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On one healthy ankle, Patrick Mahomes runs the Chiefs past the Bengals

Chiefs 23, Bengals 20

Carlos Dunlap, Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce celebrate after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game. (David Eulitt/Getty Images)
7 min

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes’s ankle was sore, and for any other quarterback on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth, perhaps that would have mattered.

But Sunday, eight days after he suffered a high-ankle sprain in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, Mahomes resumed his magic show on turf to share a new trick: winning an AFC championship with only one fully functional leg.

As if Mahomes needed anything more to cement his place among the otherworldly.

In his fifth consecutive conference championship game, the hobbled Mahomes guided the Chiefs to a 23-20 win over the Bengals, avenging last year’s conference title game defeat and two regular season losses to Cincinnati to advance to the Super Bowl.

He went 29 for 43 for 326 yards and two touchdowns, then won the game not despite his bum leg but because of it. With the score tied at 20 and the game down to the final 17 seconds, Mahomes scrambled for a first down and, with the aid of a late hit by Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai, set up the game-winning field goal.

“I didn’t expect to be able to run very much,” Mahomes admitted after the game. “… I didn’t have the burst I usually have.”

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The state of Mahomes’s ankle was the talk of the week. But so, too, was the recent dominant play of Joe Burrow and the chatter of Bengals fans, who believed their quarterback had Kansas City’s number.

Arrowhead Stadium, it was said, was more like “Burrowhead.” Surely, with a gimpy ankle Mahomes would succumb a fourth time to the Bengals.

“Burrowhead, my a--,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson after the win.

Last week, Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said Burrow “has that Peyton Manning in him.” No matter how many times he’s brought down, he returns to the line with poise and control, using his eyes to manipulate the defense and his savvy to adjust on the fly.

“When you’re an immature defense or when you’re a defense that can’t really disguise the coverage or disguise things, he’s going to pick you apart every time,” Clark said. “I feel like in the past — the last few games — those are things that he’s been able to do, just expose us in those different aspects.”

On Sunday, the Chiefs’ defensive front made light work of the Bengals’ depleted line to get to Burrow. Four Kansas City defenders, including Clark, had a hand in four sacks of Burrow in the first half. Cornerback Jaylen Watson also picked Burrow off after defensive end Carlos Dunlap brought pressure from the right side and forced the quarterback to quickly unload the ball.

Yet Clark’s assessment of Burrow remained spot-on.

Cincinnati averaged only 15.3 yards on its first four drives, but after Burrow’s interception, he and the Bengals’ offense found a rhythm, spanning the field for a 12-play, 90-yard drive in the final two minutes of the half. Although they failed to finish in the red zone, a field goal made it a 13-6 game.

Then, early in the third quarter, after his defense forced a three-and-out, Burrow went deep along the right sideline for Tee Higgins, who turned to high-point a 27-yard touchdown catch over the head of Watson, tying the score at 13.

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Only a year ago, the Bengals stormed back in Kansas City to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 30 years. Only a week ago, they upset the Buffalo Bills in a snowstorm in Orchard Park, N.Y., to make it back here. So the prospect of another odds-defying performance was plausible, if not expected.

But Mahomes, whose acrobatic throws have become a hallmark of his playing style, stretched his own physical limits. On third and seven about midway through the third quarter, he found Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who had 116 yards in the game, for a short catch he turned into a first down — with help from the camera. Officials initially ruled him short, but the call was overturned on review, putting Kansas City back in the red zone.

Then on third and 10, Mahomes, who had tweaked his ankle earlier in the drive, stood in the pocket to throw a 19-yard line drive to Valdes-Scantling in the end zone. The score gave Kansas City a short-lived 20-13 lead before Mahomes uncharacteristically lost control of the ball after fielding a snap near midfield.

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard recovered the ball, and four plays later, Burrow created some magic of his own on fourth and six.

“I don’t think they’re going to go for it here,” CBS analyst Tony Romo said on the broadcast. “Kansas City, be smart.”

The Bengals went for it and went deep. Burrow launched a 35-yard pass that Ja’Marr Chase caught in double coverage after running an in-and-out route along the right side. It resembled Chase’s touchdown that was overturned against the Bills, and it set up a two-yard touchdown run by Samaje Perine that tied the score at 20.

The Bengals entered this game with a 10-game winning streak and a track record of saving big defensive plays for the final halves of playoff games. They recorded at least one takeaway in the second half or overtime of each of their past six playoff games and went 5-1 in those games.

Their defense rattled Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the divisional round and on Sunday spared a potentially game-altering and questionable decision by the officials. Mahomes’s pass to Kelce was short of a first down on a third and nine, but the officials — after the play finished and the Chiefs’ punt team trotted onto the field — ruled that the play was shut down before the snap, added time back on the clock and granted the Chiefs a do-over.

Bengals Coach Zac Taylor was livid and shared as much with the officials. His defense sacked Mahomes on the do-over play but incurred a penalty, requiring another three downs before finally forcing the Chiefs off the field.

Had the Bengals responded with a score, Cincinnati could have perhaps usurped momentum and control. But Burrow was intercepted on a deep attempt, ensuring the back-and-forth continued.

The Chiefs didn’t respond with a score; a negative run and a penalty stalled their subsequent drive.

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“Perseverance, that’s important in this game,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. “The mental toughness is such a big part of this game.”

On the Bengals’ next drive, momentum again ran out when Chris Jones ran around tackle Hakeem Adeniji to sack Burrow on third down.

Skyy Moore returned the ensuing punt 29 yards, up to the Kansas City 47-yard line, leaving the Chiefs in search of a quick 20 yards to get in field goal range. Fifty-nine minutes of close play boiled down to the final seconds and one last trick for the hobbled Mahomes.

After a run by Isiah Pacheco and an incomplete pass, Mahomes wove five yards upfield on third and four before taking a free 15 yards, courtesy of Ossai, who hit him late and incurred the personal foul.

Harrison Butker’s 45-yard field goal barely sailed over the crossbar with three seconds left.

“Throughout the game I tried to do whatever I could to win, and obviously there were times you could see I couldn’t do what I wanted to,” Mahomes said. “But I was able to do enough on that last play to get myself out of bounds and try to give Harrison a chance to win.”

“I wasn’t sure if the ball would have enough distance,” Butker said. “I hit it well, but it was just kind of floating up in the air. I’m glad it went over.”

Ossai sat on the Bengals’ bench in tears as Mahomes slipped on a gray championship ball cap and celebrated amid a shower of confetti.