge reason Jackson looked uncomfortable for most of Sunday afternoon, allowing Jones and others enough time to generate pressure. To top off the stout run defense, the Chiefs were successful at limiting explosive gains by Baltimore’s playmakers.
“As a whole, we tried to limit his big plays,” Jones acknowledged. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to completely stop [Jackson]. I think they hit us on two: LJ lost a receiver in the back end... the second one was (linebacker) Nick [Bolton] getting beat over the top by number 4 when Lamar started running.”
“It was two big plays,” Jones put into perspective. “If we are able to limit Lamar to two big plays, that’s good.”
After a long season dealing with the doubters, the Chiefs silenced them all with the upset in Baltimore. That includes me; I predicted the Ravens to win, overlooking what many other analysts did, too: This Chiefs team was always a sleeping giant capable of continuing their reign of the AFC.
The rough stretches brought out significant criticism. That only added to the obstacles and the adversity Jones is referring to. He made that clear before he left the podium Sunday, setting the record straight when asked if he ever faced a moment of doubt.
“Y’all doubted us,” Jones said as a reminder. “We ain’t doubted.”