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On one ankle, Patrick Mahomes leads Chiefs back to AFC title game

Chiefs 27, Jaguars 20

An ankle injury knocked Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, second from right, out of action briefly Saturday, but he returned as Kansas City held off Jacksonville. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On his way out of the celebratory locker room, Patrick Mahomes slipped on a pair of gold sneakers, popped in his Invisalign and slung over his shoulder a black backpack. He walked, without much of a limp, into a dim hallway, where his wife, Brittany, stood out in the small crowd by wearing a long, bright yellow coat.

Mahomes scooped up Sterling, their 1-year-old daughter. “Give me a kiss?” he said, and when she did, he grinned.

An older man approached and told the quarterback he played a great game. “Great to meet you!” Mahomes exclaimed. “I’ve heard a lot of stories.” He hugged a woman who said she was somebody’s mother and ushered over a teenager who seemed too shy to ask for a picture.

“You okay?” the kid asked the quarterback, who had gutted through a right ankle injury to deliver an MVP-worthy performance in the Kansas City Chiefs’ 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Mahomes nodded; X-rays were negative. Mahomes told reporters that he expects to be “ready to go” next week for the AFC championship game, but during his news conference, Coach Andy Reid was more measured, saying it had been hard to put Mahomes back in, given the severity of the injury. Reid seemed optimistic that Mahomes would play against Cincinnati (in Kansas City) or Buffalo (in Atlanta) but refused to commit to starting him. Backup Chad Henne played well with Mahomes briefly sidelined, leading a 12-play, 98-yard touchdown drive.

Amid the jubilation of Saturday night, when Mahomes helped Kansas City to a fifth straight AFC championship game, there was also trepidation. Mahomes on one ankle was good enough to beat the upstart Jaguars with ascending quarterback Trevor Lawrence. But would he be just as capable next week against a more established rival — Joe Burrow of the Bengals or Josh Allen of the Bills?

“Luckily, we were the Saturday afternoon game,” Mahomes said. “I’ll have an extra half a day to let the ankle rest.”

“We know that, if it’s up to Pat, he’s going to be in there,” said tight end Travis Kelce, who finished with 14 catches, 98 yards and two touchdowns. He praised the preparation and unflappability of Henne. “Chad has been nothing but the best he can be throughout all of that.”

Before the injury, Mahomes was vintage. He was methodical, dicing up the Jaguars’ defense with quick throws — until on a second and five, when he buzzed two defenders with a sidearm throw for a 13-yard completion. “Oooh!” cooed the crowd, never seeming to tire of his magic.

But on the Chiefs’ second drive, as Mahomes stepped up in the pocket, Jaguars linebacker Arden Key launched himself at Mahomes’s upper body. Key didn’t wrap his arms around Mahomes, so Key slid down, and most of his 240 pounds landed on Mahomes’s right ankle, which folded backward. The quarterback screamed.

The Chiefs took a timeout. Mahomes ran to the bench, and a trainer quickly and heavily wrapped his right ankle with tape. The next play, Reid called a handoff to running back Jerick McKinnon, but even just jogging out of the exchange, Mahomes looked hobbled. On the next three plays, Reid managed the injury — another run, two quick throws — but on third and three, he called a dropback pass. The top of the pocket burst open, creating a hole Mahomes would normally dart through for a first down, but this time, when he took off, he was too slow.

Near the line of scrimmage, Mahomes saw a defender closing in and tried to throw the ball away, but it slipped out of his hand, landing a few yards away — and on a very short list of things Mahomes has done on a football field that appeared unathletic. Kansas City settled for a field goal and a 10-7 lead.

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On the sideline, Reid approached Mahomes. The quarterback urged his coach not to take him out. The coach told his quarterback he wouldn’t put him back in until X-rays came back negative. Mahomes took off his heavy jacket and slammed it on the sideline before hustling to the locker room.

In his stead, Reid sent in Henne. The backup had come through for the Chiefs in key playoff moments before, but he faced an immediate challenge. The Jaguars had pinned the Chiefs at the 2-yard line.

Jacksonville blitzed Henne twice on his first five passes, seemingly in hopes of rattling him. But the 37-year-old made calm, quick decisions, firing several short passes to Kelce. Mahomes stood on the sideline in his helmet and a jacket as the Chiefs’ surge to the end zone, capped by a one-yard Kelce grab, gave them a 17-7 lead.

After halftime, Mahomes briefly warmed up and met with center Creed Humphrey. Mahomes told the coaches he was changing his footwork on some plays starting under center to reduce the stress on his ankle. Instead of dropping away from Humphrey by pivoting on his right ankle, he would mostly do it with his left.

After a touchback, Mahomes ran back in to the lead the Chiefs’ huddle as the fans roared. But Mahomes flapped his arms down for quiet.

From the first play, another run, it was clear Mahomes wasn’t right. Still, on third and one, he scrambled for a four-yard gain.

“Kind of told me he was okay,” Reid said.

The offense sputtered, though, punting twice and kicking a field goal for a 20-10 lead.

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Jacksonville couldn’t capitalize. Coach Doug Pederson had a conservative game plan, including a heavy dose of first-down runs and swing passes. Lawrence had thrown one dime about 50 yards in the air, but his star wide receiver, Christian Kirk, dropped it. In the third quarter, beyond the bomb, Lawrence’s average depth of target was just 2.91 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Pederson got more aggressive, and Lawrence delivered. The Jaguars slimmed their deficit to 20-17 on Travis Etienne’s four-yard touchdown run with 11:49 left.

Kansas City, which is the closest thing the NFL has to a dynasty, seemed to be in peril. Mahomes was hobbled, and the Jaguars looked poised for another miraculous comeback.

But on the next possession, Mahomes delivered one of the finest drives of his career. Reid trusted him, calling passes on five of the first six plays, and Mahomes sliced through the Jaguars with short, sharp cuts. He threw a dart down the left sideline for 16 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

“Obviously I missed some throws I think I could’ve made if I were in the right foot position,” Mahomes said, grinning. “But luckily for me, I’m not in the right foot position all the time, so I’m able to make some throws like that anyways.”

Following three straight runs, Mahomes fired a six-yard dot to wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 27-17 lead.

It was one of the most impressive drives of Mahomes’s celebrated career. It put the game far enough away that, when the Jaguars rallied late, it proved insufficient. It illustrated his toughness and ability, even on one ankle: After the injury, Mahomes completed 12 of 18 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.

In the stadium, as Mahomes ran back to the bench, the crowd sang along with the Beastie Boys: “You gotta fight! For your right! To parrrrrrr-ty!”

The words rang truer than they had all season.