KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes was forced to rely on his badly sprained right ankle rather than his strong right arm when the Kansas City Chiefs were desperately driving with a chance to win the AFC championship.
The All-Pro quarterback, missing three wide receivers to injuries and battered himself, took off on a third-down play near midfield in another gut-check game with the Cincinnati Bengals. Mahomes strained to reach the mark he needed and was headed out of bounds when he felt the hands of Joseph Ossai send him sprawling into the bench.
The mad dash, coupled with the 15-yard penalty for a late hit, was all Kansas City needed.
Harrison Butker strode confidently onto the field, sent a 45-yard kick through cold, gusting wind over the crossbar with 3 seconds to go, and put the Chiefs back in the Super Bowl for the third time in four years with a 23-20 victory.
“I don’t think we have any cigars,” Mahomes said with a smile, “but we’ll be ready to go in the Super Bowl.”
It was vindication for the AFC West champions, who had lost three straight to their newfound nemeses, including a three-point overtime loss to Cincinnati in last year’s conference title game. All of those defeats were by three points.
Now, the Chiefs are headed back to the big game. Awaiting them is coach Andy Reid’s old team, the Eagles, in the first matchup of Black quarterbacks in the Super Bowl with Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. It will also feature a brother-against-brother showdown between Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Philadelphia center Jason Kelce.
“I’ve watched them all year,” Mahomes said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us. But I’m going to celebrate this first.”
Mahomes, who hurt his ankle against Jacksonville in the divisional round, threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns, even though he was missing three of his wide receivers to injuries by the end. Marquez Valdes-Scantling led with 116 yards and a touchdown, while Travis Kelce — bad back and all — had seven catches for 78 yards and a score.
“It’s a tough bunch. My heart goes out to them, man, they’re tough guys,” Reid said. “They worked so hard this week. Pat and Kelce were both banged up a little bit. They pushed through and great things happened.”
The Chiefs also managed to shut the mouths of the Bengals, some of whom had taken to calling their home “Burrowhead” for Joe Burrow, who had never lost to Kansas City. Even Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval started in on the trash talk.
“I’ve got some wise words for that Cincinnati mayor,” Kelce said. “Know your role and shut your mouth, you jabroni!”
Burrow, who was sacked five times and wobbly by the end, finished with 270 yards passing to go with a touchdown and two interceptions for the Bengals. Tee Higgins had six catches for 83 yards and the score.
“We’re not going to make it about one play. There was plenty of plays we left on the field today that could have put us in a better position,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “The character of this football team, that’s never going to change. We’ve got the right people in the locker room, the right men leading this team and this organization.
“I know that this is a team that our city and our fan base can be proud of,” Taylor added. “They represent themselves the right way, and we’re going to fight, scratch and claw to be back in this position next year.”
The Chiefs were able to do early what the Buffalo Bills could not in last week’s divisional round: They ran roughshod over an ailing Bengals offensive line missing two starters to injury with another bothered by a sore knee.
Burrow was sacked three times in the first quarter alone and the Bengals offense did not gain a single yard.
Mahomes looked just fine on his sore ankle in leading Kansas City to a field goal on its opening possession. When the Chiefs got the ball back, Mahomes did it again, but only after Kadarius Toney failed to pull in a nifty throw for a would-be touchdown — the incompletion was upheld upon review.
Cincinnati finally got moving in the second quarter, but it also had to settle for Evan McPherson’s chip-shot field goal.
So much for two of the league’s highest-scoring offenses.
The Chiefs finally reached the end zone late in the second quarter when Mahomes hit Kelce, loosely covered by Jessie Bates III, with a fourth-down throw for the touchdown. The Bengals drove 90 yards in the closing minutes, but only added a field goal to get within 13-6 at the break.
Turns out their offense was just hitting its stride. And another classic was brewing.
After the Chiefs went three-and-out to start the second half, Burrow led the Bengals downfield, bolting through a yawning hole in the defense for a third-down conversion before hitting Higgins from 27 yards out to knot the game 13-all.
Mahomes, suddenly down three wide receivers to injuries and beginning to limp, gamely pressed on. He answered Burrow with a touchdown drive of his own, capped by a third-down throw to Valdes-Scantling to regain the lead.
The Chiefs had a chance to gain some breathing room later in the third quarter, but Mahomes somehow lost control of the ball before throwing a pass and the Bengals pounced on the fumble. Six players later — including an audacious fourth-down throw from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase — Samaje Perine ran into the end zone to tie it at 20.
Burrow gave the Chiefs a chance when his deep throw to Higgins on third down was batted into the air and picked by rookie cornerback Josh Williams. Mahomes managed to move the Chiefs past midfield, but two runs went nowhere and his third-down throw to Jerick McKinnon was well short, forcing them to punt in Bengals territory.
Kansas City’s defense held, though, giving Mahomes and the offense one more try.
“It was a tough road to get here. To win 10 in a row, it was a pretty incredible feat,” Taylor said. “We came up short. We wanted to play longer than that, but really proud of these guys.”